The debate began almost as soon as the poem about Barbara Fritchie was published back in 1863.
Did Barbara Fritchie hang an American flag from her window as Confederate soldiers marched by?
There is no debate, however, that the story of Barbara Fritchie is one of the most iconic to come out of Frederick, says Chris Haugh, Scenic Byway and special projects manager at the Tourism Council of Frederick County.
Haugh, who has a personal interest in local history, decided to do some digging into the legend. The events, if true, took place 150 years ago. Haugh presented his findings at the Historical Society of Frederick County last month. His program was the result of several years of probing into the tale of the 95-year-old woman who was said to embody patriotism during a low point in the country's history, the Civil War.
The society also has an exhibit about Barbara Fritchie's popularity during the past 150 years, "The Fritchie Phenomenon: Barbara Fritchie in Popular Culture," at the Museum of Frederick County History in Frederick.
Barbara Fritchie was born Barbara Hauer in Lancaster, Pa., in 1766, but her family moved to Frederick. She grew up at a time when German was spoken in Frederick as much, if not more, than English.
She married glove-maker John Casper Fritchie in May 1806. She was 39, and he was 15 years younger. They settled into a tidy brick Cape Cod house on the old National Road, now 154 W. Patrick St. The house that stands there today is a replica of Fritchie's house, which was torn down in 1869. The replica is a few yards from where the house actually stood.
All indications point to Fritchie and her family as patriots who would have honored the new country and its flag from the Revolution through the War of 1812 and up to the Civil War, Haugh said.
The Fritchie family had slaves, who worked in the family glove-making business and as domestic servants. In the 1860 census, Barbara Fritchie, by then a widow, had one or two slaves, Haugh said.
"But in 1861, her niece is caring for her," Haugh said. "She was a Unionist, but she had slaves."
This conundrum was not uncommon in the Frederick area in the first 60 years of the 19th century. Frederick was home to some supporters of the Confederacy, but the majority favored the cause to preserve the Union. A minority owned slaves, but even many slave owners favored remaining with the Union.
Fritchie's brush with fame came at the very end of her life. "The story is not that far-fetched," Haugh said. "She was capable of it."
John Greenleaf Whittier, a popular American poet, New Englander and 19th-century abolitionist, wrote "Barbara Frietchie" in 1863. Fritchie died in December 1862, three months after the event that supposedly made her famous.
According to the poem, the 95-year-old Fritchie had an American flag flying outside her home as Confederate soldiers marched by, on their way west, in September 1862. The soldiers were preparing for battle, which would come a few days later at South Mountain and Antietam. Legend has it the soldiers ripped down the flag, snapping the staff. She took the flag and hung it out her second-story window.
Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson ordered his troops to fire upon the flag.
"Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out 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";
According to the legend, Jackson ordered his troops to move on, leaving Fritchie's flag intact.
Almost as soon as the poem was published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1863, there were critics of the story, Haugh said.
Most did not question Fritchie's loyalty to the Union, which seems to be backed up by facts, Haugh said. The question was, did Rebel soldiers encounter a Union flag, attempt to destroy it, only to be rebuffed?
Fritchie was sick at the time, and accounts differ as to whether Confederate soldiers actually passed her home. Haugh delved into these parts of the story.
Setting the scene
Whittier apparently learned about Barbara Fritchie from his friend Emma Dorothy Elizabeth Nevitt Southworth, known by the acronym of her first four names, Eden Southworth. Southworth was a popular fiction writer who lived in Georgetown.
Haugh did some research about Southworth for the historical society a few years ago, and this figured into his research into the Fritchie story. Southworth and Whittier were both Quakers and abolitionists. Southworth sent a request by mail to Whittier's hometown, asking him to send her his mailing address.
He responded, and she wrote him about the Fritchie incident. She spelled Fritchie's name using the old German spelling, Frietchie. Southworth described the incident, much as it was narrated in the poem.
"This story is tailored for you," she wrote to Whittier, according to Haugh.
Haugh's research focused on whether Southworth's account was true, an embellished account, or merely fiction. Southworth's original letter is part of a collection of her letters that now belong to Swarthmore (Pa.) College.
There were a few factual errors in Southworth's account. Fritchie did not die from the excitement and fatigue of the event a few days after the soldiers marched by; she died in December, three months later. Otherwise, however, the details were there. "All Whittier had to do was make it rhyme," Haugh said.
He did, and the poem put Frederick on the map almost immediately after its 1863 publication.
There was no newspaper account of the Fritchie incident in September 1862. Nor did any letters from that time that still exist detail Fritchie's encounter with Stonewall Jackson.
Fritchie and Southworth had a connection. Fritchie's great-nephew, Valerius Ramsburg, lived in Georgetown, and he knew Southworth. Later, he was a pallbearer at Southworth's funeral in 1899. Ramsburg and his new bride were touring New England when they learned of Fritchie's death.
Southworth wrote to Ramsburg of the story about his aunt and the flag, telling him the story was in local newspapers. Haugh couldn't find any account of the Fritchie tale in a surviving newspaper.
Trio of possibilities
The stories of three other women could have substituted for Fritchie's story, although details on all three are sketchy, according to Haugh. In the days before soldiers headed west toward Sharpsburg, Rebel soldiers were swarming over Frederick. Most Frederick residents hid their Union flags and stayed inside as much as possible while Confederate soldiers walked, marched and thronged the streets of Frederick.
Mary Quantrill was one. Quantrill lived just up the hill to the west of Fritchie's house. Her husband was a printer who once worked for a newspaper in Washington. His father was in the War of 1812, and his uncle formed the infamous Quantrill's Raiders, an anti-Union gang that included Frank and Jesse James.
Mary Quantrill lived in Washington at the start of the Civil War, but brought her children home to Frederick during the war. She operated a small private school. She and her students were apparently waving small flags as Rebel soldiers passed by. Although soldiers attempted to take her flags, an officer had words with Quantrill, and then told the soldiers to stop. "I salute you, but not your flag," he said. To his men, he said, "Nobody harm her. She had some moxie."
No account of the story exists in surviving newspaper archives, but several Frederick residents said after Whittier's poem was published that Quantrill was "the real Barbara Fritchie," according to Haugh.
Nancy Crouse lived at 204 W. Main St. in Middletown, and was also worthy of a poem, Haugh said. The family had ties to the North and the South, but were ardent Unionists. Crouse's brother was quoted in an Ohio newspaper from 1901, saying that Fritchie was a distant relative, but that his older sister Nancy, 17 at the time of what was called the Invasion of 1862, was the real flag waver. Nancy, also called Nannie, flew a large Union flag, despite the taunts of a neighbor who sympathized with the South.
At the invitation of the neighbor, a detachment of Confederate cavalry rode into Middletown to get the flag, but Crouse refused to give it up and reportedly wrapped herself in the flag. According to the account in the Valley Register, she did lose the flag when threatened at gunpoint, but it was captured at Antietam and later returned to her.
She married John Bennett a year later and moved to 24 W. South St., Frederick, where they raised eight children.
Susan Groff lived in Frederick with her husband where they ran a hotel. The couple were ardent Unionists and flew their 20-foot-long flag for all to see, starting in the spring of 1861. Southern sympathizers threatened to remove the flag. Groff's husband formed the First Potomac Home Brigade and went into military service with the flag. She stayed home to run the hotel, and ostensibly buried Union firearms in a well for safekeeping.
While noted Frederick diarist Jacob Engelbrecht claimed the Barbara Fritchie tale was not true, he recorded nothing about these other three women.
Fritchie's fame continues
Almost as soon as Whittier's poem was published, the account was questioned. Jackson's troops reportedly did not march on the National Road by Fritchie's house, although troops could have easily walked by the house, as they were all over the city for a few days that September, Haugh said.
Because of Whittier, however, Barbara Fritchie achieved lasting fame, while the stories of the other three women have languished.
Fritchie is immortalized today through a replica house in the Colonial Village at Dearborn Inn in Dearborn, Mich., adjacent to Greenfield Village. Frederick has the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant. On Independence Day, there is the Barbara Fritchie Classic, a motorcycle race held at the Frederick Fairgrounds on East Patrick Street. It is the oldest-running half-mile in the country.
Maryland's Laurel Park hosts a thoroughbred race named the Barbara Fritchie Handicap, a Grade II race open to fillies and mares ages 3 and up, with a purse of $150,000.
Winston Churchill, prime minister of England, visited the Barbara Fritchie House in Frederick in 1943 while visiting the presidential retreat Shangri La (now Camp David) near Thurmont. Standing in front of the house, Churchill reportedly recited all 30 couplets of the poem verbatim.
There is even a Rocky and "Bullwinkle" spoof of the Barbara Fritchie tale, using the German Frietchie spelling, that can be seen on YouTube.
The Fritchie story may be true, it may be false. More than likely, Haugh said, it was embellished. "It's an amazing story," Haugh said. "I have this affinity for it. It's our story. It's Frederick's story."
AT A GLANCE
The Historical Society of Frederick County has an exhibit, The Fritchie Phenomenon: Barbara Fritchie in Popular Culture, through December at the Museum of Frederick County History, 24 E. Church St., Frederick. Admission fees are $7 adult, $6 senior, $5 children ages 6 to 12.
WAS IT BARBARA, MARY, NANCY OR SUSAN?
Barbara Fritchie was immortalized in John Greenleaf Whittiers poem about the patriotic, flag-waving Union supporter during the Civil War. While Fritchies patriotism is not questioned, some people do question whether or not she was the flag-waving, gray-haired woman of Whittiers poem. There are stories of other women who could also have been the subject of Whittiers ode to Barbara Fritchie.
- Mary Quantrill
Quantrill lived in Washington with her husband but brought her children home to Frederick at the start of the Civil War, where she operated a small private school.
She and her students waved flags as Rebel soldiers passed by. Although soldiers attempted to take her flags, an officer had words with Quantrill, and then told the soldiers to stop. I salute you, but not your flag, he said. To his men, he said, Nobody harm her. She had some moxie.
No account of the story exists in surviving newspaper archives, but several Frederick residents said after Whittiers poem was published that Quantrill was the real Barbara Fritchie.
- Nancy Crouse
She lived on Main Street in Middletown. Her brother was quoted in an Ohio newspaper as saying that Fritchie was a distant relative, but that it was his sister, then-17-year-old Nancy, who was the real flag waver.
- Susan Groff
Groff and her husband ran a hotel in Frederick. Ardent Unionists, the couple flew a large flag for all to see. Groffs husband formed the 1st Potomac Home Brigade and went into military service with the flag. She stayed home to run the hotel, and ostensibly buried Union firearms in a well for safekeeping.