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Barbara Fritchie's Legacy

Schoolchildren in the past had a privilege often overlooked today: teachers who required them to memorize poetry.

One which your great-grandparents probably learned was The Ballad of Barbara Frietchie by John Greenleaf Whittier. This poem raised such patriotic fervor when it appeared in 1863, that time stamped it immortal in American literature.

What is the story behind this stirring poem? Did it really happen? It all depends on the source you ask.

There really was a very old and patriotic woman named Barbara Frietchie or Fritchie during the Civil War (spellings of her name differ according to sources). She lived in Frederick, Maryland and was devoted to the anti-slavery, Union cause.

Three stories have circulated about the origin of the famous Whittier poem. The first one is that Barbara’s niece recalled her aunt, age 92, was sick in bed when Confederate troops marched past her house on West Patrick Street to occupy her city. According to the niece, Barbara rose from her sickbed and bravely stood on her front porch, leaning on her cane and waving a small silk Union flag. Another source said she brandished her cane threateningly at the troops.

The second story differs. Some sources say Mary Ann Sands Quantrell, a neighbor of Barbara’s on West Patrick Street, had a Union flag waving in a second-story window when Confederate soldiers ripped it down and trampled it. Her daughter picked it up and held it close. At that point a Confederate general rebuked the soldier who had torn down the flag. The soldier politely apologized.

A third legend says the Confederate troops marched west from Frederick to Middletown, where the George Crouse family flew a Union flag from a second-story window. The soldiers demanded the Crouse family remove the flag. According to this legend, young Nancy Crouse ran upstairs, took the flag from the window, draped it around herself and returned to the front door, taunting the soldiers. The soldiers challenged her no more.

Regardless of the legend’s source, it was no doubt based on a real incident. In our culture today, when disrespect for the flag and the national anthem have become fashionable, perhaps we need more Barbaras or Mary Anns or Nancys to stand up and be counted.

Below is Whittier’s famous poem, The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie.

Up from the meadows rich with corn,

Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand

Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,

Apple and peach tree fruited deep,

Fair as the garden of the Lord

To the eyes of the famished rebel horde.

On that pleasant morn of the early fall

When Lee marched over the mountain wall;

Over the mountains winding down,

Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,

Forty flags with their crimson bars.

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun

Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

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.

Up the street came the rebel tread,

Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right

He glanced; the old flag met his sight.

“Halt!”—the dust-brown ranks stood fast.

“Fire!” –out blazed the rifle blast.

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.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,

But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,

Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred

To life at that woman’s deed and word;

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head

Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

All day long through Frederick street

Sounded the tread of marching feet.

All day long that free flag tossed

Over the heads of the rebel host

Ever its torn folds rose and fell

On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light

Shone over it with a warm goodnight.

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,

And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! And let a tear

Fall; for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave,

Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw

Round thy symbol of light and law.

And ever the stars above look down

On thy stars below in Frederick town!”

Poem from Complete Poetical Works, Cambridge Edition, Boston, 1894.

Historical background from Frederick Magazine, 11-15-20.

What about you? Any thoughts on this theme? You can use the comment box below.


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