In researching the history of Barbara Frietchie, we came across the following, first published in the minutes of the Lancaster County Historical Society, 1919. The author contends that the essential facts of the Whittier poem are accurate, although as we shall see, every thing connected to the Civil War seems to be debatable. What is interesting here is that, although the Confederate troops probably followed a route that did not directly pass Frietchie’s house, General Jackson did depart from the main body at one point, at least, to call upon a local minister.
Although it is more than 152 years since Barbara Frietchie was born and fifty-six summers have come and gone since that famous day when she waved the stars and stripes over the heads of an army of Confederate raiders which furnished Whittier with the subject of his historic poem, there are those among us even now who doubt whether such a person ever lived.
It was largely because John Greenleaf Whittier was my favorite poet, and be-cause Barbara Frietchie was a Lancaster girl by birth, and because of the numerous doubts I heard expressed as to the truth contained in Whittier’s poem entitled “Barbara Frietchie,” that I determined to investigate, and establish if possible the truth of the statements contained in his poem. I first visited Frederick, Md., in July, 1886, and then interviewed many who had a right to speak for the patriotic old lady. From investigations made since and from comparing what I learned from different persons at different times I am fully persuaded that practically all of Whittier’s poem was founded upon fact.
Very little is known of Barbara Frietchie’s parents. On the inside of the front cover of the family Bible is written the following:
This Bible belongs to Niclaus Hauer, born in Nassau-Saarbrucken, in Dillendorf, Aug. 6, 1733, who left Germany May 11, 1754, and arrived in Pennsylvania Oct. 1, of the same year.
This Bible is bound in calf; the sides are oak boards and it was printed in German by Christopher Sauer, Germantown, Pa., in 1743. Barbara Frietchie gave it to a Mrs. Mergardt, of Frederick, Md.
Nothing else is now known of her parents, except that they first settled in Lancaster, Pa. They were members of the First Re-formed Church. The church record of births and baptisms shows that Nicholas and Catherine Hauer had three children born and baptized during their residence in Lancaster: Catherine, Jacob and Barbara. They were baptized by the pastor, Rev. Wm. Hendel. Barbara was born December 3, 1766 and was baptized on December 14, 1766; her sponsor was Barbara Gamber. The family moved to Frederick, Md., either in 1767 or 1768.
Barbara was a very positive character even as a girl, she was very public spirited, and was somewhat of a leader among the young folks with whom she associated. Among the many events of her life that were more or less of interest in her early days was in 1791, when President George Washington had occasion to visit Frederick and spend the night there. He stopped at Mrs. Kimbal’s Hotel (where the City Hotel now stands). That evening there was a quilting party at the hotel, and Barbara, then a young lady of twenty-five was there. As soon as word came that Washington would spend the night there she offered to bring her Liverpool china tea set, to grace the table, which was accepted, and she was one of the ladies selected to wait upon the President at the table. The blue china teapot which Washington used upon that occasion is now among her grandniece, Mrs. Abbott’s, mementoes.
In 1799 after Washington’s death a sham [i.e. re-enactment memorial] funeral was held in his honor in Frederick, and on this occasion Barbara was chosen as one of the honorary pall-bearers.
On May 6, 1806, at the age of almost forty, she was married to John Casper Frietchie, who was then only twenty-six years of age. The service was performed by Rev. Mr. Wagner, of the German Reformed Church, Frederick, Md. Her husband was a glove-maker and his gloves were in great demand in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He died on the 10th of November, 1849. A near neighbor when a girl who was often in his shop where he was working and who told me about him and Barbara, is Mrs. Elizabeth Zeigler, now in her ninetieth year, who today lives in the second house from where the Frietchie home stood.First Reformed Church, Lancaster PA. Current structure dates from 1852.
Barbara was a very thrifty and industrious woman. She spent much time in spinning and knitting. Her grandniece, Miss Eleanor D. Abbott, of Frederick, gave me a piece of linen made from flax spun by Barbara Frietchie and on which Miss Abbott embroidered the American flag and Barbara’s name.
For many years she could frequently be seen sitting at her window, dressed in a black satin gown, busily engaged in knitting.
Mrs. John H. Abbott, her great niece, told me how “Aunt Frietchie,” as she called her “was very fond of children, and was very good and kind to them, though she never had any of her own.” She said: “We knew that when Aunt Frietchie told us to do anything we had to obey. When she got tired of us she would say, ‘now run home,’ and we knew we were expected to leave at once.”
Mrs. Frietchie had considerable trouble from time to time after her husband’s death owing to her strong utterances on the subject of human slavery and her devotion to the cause of the Union. Her husband’s will was written by Dr. Albert Richie, of Frederick, Md., who was named as executor. She had life tenure in the estate. After the doctor’s death, which occurred in 1857, under the laws of Maryland, his three nephews became administrators. Of these Valarius Ebert was acting administrator and whenever he paid her interest they had warm words about the war, his sympathies being quite strongly with the Confederate cause. On various occasions, she is said to have denounced him as an “arrant rebel.” This friction between them seemed to continue to increase, so she finally persuaded Dr. Lewis H. Steiner, an Elder of the Evangelical Reformed Church, of which she was a devout member, to accept her power of attorney to transact her business for her, which he did until the time of her death. While she was a woman of very positive convictions, a strong, fearless character, who held pronounced views on public affairs, she had a desire to live as peaceably as possible in her old days, with even those with whom she so radically disagreed upon questions growing out of the war.
Barbara did most of her house work until she was nearly ninety-five years of age and even then she spent considerable amounts of her time in looking after sick soldiers and cheering up despondent and discouraged Unionists during the dark and cheerless days of 1861 and 1862. A neighbor whom she highly respected and in whom she had great confidence, but who from time to time took a rather gloomy view for the Union cause, was Harry Nixdorf, a very pious Lutheran and also a very patriotic Unionist. Mr. Nixdorf never tired of relating his interesting experiences with her and how she frequently came to his shop and explained: “Never mind, Harry, we must conquer, we must conquer.” “We have seen darker times than these, Harry.”
During the winter of 1861 and ‘62 she purchased a small silk Union flag, about 22 by 16 inches; this she had flying from her attic window, every day, unless the weather was very in-clement.
It was early in September, 1862, that the Confederate forces crossed the Potomac at White Ford, entered Maryland and marched through Frederick County to the county seat, Frederick. They encamped mostly on the north-west side of the town, on Carroll creek, around Worman’s mill, an old stone structure built in 1787, which is in use at the present time and on the north and northeast. An eye witness of their army at the time said: “The rebels were wretchedly clad, and generally de-stitute of shoes. The cavalrymen were mostly barefooted and the feet of the infantry were bound up in rags and raw hides. Their uniforms were in tatters, and many were without hats or caps. They had very few tents; the men mostly, where encamped, slept on the bare ground.” General Stonewall Jackson, one of the Confederate generals in command, was a religious man, and the next day being Sunday, attended divine services at the Evangelical Reformed Church, of which Rev. Daniel Zacharias was pastor and of which Barbara Frietchie was also a member. It is said that Rev. Zacharias was not aware of the presence of General Jackson and among other hymns sung during the service was the hymn, “The Stoutest Rebel must resign.”
The correspondent of the Baltimore American in writing of this entrance and occupation of Frederick by the Confederates said: “A meeting of the citizens was called, at which an address was delivered by Bradley Johnson, who used the most conciliatory language, and made great predictions as to the power of the rebel army not only to hold Western Maryland, but to capture Baltimore and Washington, and dictate terms of peace in Independence Square at Philadelphia. The rebel sympathizers generally attended the meeting, but the few Union men who had remained kept to their homes. At 10 o’clock at night the men were all ordered to their camps on the outskirts of the city, and the first day of rebel rule in Frederick passed off quietly and peacefully.
“The Federal flag was lowered from all the poles in Frederick, and the rebel ‘stars and bars’ hoisted in their place. Most of the officers were quartered at the hotels, and at the houses of prominent rebels, though a good many of the latter had also fled the city.”
After Frederick had been under Confederate rule for about five days, on September 9, the order came from General Lee for them to move early next morning. General Hill’s troops were to take the lead. These began the march and came down through Mill Alley to West Patrick Street and moved toward Harper’s Ferry, which they had been ordered to capture; at this same time the force under Jackson, Jones and Longstreet came down North Market Street to the Square and there turned to the right and moved out West Patrick Street. The corps of the army commanded by Jackson got to the point where Mill Alley opens into West Patrick Street, before all of Hill’s corps had gotten out of Mill Alley, and consequently was ordered to halt. Jackson’s men then and there halted, but did not break ranks, but stood there fully ten minutes until Hill’s troops got out of the alley. This is a very narrow alley only fourteen feet wide. The mouth of the alley is about seventy yards from where stood the house in which Barbara Frietchie lived.
Before any of Stonewall Jackson’s troops reached the Frietchie home, Jackson who had been riding ahead, left his line at West Second Street and rode up to the Presbyterian parsonage, where Rev. Dr. Eoss resided, a two-story brick house which is still standing, and slipped a note addressed to them under the door. The following is a copy of the note:
“Regret not being permitted to see Dr. and Mrs. Eoss, but could not expect to have that pleasure at so unseasonable an hour.”
Sept. 10, 1862, 5:15 AM
T. J. JACKSON.
In a minute or two after Jackson’s men halted, all of a sudden great excitement burst forth near the end of the line, many of the Confederates becoming very angry. The report at once was passed along the line that an old lady was shaking a Yankee flag right into their faces. Order was soon re-stored however when the order came for them to march.
The old lady was Barbara Frietchie. The incident related to me by Mrs. John H. Abbott, her great niece, but a short time ago, is almost identically as she and a number of other intimate acquaintances of Barbara Frietchie’s gave it to me in July, 1886, nearly thirty-three years ago, and as Barbara herself related it to the niece of her husband, Caroline Ebert, more than fifty-six years ago.
As we mentioned, historians dispute the historical accuracy of the facts in Whittier’s poem. Writing in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” George O Seilheimer says it this way:
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 have 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 WendellBarbara Fitchie 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 he 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 borne 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….”
And writing to The Century magazine in the June 10, 1886 issue, Whittier himself says the following:
“The poem ‘Barbara Frietchie’ was written in good faith. The story was no invention of mine. It came 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.”
And so it remains, as it seems with all things concerning the Civil War, a subject of unending debate.