“But spare your country’s flag”

The replica of Barbara Fritchie’s house in Frederick, Maryland is just 45 minutes from mine. Yet I had never visited it until this weekend. If you’re in the area, it’s worth the trip.

Fritchie’s story is well known, I think, to anyone who attended school in my era. I suspect, however, that students of more recent vintage know nothing about it. Stories of patriotism are so passe.

In 1862, Confederate troops marching through Frederick passed the house of 95 year-old Barbara Fritchie. The widow proudly displayed her American flag from an upstairs window (or was it her doorway?). A rebel soldier fired at her flag (or did he just threaten to?).

In response, Fritchie (or was it her much younger neighbor Mary Quantrell?) shouted at the troops. “Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag,” is the line with which she is credited. Whereupon the rebel commander (was it Stonewall Jackson?) is said to have threatened to kill anyone who harmed Fritchie or her flag.

A few months later, when he heard this story, the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized it in the poem “Barbara Fritchie.” He took advantage of poetic license. Just how much, we do not know.

The poem was taught to school children for at least a century, and not just in this country. British school children memorized it. Indeed, Winston Churchill recited it to President Roosevelt when the two visited the Fritchie house during World War II.

There is, actually, a British connection to Fritchie. Barbara’s husband John Fritchie was the son of a “Tory” — an American supporter of Great Britain during the Revolution. Frederick residents executed Fritchie’s father, who may or may not have engaged in some form of treachery.

Barbara’s family took pity on the son and hired him to help around the inn they ran. Eventually, Barbara, who was considerably older than John, married him.

Thus did the Fritchie name, once tarnished, become synonymous with gutsy American patriotism.