Women's History: Clara Barton


Pen, paper, computer, Internet, Detective Technique Guide: Examining Old Documents Such as Letters and Diaries

Related Episode

History Detective host Eduardo Pagán consults a Clara Barton biographer, a civil war prison historian, and a Pennsylvania genealogist to determine whether an 1866 letter about the death of a Civil War soldier was actually written by Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara Barton Letter

What does this letter reveal about America's early efforts to honor its war dead?

Estimated Time Required

2-3 class periods




In this lesson, students learn about Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, through primary and secondary source documents, then use digital storytelling tools to tell the story of her Civil War activities and accomplishments.

Before Viewing

Check students’ background knowledge about the term “Prisoner of War/Missing in Action” (POW/MIA). Then provide them with the following definition 

A prisoner of war

(POW) is a soldier who is imprisoned by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict. (Source: Geneva Convention) 


Is any unaccounted-for military personnel during or after an armed conflict.

Using the following list of statistics taken from this site, have students guess and match POW/MIA figures to significant wars in US history:

  • War of the Revolution: POW - 18,152 | MIA - 1,426 
  • War of 1812: POW - 20,000 | MIA – 695
  • Civil War - Union: POW/MIA - 194,743 
  • Civil War - Confederacy: POW/MIA - 214,865
  • World War I: POW/MIA - 7,470 
  • World War II: POW - 124,079 | MIA - 30,314
  • Vietnam War: POW - 766 | MIA - 1,817

The statistics from the Civil War are startling in comparison to the rest. Ask: What resources do you think existed in the past for family members of missing soliders? What resources do you think exist now?

Tell students that today, the US government manages the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office which has an extensive database for friends and families. The first organization of its kind was the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army which was started during the Civil War (March 1865) by Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. As the first woman to head a government bureau she answered 63,182 letters and identified 22,000 missing men between 1865 and 1869.

Inform students that they are going to watch an episode of History Detectives about a letter supposedly written by Barton informing a family of the death of a missing solider. The letter was supposedly written by Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.


After they have watched the History Detectives episode, “Clara Barton,” tell students that they are going to learn about the life and work of Clara Barton during the Civil War using the following materials as well as their own research efforts:

Divide students into groups of three or four, and provide them with access to the following materials about Barton. Tell them to use these materials as well as their own research efforts to tell a digital story about Barton’s Civil War activities:

American Red Cross biography of Clara Barton

Civil War Nurse Clara Barton’s Memorabilia Found

Virtual Museum Exhibit at Clara Barton Historical Site

Transcript of December 12, 1862 letter to her cousin on the eve of the Battle of Fredericksburg

Excerpt from Civil War Diary

Andersonville Diary Excerpt

Collection of primary source documents by and about Clara Barton, including 1866 testimony before Congress, her 1878 pamphlet “The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention,” and her 1892 poem “The Women Who Went to the Field.”

As students read these materials and their own research, they should underline key excerpts and quotations that strike them as especially poignant, powerful, or intriguing. They should also clip or copy photographs of Barton, images of her correspondence and memorabilia, and any other objects or artifacts that tell her story. Point them to the Detective Technique Guide: Examining Old Documents Such as Letters and Diaries to assist them in their efforts.

Students can use the following tools to create a final product:

Wordle, a tool that generates word clouds from text. Greater prominence is given to words that appear more frequently in the source text. Students could create a “wordle” of one of Barton’s letters or diary entries.

Scrapblog, a multimedia scrapbook tool that provides templates and allows users to save, share, and print work. Students could use this to create a digital scrapbook. (You might have them watch this video about scrapbooks, created by Yale University Press.)

Shape Collage allows users to create picture collages in different shapes. Students could create a photo collage of Barton featuring pictures of her as well as Civil War posters, art, memorabilia.

Visual CV is a tool to create online resumes which can include links to video, audio, PDFs, etc. Students could choose to create a visual resume of Barton.

Twitter communicates stories in 140 characters or less. Students could “tweet” Barton’s Civil War efforts from her point of view. See some examples at http://historicaltweets.com/

When they have finished, ask students to present and share their finished products. Then, involve students in a discussion about Barton. Ask: What have you discovered about the Angel of Mercy that you did not know? What parts of her writing and work stood out to you? What statement does your story form make about her?

Going Further

Have students read and participate in literature circles around Ann Rinaldi’s historical fiction novel Numbering All of the Bones. This novel, set at the end of the Civil War, features Clara Barton who helps a 13 year-old slave look for her brother in the Andersonville Prison where soldiers were kept in torturous conditions. A literature circle guide is available from Scholastic and an answer key to the questions is here.

Related Resources

Primary Source Learning: Clara Barton

Guide to Scrapbooking

From Our Archives: Related History Detectives Lesson Plan

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Students create sports cards of sports figures from history.

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McRel Standards

  • United States History, Standard 14: Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people
  • Historical Understanding, Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Historical Understanding, Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective
  • History, Arts and Communication, Standard 3: Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings
  • Language Arts, Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Language Arts, Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
  • Language Arts, Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes