Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the single most bloody day in the Civil War, with nearly 21,000 casualties on September 17, 1862. Most of us, at least those of my generation, were introduced to the battle with a poem, “The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie,” by John Greenleaf Whittier, telling the tale of a brave old woman, ninety years old, who confronted Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s troops as they marched through Frederick, Maryland to the battlefield, by waving Old Glory after the troops had fired at it, and saying,
Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.
Barbara Fritchie is now an icon, and has been portrayed in novels and films. Her house is a historic landmark, and the town uses her name and the poem to market everything from candy to T-shirts. And, I learned this Sunday, it is all a lie, though not old Barbara’s fault. The poet got his facts wrong, or used excessive “poetic license” because “Barbara Fritchie” pleased his ear better than “Mary Quantrell”, the name of the real flag-waver, and a 90-year old patriot made for a more colorful plot than a mere 30-something with chutzpah. Whittier also made Jackson the antagonist of the tale, when in fact the general was the less flamboyant and famous A.P. Hill. In 1876 Quantrell wrote to Whittier pleading with him to correct the record, signing her letter, in quotes, as “Barbara.” He did nothing.
Yet apparently there is no question that Mary, not Barbara Fritchie, was the one who stood up to the rebel army. Historians agree, and when Quantrell died in 1879, both major Frederick newspapers identified her moment of courage as the inspiration for the poem. Christopher Haugh, a Frederick County tourism official who has been researching the matter for six years, told Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, “Both women were real-life residents of Frederick, but when it comes to Whittier’s poem, Mary Quantrell was the real-life heroine.”
If there was ever a story that evoked the old newspaper editor’s famous quote “Print the legend,” in the famous climax of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” this is it.* Print the legend because we need heroes. Print the legend because people don’t like having to adjust their illusions. Print the legend because so much has been built on the foundation of a lie. Why unsettle history? Barbara, Mary, Stonewall, A.P. and Whittier are long dead. What does it matter, now, who really waved the flag? Isn’t the story more important than the details?
I’ll accept that. Legends have value, and myths can teach and inspire. That still doesn’t justify perpetuating a lie long after the truth is known. Barbara Fritchie gor her poem and 150 years of fame that she didn’t do anything to deserve, and it is well past time to set the record straight. Tell your children, and tell your friends. It wasn’t Barbara: it was Mary Quantrell. Then read them this poem:
The Ballad of Mary Quantrill
by John Greenleaf Whittier, (withhistorical corrections by Jack Marshall)
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 the 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 young Mary Quantrill then,
Strong woman of twoscore 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,
General A.P. Hill 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
Bold Mary snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
‘Shoot, if you must, just shoot me dead,
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 that woman’s 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.
Mary Quantrill’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids nor more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on that General’s bier.
Over Mary Quantrill’s grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round they symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!
Now was that so hard, John?
* In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” an aging U.S. Senator played by Jimmy Stewart, whose entire career has been built on his shooting of a sadistic murderer and bully named Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin), reveals that the real shooter had been a romantic rival (John Wayne), who saved his life with the shot but who forbade Stewart from telling anyone, including Wayne’s former girlfriend, who was now infatuated with Stewart. The newspaper editor who hears the Senator’s confession of a career based on a lie tears up his notes, saying, ” This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Facts and Graphic: Washington Post