The many stories of Barbara Fritchie

Harriet Arthur has been the manager/docent at the Barbara Fritchie House in Frederick for the last 15 years. The window made famous by Barbara Fritchie's stand with the Union flag is above Arthur's head.

FREDERICK -- The Barbara Fritchie flag incident -- fact or myth, myth or fact? Depends on whom you know and what you read. But one fact is for sure -- Barbara Fritchie is a timeless Frederick historical icon.

Originally made famous through John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "The Ballad of Barbara Frietchie," which describes the story of a 96-year-old woman who said, "'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country's flag,'" the story of Barbara Fritchie has been endlessly researched and retold.

The only problem is that each document written on Barbara Fritchie varies in details with the next.

The tale as told by Whittier

In Whittier's poem, "Ballad of Barbara Frietchie," Fritchie is described as the "Bravest of all in Frederick town," who in September of 1862, hangs a Union flag in her window "'To show that one heart was loyal yet.'" As the flag hangs, Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson and his troops are walking through Frederick and past Fritchie's house.

At the sight of the flag, Jackson, in the poem, orders his men to fire. Then as the flag falls, "Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf," and shouted "'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country's flag.'"

Fritchie's words make Jackson "blush of shame," at which point he orders that no one should touch Barbara Fritchie.

Whittier's poem, according to research done by Dorothy MacKay and William Rogers Quynn, was the result of a story told to Whittier from an unidentified Confederate soldier. Another source, "A Playground of the Civil War," by Paul and Rita Gordon of Frederick, states that Whittier heard the story from a novelist friend.

Harriet Arthur, who has worked at the Barbara Fritchie house for 15 years, said there is an actual letter written to Whittier from Emma Southward that describes a number of flag incidents occurring in Frederick.

Whittier, even later in his life, continued to state that his poem was true, according to the "Life of Whittier's Heroine, Barbara Fritchie," by Henry M. Nixdorff.


Of course, Whittier's poem is not the only version of the Barbara Fritchie story, as others have been brought to light.

During a Sept. 3, 1945 broadcast by the Frederick radio station WFMD, Barbara Fritchie was depicted as a "crotchety old fuss-budget" woman. In the broadcast, the story is told of Confederate soldiers shooting at Fritchie's flag and being chased off by Fritchie with a broom.

Harriet Yoner, a family member, and Caroline Ebert, a friend of Fritchie, according to the Gordons' research, said the day of the flag incident, Fritchie was distressed. Ebert said Fritchie told her that she thought she heard Union soldiers approaching and so "she went to the family Bible and removed a silk flag." Fritchie then stood on her front porch with it, at which point the troops, being Confederate, tried to take the flag away.

Another friend of Fritchie, Dr. Lewis Steiner, according to "Barbara Frietschie," by the Quynns, wrote that a clergyman did see "an aged crone come out of her house as certain rebels passed by ... and screamed ... "'My curses upon you and your officers for degrading your country's flag.'"

While some friends claimed Fritchie shook the flag, others including Jacob Engelbrecht, who lived across the street from Fritchie, claimed she would have been too ill at the time of the incident to have done such a thing.

Also, research on the route the troops took through Frederick reveals that Jackson did not even go past Fritchie's house.

"Barbara Fritchie probably didn't shake a U.S. flag at Stonewall, but it makes for a rousing good poem" said Sean L. Adam in "American Civil War."

But if Barbara Fritchie didn't wave the flag, who did?

Well, according to Nixdorff, there were a "great many incidents involving flags," during the Confederate soldiers' stay in Frederick.

The poem even acknowledges more than one incident, Arthur said.

In the poem it states, "Forty flags with their silver stars, Forty flags with their crimson bars," which is a biblical reference to 40, which means an infinite number, she said. That meant there were an infinite number of flags that were hung, which would have resulted in trouble with the Confederate soldiers for several people, including a Middletown girl.

The real Barbara Fritchie

"The real Barbara Fritchie story happened in Middletown," said Frederick historian and co-author of "A Playground of the Civil War," Paul Gordon.

Gordon was referring to the young 17-year-old Nancy Crouse.

Rebecca Rush lived at 204 W. Main St. in Middletown, the site of Crouse's home, and since moving to Frederick a year ago, Rush has been researching Crouse's story.

According to Rush, each day it was Crouse's responsiblity to hang the American flag from her family's second-story window.

Next door to the Crouses was a tavern owned by a Confederate sympathizer by the name of Riddlemoser.

One day, a cavalry of Confederate soldiers were drinking at Riddlemoser's tavern and decided to hassle Crouse.

According to Gordon's book, the rebels ordered her to take the flag down, to which she responded that they remove themselves.

Now the two versions from Gordon and Rush vary at this point.

One account is that Crouse rushed up the stairs, removed the flag, wrapped the flag around her body, and returned to the porch, Gordon said.

Rush states that Crouse ran into the house and took the flag down, and that the Confederate soldiers followed her into the house. (A year later Effier Titlow, a friend of Crouse's, wrapped a flag around her body but no confrontation arose out of this, Rush said.)

Either way, one of the Confederate soldiers then "pulled his revolver and placed the barrel squarely against the young woman's head," and swore he would kill her, according to the book.

Crouse's response?

"'You may shoot me, but never will I willingly give up my country's flag into the hands of a traitor.'"

The story ends with the soldier physically taking the flag away, tearing it and tying it to his horse, according to Rush and Gordon.

But even Crouse's story isn't entirely unique, because there was also the ardent Unionist and fellow flag-waver, Mary Quantrell.

Quantrell lived four doors west of Bentz Street, Gordon said. Her story is much like Crouse's in that she had a Union flag hung, and when a Confederate soldier requested that she remove it, she replied that it was "'worthy of a better cause than for which General Lee and himself were fighting.'"

The Confederate soldiers took the flag from her, which caused Quantrell's neighbor, Mary Hopwood, to hand her another flag, which was then also torn and trampled.

Hope of the Union

While Gordon states that Quantrell's and Crouse's stories hold more water, they lack the appeal found in the Whittier poem -- the triumph of an individual over the Confederate soldiers.

"We admire this kind of woman. We admire someone who stands up for principles and of course the poem is dramatic as heck," Arthur said.

During that time there was a divided nation. Then there is this old lady who got out of bed to show her patriotism, and "regardless of whether the story was true or not true, it was a symbol of the Union cause and keeping the nation united," which is why it has lasted for so long, Gordon said.

In fact, while visiting Frederick on May 17, 1943, Winston Churchill requested to be taken to the Barbara Fritchie house. Churchill then got out of the car and recited every line of the Barbara Fritchie Whitter poem from memory, Gordon said.

"It's one of those things that will last forever," he said.

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