previous next

Barbara Frietchie” --refutation of Whittier's myth.

Whittier's famous poem has been several times shown to be founded on a myth; but as it is being continually republished in collections of his poems, and has been introduced into several school readers which are widely circulated, it seems proper that we should place in permanent form the refutation of this slander of “StonewallJackson and the brave men he led:

Letter from General J. A. Early.

Having seen in a recent number of the Dispatch a communication from Frederick, Maryland, to the Baltimore Sun, in relation to a letter from “An ex-confederate” to the Los Angeles (California) Bulletin, endorsing the authenticity of the oft-repeated story of Barbara Frietchie's flaunting the “old flag” in the faces of General Jackson and his troops, and being fired upon by the General's order, and also an article in the supplement to the Sun of the 24th instant containing two letters from Frederick to disprove the story; and having been appealed to twice to take some notice of it — once when it appeared in a historical magazine published in Philadelphia, I believe; and again when Whittier's poem on the subject appeared in a reader or book containing “choice selections” or something of the kind, designed for use in the schools, I take this occasion to tell the true story of the flag flaunting before our troops as they passed through Frederick, Maryland, in September, 1862.

In the first place, I must give an extract from what the writer in the Sun calls Whittier's “lofty numbers,” as follows:

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 forescore 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 one heart was loyal yet.

It must be confessed that these are pretty tall figures; especially when it is remembered that General Lee's army crossed the Potomac a short distance above Leesburg, in Loudoun county, and did [436] not have to cross any mountains at all to get into Frederick. Then, too, if there were “forty flags, with their silver stars,” and “forty flags, with their crimson bars,” flapping “in the morning wind” over the “clusted spires of Frederick,” there must have been eighty in all; though if the poet means to assert that the flags which had the silver stars were the same that had the crimson bars, forty was a goodly number to have floating over one little town. If the flag which Barbara picked up had been “hauled down,” then it must have been hauled down from a standing flag-staff; and it must have been rather a “lofty” feat for her to pick that up, too, and set it in her attic-window. But I suppose it was an allowable poetic license for Mr. Whittier to convert the Potomac river into a “mountain wall,” and one dingy old flag, hoisted probably over a quartermaster's office, into--

Forty flags, with their silver stars,
Forty flags, with their crimson bars.

Eighty or forty, as the case may be, however, he ought to have accounted for the other seventy-nine or thirty-nine, and not left them to be trampled in the dust by the “Rebel tread” that came up the street with “Stonewall Jackson riding ahead,” even by poetic license. If they were forty regimental flags, and they were flapping in the morning wind that morning, then they must have been flapping over forty regiments, which incontinently fled on the approach of the “Rebel tread,” one of them dropping its flag in the panic. Now, I suppose it is useless to quarrel with the license which a poet takes with his subject, but I presume it is allowable to say that our poet in this case has taken an equal license with all the other facts of the case.

General Jackson had been severely injured by a fall of his horse on the 5th, and his corps reached the vicinity of Frederick on the afternoon of the 6th of September, 1862, under the command of General D. H. Hill. One division (Jackson's own), under the command of General Starke, marched through Frederick that evening, and camped in the vicinity--one brigade of the division, under command of General (then Colonel) Bradley T. Johnson (a citizen of Frederick up to the beginning of the war), being posted in the town to preserve order and prevent any depredations on the citizens. The other divisions were halted and camped near Monocacy Junction, near which General Jackson also camped; and I am very confident that he did not go into Frederick until the morning of the 10th, when his command marched for the capture of Harper's Ferry. The General went through Frederick, with.a cavalry escort, in advance of his troops, who did not pass through the town until he was some distance beyond it.

The so-called “ex-Confederate” in California who says that “Stonewall Jackson ordered his dust-browned ranks to halt in front of Mrs. Frietchie's house, and that a bullet from his gun was one of the many that hit the flag she held,” if he indeed was ever a Confederate soldier, has strayed as far from the truth in the tale [437] he tells as he has from the land of his birth. It is possible that he may have once been in the Confederate army, but if so I venture to affirm that all the shooting he ever did was with a “long bow.” If he heard General Jackson give any such order as that mentioned by him and described in Whittier's poem, or witnessed any firing, by his or any other officer's command, upon a flag in Barbara Frietchie's or any other woman's hand, then he heard and witnessed what was heard and witnessed by no other mortal man. Neither General Jackson nor any other officer in our army was capable of giving such a command.

On the morning that we passed through Frederick, on the expedition for the capture of Harper's Ferry, the two following incidents occurred, one of which I witnessed in person and the other was described to me by an entirely reliable officer of Hays' Louisiana brigade: As my brigade, of Ewell's division, was marching through the town, on the street which connects with the road to Boonsboroa, a young girl about ten or eleven years old was standing on the platform in front of a framed wooden house, on the left side of the street a's we marched, with a small flag (United States), of the size commonly called candy flags, in her hand, which she was slowly waving while reciting, in a dull, monotonous tone, “Hurrah for the Stars and Stripes! Down with the Stars and Bars!” By her side stood another girl about five or six years old, looking as if she did not know what it all was about, and the girl who was going through the performance seemed to have no heart in the matter, but to be merely going mechanically through a recitation she had been taught. The doors and window-shutters of the house were closed, and not another human being was visible about it. The men, as they passed, laughed and joked pleasantly about the affair, but not a rude or unpleasant remark was made by them. The only indication of a disposition to interfere with the girl was by a one-legged man who had been accompanying one of my regiments on horseback during the campaign. When I got up I found him somewhat excited, and upon my asking him what was the matter, he called my attention to the girl with the flag, and said he had a good mind to get down and take the flag from her. He had evidently taken two or three extra drinks, and I told him he was a fool — to go on and let the girl alone — she could do no harm with her candy-flag; and thereupon he moved on.

The other incident occurred farther on — I think just across the bridge in the western part of the town. As the Louisiana brigade (Hays') was passing, a coarse, dirty-looking woman rushed up a narrow alley with a United States flag, very much soiled, which she thrust out of the alley, when an Irish soldier in the brigade, with his ready Irish wit, made a remark about that “dom'd ould dirty rag,” as he called it, which sent her back with her flag in a hurry, and no effort to take the flag from her was made. Upon these two incidents, I presume, are based Mr. Whittier's “lofty numbers” and the disputed claims to the honor and glory of having flaunted the Union flag in the faces of Stonewall Jackson's “ragged [438] Rebels” as they passed through Frederick. The story told by the Frederick correspondent of the Sun about a flag being stricken from the hand of a Mrs. Quantrill by one of our officers, is, I think, as groundless as that told in Whittier's verses. If any such incident had occurred, and it had been the subject of reprimand or disapproval by his superior officers, I think I would have heard of it. I have witnessed a number of instances of the display of small flags, or the Union colors, as they were called, by ladies in the enemy's country as we passed through their towns, but I never heard of an instance in which any violence or rudeness was used by our officers or soldiers on such occasions; though, when the exhibitions became obtrusive, our boys were always ready with a good-natured witticism or jest that put an end to these exhuberant displays of patriotism. I have also seen ladies, even in Pennsylvania, wave their white handkerchiefs to our troops. Whoever is disposed to claim the honor of either of the two incidents in Frederick that I have mentioned, is entirely welcome to do so.

I will add that I have been informed by a gentleman who was for a long time a citizen of Frederick that Mrs. Barbara Frietchie, or her husband, was a descendant of one of the Hessians that were brought over to thrash into obedience another set of “Rebels” ; and if she had been the heroine of the incident which Mr. Whittier's prolific imagination has created, she would only have been acting in accordance with the traditional principles of the family. I believe Mr. Whittier's Quaker ancestors were somewhat in sympathy with the cause for which the Hessians fought, and hence, perhaps, his admiration for the supposed exploit of one of their descendants. I have seen within the last year or two a letter or statement from Barbara Frietchie's niece denying that her aunt had hoisted the flag or been fired on, but saying that she had driven off some of “the ragged, lousy Rebels” from her house with a broomstick — and who would not run from an old woman with a scurrilous tongue in her mouth and a broomstick in her hands?

J. A. Early, Lynchburg, April 26, 1875.

Letter from Mrs. Frietchie's nephew.

I have just read a communication to the Sun purporting to set. forth certain facts in relation to the life and character of the late Barbara Frietchie, the heroine of Whittier's celebrated war poem. It may not be improper to state that I am the nephew of “Dame Barbara,” and had the settling up of her husband's estate in the capacity of administrator. This necessarily threw me into frequent communication with that aged and venerable dame.

Barbara Frietchie, my venerable aunt, was not a lady of twenty-two summers, as your correspondent alleges, but an ancient dame of ninety-six winters, when she departed this life; and it is but truth to add that she never saw the inside of the Federal hospital [439] in this city. Nor did she depart this life in September, 1863, but died on the 18th of December, 1862. Nor did any of the Federal soldiers from the hospital attend the old lady's remains to their last resting place. This, to my certain knowledge, was a fact, no orders to that effect having been given. Therefore, none of these convalescing invalid soldiers were at my old aunt's funeral. So much for this branch of your New York correspondent's statement.

Now, a word as to the waving of the Federal flag in the face of the Rebels by Dame Barbara on the occasion of Stonewall Jackson's march through Frederick. Truth requires me to say that Stonewall Jackson, with his troops, did not pass Barbara Frietchie's residence at all; but passed up what in this city is popularly called “The mill alley,” about three hundred yards above her residence, then passed due west towards Antietam, and thus out of the city.

But another and still stronger fact with regard to this matter may be here presented, viz: the poem by Whittier represents our venerable relative (then ninety-six years of age) as nimbly ascending to her attic window and waving her small Federal flag defiantly in the face of Stonewall Jackson's troops. Now, what are the facts at this point? Dame Barbara was, at the moment of the passing of that distinguished General and his forces through Frederick, bedridden and helpless, and had lost the power of locomotion. She could at this period only move, as she was moved, by the help of her attendants.

These are the true and stern facts, proving that Whittier's poem upon this subject is fiction, pure fiction, and nothing else, without even the remotest semblance or resemblance of fact.

Valerius Ebert. Frederick City, Md., August 27th.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Whittier (13)
Stonewall Jackson (12)
Barbara Frietchie (10)
Dame Barbara (3)
Fitzhugh Lee (2)
Hays (2)
J. A. Early (2)
Stonewall (1)
W. N. Starke (1)
Quantrill (1)
Bradley T. Johnson (1)
D. H. Hill (1)
R. S. Ewell (1)
Valerius Ebert (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: