To some, the story of “Barbara Frietchie” told by poet John Greenleaf Whittier seems apocryphal, an old woman waving a Yankee flag from her window as Stonewall Jackson rode through Frederick, Md., but Barbara Frietchie was a real person, and it turns out there’s much more to her story, which begins with the 1919 minutes of the Lancaster County Historical Society …
In 1791, when President George Washington had occasion to visit Frederick and spend the night there, he stopped at Mrs. Kimbal’s Hotel. That evening there was a quilting party at the hotel, and Barbara Hauer, then a young lady of 25, was chosen to wait upon the tables.
In 1799, after George Washington’s death, a funeral memorial re-enactment was held in his honor in Frederick, Md., and on this occasion Barbara was chosen as one of the honorary pall-bearers.
Barbara was a very thrifty and industrious woman. She spent much time in spinning and knitting. For many years she could frequently be seen sitting at her window, dressed in a black satin gown, busily engaged in knitting. At the age of 40, she had married John Casper Frietchie, who was then only 26.
Mrs. John H. Abbott, her great niece, tells how “Aunt Frietchie,” as she called her, “was very fond of children and was very good and kind to them, though she never had any of her own.”
Mrs. Frietchie had considerable trouble from time to time after her husband’s death owing to her strong utterances on the subject of human slavery and her devotion to the cause of the Union.
Her husband’s will was written by Dr. Albert Richie, of Frederick, Md., who was named as executor. She had life tenure in the estate. After the doctor’s death, his three nephews became administrators. Of these Valarius Ebert was acting administrator, and whenever he paid her interest they had warm words about the war, his sympathies being quite strongly with the Confederate cause. On various occasions, she is said to have denounced him as an “arrant rebel.”
This friction between them seemed to continue to increase, so she finally persuaded Dr. Lewis H. Steiner, an Elder of the Evangelical Reformed Church, of which she was a devout member, to accept her power of attorney to transact her business for her, which he did until the time of her death.
While she was a woman of very positive convictions, a strong, fearless character, who held pronounced views on public affairs, she had a desire to live as peaceably as possible in her old days, with even those with whom she so radically disagreed upon questions growing out of the war.
Barbara did most of her housework until she was nearly 95 years of age, and even then she spent considerable amounts of her time in looking after sick soldiers and cheering up despondent and discouraged Unionists during the dark and cheerless days of 1861 and 1862.
A neighbor whom she highly respected and in whom she had great confidence, but who from time to time took a rather gloomy view for the Union cause, was Harry Nixdorf, a very pious Lutheran and also a very patriotic Unionist.
Mr. Nixdorf never tired of relating his interesting experiences with her and how she frequently came to his shop and explained: “Never mind, Harry, we must conquer, we must conquer. … We have seen darker times than these, Harry.”
During the winter of 1861 and ’62 she purchased a small silk Union flag, about 22 by 16 inches; this she had flying from her attic window, every day, unless the weather was very inclement.
It was early in September 1862 that the Confederate forces crossed the Potomac at White Ford, entered Maryland and marched through Frederick County to the county seat, Frederick. They encamped mostly on the northwest side of the town.
An eyewitness of their army at the time said: “The rebels were wretchedly clad and generally destitute of shoes. The cavalrymen were mostly barefooted, and the feet of the infantry were bound up in rags and raw hides. Their uniforms were in tatters, and many were without hats or caps. They had very few tents; the men mostly, where encamped, slept on the bare ground.”
General Stonewall Jackson, one of the Confederate generals in command, was a devout Presbyterian, and the next day being Sunday, attended divine services at the Evangelical Reformed Church, of which Rev. Daniel Zacharias was pastor and of which Barbara Frietchie was also a member. It is said that Rev. Zacharias was not aware that General Jackson would be present, and among others sung during the service was the hymn, “The Stoutest Rebel Must Resign.”
After Frederick had been under Confederate rule for about five days, on Sept. 9, the order came from General Lee for them to move early next morning. The troops began the march and came down through Mill Alley to West Patrick Street and moved toward Harper’s Ferry, which they had been ordered to capture. The mouth of this very narrow alley is about 70 yards from where stood the house in which Barbara Frietchie lived.
Before any of Stonewall Jackson’s troops reached the Frietchie home, Jackson who had been riding ahead, left his line at West Second Street and rode up to the Presbyterian parsonage to deposit a letter.
In a minute or two after Jackson’s men halted, all of a sudden great excitement burst forth near the end of the line, many of the Confederates becoming very angry. The report at once was passed along the line that an old lady was shaking a Yankee flag right into their faces. Order was soon restored, however, when the order came for them to march.
The old lady was Barbara Frietchie.
Historians dispute the historical accuracy of the facts in Whittier’s poem. Writing in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” George O Seilheimer says it this way: “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 have 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 he 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 fell into 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, and 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 preserved 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: “As already said, Barbara Frietchie had a flag and she waved it, not on the 6th to Jackson’s men, but on the 12th to Burnside’s.”
And writing to The Century magazine in the June 10, 1886, issue, Whittier himself says the following: “The poem ‘Barbara Frietchie’ was written in good faith. The story was no invention of mine. It came to me from sources which I regarded as entirely reliable: It had been published in newspapers, and had gained public credence in Washington and Maryland before my poem was written. I had no reason to doubt its accuracy then, and I am still constrained to believe that it had foundation in fact. If I thought otherwise, I should not hesitate to express it. I have no pride of authorship to interfere with my allegiance to truth.”
And so it remains, as it seems with all things concerning the Civil War, a subject of unending debate.
To read more about the mysterious Mrs. Frietchie, please visit Leben’s website.