History and Poetry


As faithful blog readers know, I love history.  I also love poetry.  One of my favorite poems is Barbara Frietchie:

Barbara Frietchie 
  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 tost
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 good-night.

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids nor more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewalls’ bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round they symbol of light and law;

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

John Greenleaf Whittier 

 It is a lovely poem and as history is complete rubbish.  Barabra Frietchie was 96 years old and she lived in Frederick, Maryland.  When Union troops marched through during the Antietam campaign after the Confederates had passed through, she did wave the flag at the Union troops and received an enthusiastic reaction from the troops, who had heard that she had waved the Stars and Stripes at the Confederates, according to a great niece of Mrs. Frietchie:

“Jackson and his men had been in Frederick and bad left a short time before. We were glad that the rebels had gone and that our troops came. My mother and I lived almost opposite aunt’s place. She and my mothers cousin. Harriet Yoner, lived together. Mother said I should go and see aunt and tell her not to be frightened. You know that aunt was then almost ninety-six years old. When I reached aunt’s place she knew as much as I did about matters, and cousin Harriet was with her. They were on the front porch. and aunt was leaning on the cane she always carried. When the troops marched along aunt waved her hand, and cheer after cheer went up from the men as they saw her. Some even ran into the yard. ‘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, as they rushed into the yard. Aunt being rather feeble, and in order to save her as much as we could, cousin Harriet Yoner said. ‘Aunt ought to have a flag to wave.’ The flag was hidden in the family Bible, and cousin Harriet got it and gave it to aunt. Then she waved the flag to the men and they cheered her as they went by. She was very patriotic and the troops all knew of her. The day before General Reno was killed he came to see aunt and had a talk with her.”


Somehow Barbara Frietchie had been conflated with the actions of 32 year old Mary Quantrill, an in-law of Confederate raider and renegade William Quantrill, who was a firm Unionist.  When the Confederate troops marched through she, and her young daughter, waved the Stars and Stripes at the marching Confederate troops.  Some of the Confederates yelled insults.  One Confederate Lieutenant knocked the flag out of her hands with a sword.  Nothing daunted she got another and larger flag and went on waving it.  Other Confederates applauded the courage of mother and daughter.  One Confederate officer chivalrously tipped his hat to her and said, “To you Madam, and not your flag.”  His example was repeated by other officers and troops.  I am sure this reaction was helped by the fact, according to contemporary accounts, that she was quite pretty, although I have been unable to find a photograph of her online. 

Barbara Frietchie was a local celebrity since as a young woman she had met George Washington.  Apparently Barbara Frietchie’s family did nothing to correct the misapprehension, and John Greenleaf  Whittier based his poem on the garbled story that swept through the Union.

Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (6)  
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  1. History has enough in it that we should not have to inflate the one and deflate the other.
    Good post, thanks
    In Christ
    Dennis McCutcheon

  2. Quite right Dennis. History has truth and poetry often has a different type of truth.

  3. I’ve always liked Barbare Frietchie.
    I bet she scratched when she was itchy.

  4. God will get you for that Ogden! 🙂

  5. Since Ogden did that thing with Frietcie/itchy, someone can come up with another verse for Nash/rash..but.. just never was a poet.
    Dennis McCutcheon

  6. I always liked Ogden Nash
    He scratched himself when he had a rash.

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