In January of this year I sent an e-mail containing John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, Barbara Frietchie, to a friend that lives in Alabama. She acknowledged receipt of the e-mail and replied as follows:
Wow! What a beautiful story of pride, loyalty and courage! Thank you for sharing this poem. I’m sending it on to several of my friends up in Northern Virginia.
She also asked who commanded the troops that entered Frederick, Maryland during the War between the States—I use that title because as yet I have learned nothing about the war that could be considered civil.
I responded to my friend with this e-mail:
Subject: Barbara Frietchie . . . . .
The troops in Whittier’s poem were General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, led by General Stonewall Jackson. I was introduced to Barbara Frietchie in elementary school—not the real Barbara, just the poem—somewhere around the fourth grade. I’ve forgotten most of the poem, but for some reason these two verses took root: Shoot if you must this old gray head . . . and, Who touches a hair of yon gray head . . .
And now for the benefit of anyone not familiar with the poem, here it is:
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 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.
Honor 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!
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807—1892)
Some final notes:
Given the present demographics of Maryland, Barbara Frietchie could well have been an African-American. Could be—so much of our history is being rewritten that anything is possible (click here for George Orwell’s 1984). Future research online may find that the lady that made the first flag was an African-American—whether true or untrue, that would become part of our revisions of American history.
If the revisions continue, eventually George Santayana’s time-worn statement that Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it will take on new meaning—learning and repeating revisionist history will do little to advance civilization and our standing in the world order.
If I fail to learn history and I am doomed to repeat it, I prefer to repeat the history of the founding of our nation. I do not wish to fail to learn and repeat history that has been revised, and in the revision process has cast aside many of our basic values, and distorted and diluted others.
That’s my opinion—what’s yours?