"Disregard of precedent and faith in possibility": Clara Barton and the Red Cros

"Disregard of precedent and faith in possibility": Clara Barton and the Red Cros
Lucretia Garfield: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: One week or more


One hundred and twenty-five years ago, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross.  But she had become a famous figure long before that. Known as the “angel on the battlefield” during the Civil War, she brought comfort and considerable medical knowledge and skill to injured soldiers.  Her fame was widespread, and undoubtedly known to Lucretia Garfield, especially since her husband, James, was an active soldier for the North.  Of particular interest in understanding Barton’s life is the following quotation from her writings: “I have an almost complete disregard of precedent and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things always have been done ... I defy the tyranny of precedent. I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind. I go for anything new that might improve the past.”


Students who participate in this activity will learn about the life and work of Clara Barton as well as about the founding and work of the American and International Red Cross, through the writing and production of a series of dramatic sketches based on their research in these areas.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; paper and pens or a word processor; materials for costumes and props (may be hand-made).


Divide the class into three groups.  Using the websites listed below, ask students to research the life and work of Clara Barton and the Red Cross in the following periods:  

  • Group 1 – 1821-1860
  • Group 2 – 1861-1869
  • Group 3 – 1870-1912
Instruct students to be looking for events in Barton’s life that would make good “theatre,” that is, happy, or sad, or frightening, or brave, or powerful in some way.  When students have done the research, ask each group (or perhaps several subgroups, if the groups are large), to write a short “sketch” in which characters portray those events in Barton’s life that the students have selected.  Sketches should be no more than 5 minutes in length.
Students may make their own costumes and whatever props are necessary; if something is required that cannot be “made,” encourage students to think of likely places in which such an item might be found.
When the sketches are written, cast, and rehearsed, have a Clara Barton Day in your classroom so that students can present their sketches.   (Note: if refreshments are to be served, have students research suitable tidbits from the 1860s and serve those.)
Evaluation of this project may be in the form of a general rubric, or you may use whatever assessment method seems appropriate.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be easily extended by presenting the students’ sketches to the whole school.  The art and music teachers might also become involved and the whole project could become a school-wide, major production.

Sources & Resources:

Oates, Steven B. Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. Free Press, 1995.
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown.  Clara Barton: Professional Angel. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
Stevenson, Augusta. Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross. Aladdin, 1986.
            Clara Barton, Civil War Nurse 

            Clara Barton Chronology 

            Clara Barton, Missing Persons Investigator

            Clara Barton National Historic Site 

            History of the American Red Cross 

            History of the International Committee of the Red Cross 
This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.