Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

Barbara Frietchie

E ARLY in the Civil War, in September, 1862, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate army succeeded in crossing the Potomac River, and planned to march on Baltimore or Philadelphia. On this march he entered Frederick City, Maryland, September 13th.

According to Whittier's poem there were forty American flags flying in the town, but the Confederate sympathizers pulled them down as Lee's army entered. Then an old woman named Barbara Frietchie took one of the flags and fastened it to a staff outside her attic window. General "Stonewall" Jackson saw the flag as he marched past with his men, and gave the order to fire. But even as the flag fell from the staff Barbara Frietchie seized it. She cried to them all, "Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country's flag!"

Jackson recognized her courage, and was stirred by it. He gave his men the order to march, and all day the flag flew from that attic window as Lee's army went through the streets of Frederick City.

The story of Barbara Frietchie has been accepted as true by several historians, but there is some doubt as to whether the facts were exactly similar to the account in the poem. Whittier himself said that he had the story from trustworthy sources. In a note to the poem he wrote: "It is admitted by all that Barbara Frietchie was no myth, but a worthy and highly esteemed gentlewoman, intensely loyal and a hater of the Slavery Rebellion, holding her Union flag sacred and keeping it with her Bible; that when the Confederates halted before her house, and entered her dooryard, she denounced them in vigorous language, shook her cane in their faces, and drove them out; and when General Burnside's troops followed close upon Jackson's, she waved her flag and cheered them. It is stated that May Quantrell, a brave and loyal lady in another part of the city, did wave her flag in sight of the Confederates. It is possible that there has been a blending of the two incidents."

Barbara Frietchie

by John Greenleaf Whittier

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.

Round about them orchards sweep,

Apple and peach tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord

To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

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 fourscore 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 that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,

Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right

He glanced; the old flag met his sight.

"Halt!"—the dust-brown ranks stood fast.

"Fire!"—out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;

It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff

Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on 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;

The nobler nature within him stirred

To life at that woman's deed and word:

"Who touches a hair of yon gray head

Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.

All day long through Frederick street

Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost

Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell

On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light

Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er,

And the rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honour to her! and let a tear

Fall, for her sake, on "Stonewall's" bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,

Flag of freedom and union, wave!

Peace, and order, and beauty draw

Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down

On thy stars below in Frederick town!

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