The Historical Basis of Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie"
By
George O. Seilheimer
 

        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 lave 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 be 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 is now in 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, 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 preserve 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 home 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. Here is the story as told by Mrs. Abbott, Mrs. Handschue's daughter :

"Jackson and his men had been in Frederick and bad left a short time before. We were glad that the rebels had gone and that our troops came. My mother and I lived almost opposite aunt's place. She and my mothers cousin. Harriet Yoner, lived together. Mother said I should go and see aunt and tell her not to be frightened. You know that aunt was then almost ninety-six years old. When I reached aunt's place she knew as much as I did about matters, and cousin Harriet was with her. They were on the front porch. and aunt was leaning on the cane she always carried. When the troops marched along aunt waved her hand, and cheer after cheer went up from the men as they saw her. Some even ran into the yard. 'God bless you, old lady.' 'Let me take you by the hand,' 'May you live long, you dear old soul,' cried one after the other, as they rushed into the yard. Aunt being rather feeble, and in order to save her as much as we could, cousin Harriet Yoner said. 'Aunt ought to have a flag to wave.' The flag was hidden in the family Bible, and cousin Harriet got it and gave it to aunt. Then she waved the flag to the men and they cheered her as they went by. She was very patriotic and the troops all knew of her. The day before General Reno was killed he came to see aunt and had a talk with her."

        The manner in which the Frietchie legend originated was very simple. A Frederick lady visited Washington some time after the invasion of 1 the open sympathy and valor of Barbara Frietchie. The story was told again and again, and it was never lost in the telling. Mr. Whittier received his first knowledge of it from Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, the novelist, who is a resident of Washington. When Mrs. Southworth wrote to Mr. Whittier concerning Barbara, she enclosed a newspaper slip reciting the circumstances of Barbara Frietchie's action when Lee entered Frederick.
        When Mr. Whittier wrote the poem he followed as closely as possible the account sent him at the time. He has a cane made from the timber of Barbara's house,---a present from Dr. Stiener, a member of the Senate of Maryland. The flag with which Barbara Frietchie gave a hearty welcome to Burnside's troops has but thirty-four stars, is small, of silk, and attached to a staff probably a yard in length. (1)
        Barbara Frietchie was born at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her maiden name was Hauer. She was born December 3d, 1766, her parents being Nicholas and Catharine Hauer. She went to Frederick in early life, where she married John C. Frietchie, a glover, in 1806. She died December 18th, 1862, Mr. Frietchie having died in 1849. In 1868 the waters of Carroll Creek rose to such a height that they nearly wrecked the old home of the heroine of Whittier's poem.

(1) Writing to the editor of "The Century" on the 10th of June, 1886, Mr. Whittier said: "The poem 'Barbara Frietchie' was written in good faith. The story was no invention of mine. It cams 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." Mr. Whittier, writing March 7th, 1862, Informs us further that he "also received letters from several other responsible persons wholly or partially confirming the story, among whom was the late Dorothea L. Dix."--- EDITORS

Source: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War

This page last updated 12/17/03

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