America experienced what has been called a “literary flowering” in the middle of the nineteenth century. More particularly, it was a New England literary flowering, and most of the authors were poets. With grand sounding names such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, they came in time to be called “the Schoolroom Poets.” Longfellow was the dominant figure and one of the few poets ever to earn a living from writing verse.
The poetry they wrote, which is often ignored or derided in modern times, was a poetry of affirmation. It was elegant, ordered, and reflective of the best of human nature and action. It was to be read in the schoolrooms, by the hearth, or under the shade of the trees. It was didactic, often sentimental, understandable, and sometimes patriotic. English poet Percy Bysshe Shelly famously said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but the Schoolroom Poets did not often go against the grain, push the envelope, or shock the senses. (That would happen after Walt Whitman intruded his style upon the poets’ stage.)
The Civil War created a challenge to the New England poets’ world of patriotism, community, and romantic certainties. As with the war itself, the tensions began long before the shooting started. Slavery, largely unknown in New England, grated against the humanitarian impulses of the New England poets. Some, like Emerson, were emboldened to give support to such anti-slavery activists as John Brown. Most preferred to write against the South’s peculiar institution on occasion and to oppose such acts as the Compromise of 1850.
The South had its own literary contributions, including Edgar Allen Poe, whose poetry, short stories, and literary criticism rank him far above the simple teller of macabre tales. There was also Simms and others, but the South paled behind the North in the attention and acclaim of the literary elite, often called the Brahmins, of New England.
Among the New Englanders was another poet with a different angle on life. He was John Greenleaf Whittier, bearing yet another grand multi-syllabic name. Whereas the other poets combined a bit of old-fashioned New England Yankee Congregationalism watered down by Unitarian and Transcendental impulses, Whittier was a Quaker. His faith in both his own creed and humanity was embodied in his verse. He could be harsh, as he was in his criticism of Senator Daniel Webster in the poem “Ichabod,” but he generally traded in wordsmith-ery that gently evoked pleasant memories of snow storms or the sentimental sadness of bees signaling death.
Among his poems, one of the best remembered—to the extent that memorization of poetry still exists—is “Barbara Fritchie.” When Winston Churchill visited Frederick, Maryland, with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943, he quoted the poem. It tells a story set in Frederick during the Civil War and involves a confrontation of a single elderly lady against the Confederate army over the issue of the American flag which she was flying.
The historical context was the foray that the Army of Northern Virginia took to Maryland in 1862. Lee’s goal was to take pressure off the embattled northern regions of Virginia and to possibly rally the slave state of Maryland to embrace the Confederacy either politically or with volunteers for the army.
That invasion will turn out to be a short term setback for the Confederate Army—disaster is the better term—and a long term psychological victory for the North that paved the way for President Lincoln’s issuing the Gettysburg Address.
At the time, neither result was certain or predictable. The Confederates had successfully routed the Union army on several previous occasions, and Lincoln was frantically searching for a general who could stand up to Lee. The invasion resulted in Gen. George McClellan’s taking the reins of military power again. With the discovery of Lee’s battle formations and the locations of his dispersed corps, McClellan had the perfect opportunity to pounce fast and possibly end the war in 1862 (and pave the way for his victory in the Presidential election of 1864).
But the battle of Sharpsburg—or Antietam, as it is often known, and the bloodiest single day in American history—was the subject for historians. John Greenleaf Whittier picked up a bit of lore, rumor, and fancy from unsecured sources and wrote one of the great poems about the war.
The poem “Barbara Frietchie” embodies many of the most accepted themes of the war. It captured something of the essential conflict, the character of an old patriot, the code of honor that bound both Northern and Southern soldiers, and the central symbol of the war—the flag.
As the poem opens, the Confederate army is marching past the “meadows rich with corn” toward the city of Frederick, Maryland. With the approach of the Confederate army, the citizens of Frederick, perhaps out of fear or perhaps in sympathy to the Confederates, take down their flags. While men had taken the flags down, Barbara Frietchie, “bowed with her fourscore years and ten,” goes up to her top window and hangs her American flag “to show that one heart was loyal yet.”
At that point, General Stonewall Jackson with “his slouched hat” rides up and notices the flag. He orders his troops to fire on the flag, leaving it torn and broken from the staff. Before it falls, however, Barbara Frietchie grabs it up, shakes it at the soldiers and utters the most famous phrase in the poem, “‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,/But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.”
One feels the tension of the moment in this confrontation. It is akin to the famous scene of the lone Chinese student who stood in front of the tanks at Tienamin Square in the late 1980’s. Jackson, however, is moved by the event.
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;
Old Stonewall then issues an order:
“Who touches a hair on yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!,” he said.
The old flag continues waving as the Confederate troops march on through the town. Whittier ends the poem with a call for the “Flag of Freedom and Union” to wave over Barbara Frietchie’s grave signaling “peace and order and beauty.”
The whole poem captures the patriotic spirit of those who did not want to see the Union divided. At the same time, it honors the code of those like General Jackson who still had an abiding sense of respect to the Union he served for the greater part of his career and of the respect due to women. It was, in every sense, a great representation of the poetry of affirmation.
The only problem with the poem—if it actually is a problem—is that the event apparently never happened. When Whittier wrote the poem in 1863, both Frietchie and Jackson were dead. According to the recollections of Jackson’s staff, he never was in Frederick on that day. Frietchie, at age ninety, was quite sick at the time, and possibly there was a different woman, named Mary Quantrell, who confronted a different Confederate officer over the flag issue.
Whether Whittier would have been concerned about the facts of the case or not is not known. The story embodied something he wanted to tell. In doing so, he created a heroine—mythical perhaps—who reinforced the best of human nature: conviction, nobility, and loyalty. To this day, Barbara Frietchie is celebrated in Frederick, Maryland, with horse and motorcycle races, hams, canned vegetables, and chocolates named after her. Poor Mary Quantrell, like many other unsung heroes and heroines, is meanwhile mostly forgotten.
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