by Andy Turner
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that in the public’s eye, a good story outshines true history almost every time. Although many people, especially during the years they are sentenced to school, claim a dislike for history, everybody loves a good story. If they didn’t, gossip wouldn’t exist. But good stories aren’t always true stories.
If you’re like me, when you watch a good movie that is “based on a true story,” you take some time to look into the facts to learn more about the real story. It’s also interesting to see how accurately the makers of the movie portrayed the events. Sometimes they are very close, with just a few “adjustments” that are understandable to turn the story into an enjoyable movie. Other times the movie should say “very loosely based on a true story.”
It’s not just movies that take liberties with the truth. I have been interested in the Civil War since the third grade and one of the iconic photographs from the war that I found very moving was of the dead Confederate sharpshooter lying behind the wall of rocks he constructed in Devil’s Den at Gettysburg. The first time I visited the battlefield, as an eleven-year-old on a family vacation, it was one of the sites I had to see. It was a number of years later when I found out that the photograph was staged. Even though I was no longer a young child, it was a little devastating to learn that something that had been so moving to me was a fake.
Today’s article is about another historical “fake.” It was 150 years ago that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved north out of Virginia into Maryland. During the march, the Confederate soldiers marched through Frederick. An incident occurred there that would later become historically famous, thanks to poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
In October 1863 Whittier published a poem titled “Barbara Frietchie.” In the poem, Frietchie is a brave heroine who defies the famous Stonewall Jackson and his men. Marching by her house and seeing the Stars and Stripes flying, Jackson orders his men to take it down. Here is a portion of Whittier’s work:
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.
The poem makes for a good story and was well received. Here you have a brave woman defiantly standing up to the Rebel invaders, refusing to take down her flag. Add to that the fact that she is standing up to none other than Stonewall Jackson, and Whittier had the makings of a success. If only it were true!
The fact is, however, it was. Sort of. Whittier’s poem, in large part, describes an event that did take place. Barbara Frietchie, though, wasn’t the heroine involved. When the Confederates marched through Frederick, the route they took didn’t even lead past Frietchie’s house. The soldiers were on another street, three hundred yards away. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway as the 96-year-old was “bedridden and helpless, and had lost the power of locomotion,” according to her nephew.
It was, in fact, Mary Quantrell (or Quantrill) who stood and waved the flag as the troops marched past. She received threats from the passing soldiers, but refused to put down her flag. A Confederate officer rode up to her and demanded that she put away the flag. When she would not, he was apparently won over by her loyalty and bravery and stayed near, preventing anyone from stopping her. Once the officer left, a soldier reportedly ran his bayonet through the flag and pulled if from her grasp. The flag was replaced by a neighbor, but that too was soon taken.
Thus it was that the story occurred, but fact was soon overshadowed by a popular poem. Without the modern reporting of today’s world or the ability for almost anyone to make the public aware of a falsely reported story, even those who knew the truth were unable to overpower the well-received poem. The people who lived in Frederick knew the truth, as did others in the area. When Frank Leslie artist James E. Taylor passed through Frederick in 1864, he made a drawing of Barbara Frietchie and her house, but knew that wasn’t the real story. He also drew the house where Mary Quantrell waved her flag and made a drawing of the event itself, based on what he had learned.
Even that, though, could not shed light on the truth over Whittier’s poem. And that’s not the first time something like that has happened either. Just two years before Whittier’s poem was first printed, another poem was printed that caught the attention and imagination of the country. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” made a hero out of a man whose obituary didn’t even mention the event. Many people today know of Paul Revere and his actions to warn the colonists at Lexington and Concord that “The British are coming!” Most do not know of William Dawes or Samuel Prescott who made the ride as well. After leaving Lexington and heading towards Concord, the three men were stopped by British soldiers and only Dawes and Prescott escaped. Revere was captured and never made it to Concord that night.
It goes to show that an interesting story is what matters and most people don’t care to be bothered by the facts. A good example of the power of the story comes from 1943 when Winston Churchill passed through Frederick. He stopped at the Barbara Frietchie house and recited the poem from memory.
You just can’t beat a good story.