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. Continue reading