A FAMOUS POEM DIDN’T QUITE GET IT RIGHT
For decades, schoolchildren had to memorize a famous poem that begins with these words:
“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.”
It’s John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Fritchie,” an American classic. The story of how as Confederate troops are passing through her town, elderly Barbara Fritchie bravely snatches a banner that was shot down by Rebel bullets and shouts the poem’s famous lines.
“‘Shoot if you must,
this old gray head;
But spare your country’s flag!’
Then Stonewall Jackson plays the Southern gentleman, gallantly spares her, and the Confederates hurry on to the defeat awaiting them at Antietam.
The poem was a smash hit when it debuted in 1863, making Barbara Fritchie a household name in the North and going on to torment generations of elementary students forced to recite its 60 verses by rote. Her legacy lives in the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant, the Barbara Fritchie Handicap (one of Maryland’s most prestigious horse races), even the Barbara Fritchie Classic, a motorcycle race held annually since 1922.
But did the flag incident actually happen?
Confederate soldiers really did pass through Frederick, Maryland in September 1862. And something seems to have taken place concerning a U. S. flag, a woman, and a Confederate officer. Then things get murky from there.
A novelist in Washington passed along the gist of an incident she’d heard third-hand in a letter to Whittier, adding, “The story is tailored for you.” Whittier knew a good thing when he saw it and put the tale to verse. The war was going poorly for the North when the poem appeared in The Atlantic. It was a morale booster, a positive, feel-good epic where heroism triumphs. And it put both a little town and an elderly woman on the map.
Barbara Fritchie (also spelled Frietchie) really lived in Frederick. She was a staunch Unionist – and a slave owner, too. But when the Confederates blew through town she was 95 years-old and reportedly confined to bed. Hardly someone who’d grab a fallen flag and taunt passing Rebels.
A woman in her 30s named Mary Quantrill did wave an American flag from her front porch, and seems to have gotten into a spat with a Confederate officer. (Though not Stonewall Jackson as the poem claims, because he wasn’t there that day). Seven witnesses documented this encounter and Quantrill believed for the rest of her life the poem should have carried her name. She wrote to Whitter in 1876, begging him to set the record straight. She even added “Barbara” after her signature. But Whittier’s words went untouched.
There was grumbling around Frederick the moment the poem appeared in print that a genuine heroine (be it Mary Quantrill or someone else) was denied her fifteen minutes of fame. But city leaders realized something else: “Barbara Fritchie” was good for business. Tourists came to town, eager to see where the famous confrontation took place. Her name adorned products and tourist-related services. Frederick’s movers and shakers quietly adopted a “Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg” attitude.
Thus when President Franklin Roosevelt brought Britain’s visiting Winston Churchill there in 1943, (stunning FDR by reciting all 60 lines of the poem from memory), it was Barbara Fritchie’s name that Churchill spoke, not Mary Quantrill’s.
And so the poem still reads today. Some locals in Frederick would like to see Quantrill get some type of recognition, be it a marker at her gravesite or elsewhere.
A final footnote to this bit of historical unfairness. One fact is beyond dispute: the real Barbara Fritchie did, indeed, own a small American flag and her family says she did wave it (in cheering, not defiance) when Union troops marched past her house a week after the Confederates came through.
But they don’t write poems about that.
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