Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag

Posted by | September 19, 2011

Barbara Frietchie’s story has been immortalized in plays, poems, and local Frederick, MD lore. The story relates that a 96 year old widow draped the Union flag from her window as Confederate troops rode by. Stonewall Jackson saw the display and ordered his troops to shoot the flag. Frietchie is reported to have said, “Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag.”

Makes for great storytelling; the problem is, when you go back to primary sources, the details don’t quite add up to that exact story.

“Barbara Frietchie was loyal to her heart’s core,” Mrs. Shriver Tompkins confirms in a NY Times editorial dated October 25, 1899. “This I state from personal knowledge, though I believe she was the only member of her family who was.

“She was not bedridden at the time of the battles of Antietam and South Mountain, for I saw and conversed with her at that time. She had a small flag which she kept in her window during the memorable week of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s occupation of Frederick. Barbara Frietchie was not a myth, neither was her loyalty. I have always understood and believed absolutely that she waved her flag as Gen. Reno passed her house, he looking at her and exclaiming, ‘The Spirit of ’76!”

So we’ve got the elderly Frietchie at the window, waving the Union flag energetically at the troops below. Except that General Reno is not leading Confederate troops or shooting at her flag. And Tompkins makes no mention at all of Stonewall Jackson.

Barbara Frietchie at her window in Frederick MDGeorge O. Seilheimer, in an article titled The Historical Basis of Whittier’s “Barbara Frietchie,” goes further:

“That Barbara Frietchie lived is not denied. That she died at the advanced age of 96 years and is buried in the burial-ground of the German Reformed Church in Frederick is also true.

“There is only one account of Stonewall Jackson’s entry into Frederick, and that was written by a Union army surgeon who was in charge of the hospital there at the time. ‘Jackson I did not get a look at to recognize him,’ the doctor wrote on the 21st of September, ‘though I must lave seen him, as I witnessed the passage of all the troops through the town.’

“Not a word about Barbara Frietchie and this incident.

“Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, too, was in Frederick soon afterward, on his way to find his son, reported mortally wounded at Antietam. Such a story, had it been true, could scarcely have failed to reach his ears, and be would undoubtedly have told it in his delightful chapter of war reminiscences, ‘My Hunt for the Captain,’ had he heard it.

“Barbara Frietchie had a flag, and it is now in the possession of Mrs. Handschue and her daughter, Mrs. Abbott, of Frederick. Mrs. Handschue was the niece and adopted daughter of Mrs. Frietchie, and the flag came to her as part of her inheritance, a cup out of which General Washington drank tea when he spent a night in Frederick in 1791 being among the Frietchie heirlooms.

“This flag which Mrs. Handschue and her daughter so religiously preserve is torn, but the banner was not rent with seam and gash from a rifle-blast; it is torn—only this and nothing more.

“That Mrs. Frietchie did not wave the flag at Jackson’s men Mrs. Handschue positively affirms. The flag-waving act was done, however, by Mrs. Mary S. Quantrell, another Frederick woman; but Jackson took no notice of it, and as Mrs. Quantrell was not fortunate enough to find a poet to celebrate her deed she never became famous.

“Colonel Henry Kyd Douglas, who was with General Jackson every minute of his stay in Frederick, declares in an article in “The Century ” for June, 1886, that Jackson never saw Barbara Frietchie, and that Barbara never saw Jackson. This story is borne out by Mrs. Frietchie’s relatives.

“Barbara Frietchie had a flag and she waved it, not on the 6th to Jackson’s men, but on the 12th to Burnside’s.

“The manner in which the Frietchie legend originated was very simple. A Frederick lady visited Washington some time after the invasion and spoke of the open sympathy and valor of Barbara Frietchie. The story was told again and again, and it was never lost in the telling.”

sources: The Historical Basis of Whittier’s ‘Barbara Frietchie,’ by George O. Seilheimer, “Battles and leaders of the Civil War, Vol 2,” edited by Robert Underwood Johnson, Clarence Clough Buel, The Century Co, NY, 1884

NY Times editorial dated October 25, 1899, online at http://bit.ly/3tLBb

3 Responses

  • Crow Jane says:

    Great article. Makes me a little sad though. Whittier’s poem was one of my favorites when I was a little girl.

  • Sports Mad says:

    I know this might sound funny coming from Australia. However, I’m just addicted to reading about American History I find it fascinating. Thanks for the insights into the flag waving episode and trying to set the history straight. Cheers

  • Nick says:

    I pass by Frederick all the time on I-70 on my way too and from Pittsburgh to Washington. I had no idea there was such a rich history in the town. I guess I need to stop sometime and explore more.

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