Thursday, September 6, 2012

Quote of the Day (‘Barbara Frietchie’ Saves Flag—Or Does She?)

“'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.”—John Greenleaf Whittier, "Barbara Frietchie," The Atlantic Monthly, October 1863

I don’t recall reading this poem by the New England abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) when I was in elementary school more than 40 years ago. It’s probably even less likely for today’s schoolchildren.

But there was a time in this country when you couldn’t attend a school pageant, celebrate the Fourth of July, or open a school reading primer without encountering this tribute to patriotism.

It’s easy to see why today's critics might view the poem condescendingly. It speaks of a binary world where judgment is easy (Confederate flag=bad, American flag=good). Its rhymed-couplet structure is simple, without elaborate symbolism or allusions. It doesn’t ask hard questions such as why slavery hadn’t been destroyed by this time in the U.S., why the poor (primarily then, Irish and German emigrants) couldn’t buy their way out of being drafted in the Civil War while the rich could. It's a ballad about a public event, an exhortation to celebration, not free verse about a private sorrow.

But the poem lives. You’ll find a hard time forgetting the event at the heart of it, or the word picture.

But was it true? You ask hard questions, Faithful Reader! Okay, pull up a chair and let’s talk…

On this date in 1862, Stonewall Jackson, fresh from his key role in the Confederate victory at Second Manassas (which I discussed in a post from last week), passed through Frederick, Md., the leading edge of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. His troops, famous for following their leader on lightning-fast marches, were indeed, as Whittier writes, a “famished rebel horde.”

Fredericksburg did indeed have a resident named Barbara Frietchie, who, in fact, was even more than the “four score years and ten” described by the poet. (Maybe it’s harder to rhyme “ninety-five”?) She was a friend of “Star-Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key, and, in a state rife with Confederate sentiment, an outspoken Unionist.

But at the time Jackson and his men passed through town, she was gravely ill (she died a couple of months afterward). Associates of the Confederate general after the war claimed that he never met the elderly woman, and no contemporary newspaper accounts of the event survive. Moreover, there was a question of whether the Confederates even marched past her home.

An article in the Frederick News-Post in July recounted the research of local-history enthusiast Chris Haugh into the matter. He recounts how Whittier came to know of the alleged incident in the first place (he heard about it through his friend, the popular fiction writer Eden Southworth, who lived in Georgetown), as well as three similar incidents involving female supporters of the flag when Jackson passed through (including teacher Mary Quantrill, a Unionist in-law of the notorious William Quantrill, whose anti-Union gang in Missouri included Jesse and Frank James).

(Interestingly, Haugh notes, despite her ardent Unionist sympathies, Frietchie owned a couple of slaves. Did the abolitionist Whittier know this fact, or simply leave it out of the poem?)

Whittier’s poem appeared the year after the Confederate invasion of Maryland, by which time not only Frietchie but also Jackson was dead. In acknowledging the humanity of a fierce soldier who still respected the elderly and women, the poet demonstrated the kind of attitude in the North that would pave the way for reconciliation between the two sides after Appomattox.

Is this poem, then, untrue? If the old Quaker poet were alive now, I imagine him, drawing himself up, trying to control his wrath, as he answers: “Not more untrue than what your two political parties are saying now in commercials—and a good deal less hurtful, in the bargain!”

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