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‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head’

By Ron Soodalter
11/7/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Even if it didn’t happen, Barbara Fritchie’s is a darn good tale.

An old woman of 90 leans from the attic window of her Frederick, Md., home, holding a bullet-rent United States flag, and defies the massed forces of Stonewall Jackson to destroy it. This is the stuff of which epic poems are made—and in fact, one was.

“Barbara Frietchie,” a stirring saga of 30 verses, was practically required reading for generations of American school kids. It was written for Atlantic Monthly by John Greenleaf Whittier, the newspaper editor and zealous anti-slavery activist. Generations of students—myself included—were assigned the task of memorizing it (“Up from the meadows rich with corn…”). And, in truth, it is a ripping yarn.

According to the poem, Lee’s forces are marching through Frederick during the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862.

“Over the mountains winding down, Horse and foot, into Frederick town. Forty flags with their silver stars, Forty flags with their crimson bars…”

As a contingent of soldiers under General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson approaches Barbara Frietchie’s house, the commander’s attention is drawn to the Stars and Stripes the doughty nonagenarian has hung in defiance.

“Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then, Bowed with her fourscore years and ten; Bravest of all in Frederick town, She took up the flag the men hauled down; In her attic window the staff she set, To show that one heart was loyal yet.”

The affront draws an immediate response from the irate general, who orders his men to fire a volley at the flag.

“It shivered the window, pane, and sash; It rent the banner with seam and gash. Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf. She leaned far out on the window-sill, And shook it forth with a royal will.”

Without hesitation, Barbara challenges the Rebel chieftain with words that still raise goosebumps on the reader:

“‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.”

This fearless response humbles Jackson, who gives a command:

“‘Who touches a hair of yon gray head Dies like a dog! March on!’ he said.”

Well into the night, the Rebel host marches through the town, as Barbara Frietchie’s bullet-ripped banner floats on the breeze over their heads.

“And ever the stars above look down On thy stars below in Frederick town!”

And so, the saga ends with Barbara achieving a moral victory. It is a truly inspiring poem—alas, without the least grounding in historical fact. There are only a few elements that bear any resemblance to reality: There was a Barbara Frietchie—actually spelled “Fritchie”— living in Frederick at the time, she was in her mid-90s and she did own a flag. Old Stonewall, however, never saw it, since his route of march brought him nowhere near the Fritchie house. While many of the troops did, in fact, walk down Barbara’s street, Jackson took a different route, hoping to find a relative of his wife. It is unlikely Fritchie saw Jackson at all.

Nor did Barbara unfurl her banner until the following week, when she reportedly waved it in support of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Union forces as they marched through town after the Confederates left. According to her niece, Barbara was standing on the porch, watching the troops pass, when her cousin advised her to wave a flag, and handed her the banner that had long been folded in the family Bible. Barbara feebly waved the flag at the soldiers, who responded with emotion. “Some even ran into the yard,” her niece reported “‘God bless you, old lady.’ ‘Let me take you by the hand,’ ‘May you live long, you dear old soul,’ cried one after the other.”

Apparently, there was a Frederick native—Mary Quantrell or Quantrill— who stood at her gate with her small daughter waving a Union flag at passing Confederates. If Jackson saw it, his response was never noted, though he likely would have ignored it. One Rebel officer, whose name is unrecorded, was impressed by her zeal and reportedly responded by saluting, with the comment, “To you, madam, not your flag.”

It isn’t difficult to understand how the account twisted, turned and—like Topsy—“jes’ growed.” Barbara Fritchie was apparently something of a well-known local figure, if for no other reason than as a surviving relic of the days of the American Revolution and George Washington. There is a local story that she and Francis Scott Key staged a memorial service in Frederick at Washington’s death. Through the workings of oral tradition, the cast of characters in the flag-waving tale changed, and by the time poet Whittier heard the story, Fritchie had become the heroine. Studying her recorded image, she certainly looks the part, her bonneted, toothless but defiant countenance staring sternly into the camera. Barbara died just three months after the Rebel incursion, precluding any opportunity for her to set the record straight.

For decades, John Greenleaf Whittier claimed he penned the story as it had been given to him by his friend, the famed Victorian novelist Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth. Even allowing for poetic license, he’s probably correct. But in the brief interval between the invasion and the time Whittier wrote the poem, folklore had taken its toll on events, and he was re-telling a much altered tale.

Meanwhile, in nearby Middletown, Md., a local girl did in fact taunt the invading Rebels with the Union flag, and in so doing, inspired a poem of her own. Seventeen-year-old Nancy Crouse— described in a Frederick County newspaper as a “beautiful and superbly formed young lady”—had hung the Stars and Stripes from a second-story window when the Confederates marched through. A contingent of Rebel soldiers climbed her stairs and demanded the flag, whereupon she took the banner from its staff and wrapped it around her body, defying the soldiers to remove it. The late-19th-century poet T.C. Harbaugh paints the dramatic picture in his“Ballad of Nancy Crouse”:

“Closer to her form she claps
The beauteous flag our fathers gave,
And the rebel’s oaths and gasps
Threaten her with early grave;
‘Not for you!’ her words rang true,
‘Not for you this banner fair;
You wear gray, its friends wear blue,
It was blessed with many a pray’r.’ ”

A Confederate captain drew his pistol, held it to “Nannie’s” head and threatened her with imminent death if she didn’t surrender the flag. In the poem, she refuses, and the Rebels ride away in frustration, leaving the flag to “taunt the gray.” According to the local newspaper, Nannie—staring down the barrel of a Rebel pistol—allowed discretion to play the better part of valor, and handed the flag to the captain, who “tied it around his horse’s head and rode away.”

By all accounts, the Crouse and Quantrill stories are, at least in the greater details, accurate. And yet, largely owing to the efforts of a recognized poet and public figure, the Fritchie saga has acquired the luster of historic legend, while Mary’s and Nannie’s corroborated acts of defiance are all but forgotten. When Winston Churchill visited Frederick during World War II, he stopped at Barbara Fritchie’s rebuilt house and recited the entire 30 verses of the poem from memory.

According to the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, the Fritchie house was torn down after the devastating flood of 1868, and rebuilt (albeit smaller and without its attached structures) in 1927 for the budding tourist trade. Although it was once a museum, the building today is privately owned and no longer open to the public. This in itself is not a tragedy, since after all, on that historic day in September 1862 when the Confederates marched through Frederick, nothing really happened there.

 

Scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.  

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