Famous Fredericktonian Barbara Fritchie

Posted in: Civil War History, Museums & Historic Sites, Historic Cities & Towns

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A rousing Civil War ballad penned by Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier in 1863 made Frederick resident Barbara Fritchie a well-known figure throughout the English-speaking world.

During the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Confederate troops marched through Downtown Frederick along West Patrick Street on their way to what would be known as the battles of South Mountain and Antietam.  Legend has it that Frederick native Barbara Fritchie, in her 90's, waved the Union flag out her window as the Confederate soldiers marched through town.

Whittier’s ballad, Barbara Frietchie, was originally published in the October 1863 issue of Atlantic magazine. The poem recounted how Fritchie was threatened by a Confederate soldier as she waved the flag, and defiantly retorted, "'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country's flag...'" The poem's popularity eventually bolstered Frederick's Fritchie to American heroine status.  It was this poem that also coined the popular phrase "clustered spires," used to this day to describe Frederick's skyline of church steeples and towers. 

Barbara Fritchie and the use of her name and image (real and imagined) was used to market consumer products from the 1920s through 2000. Whittier’s poem, a combination of actual events and "poetic license," was intended to rally the morale of Union sympathizers during the Civil War. After the war ended, little attention was paid to the poem or the alleged "event" described in it.

In 1927, local Frederick-area citizens created a partnership to rebuild Barbara Fritchie's house as a tourist attraction along the National Road. It was then that Barbara Fritchie took on another life. Souvenirs, businesses, events and consumer products, from women's hosiery to hams and candy, used Fritchie's name to capitalize on the patriotic popularity of the poem's heroine. She showed up in films, plays and music, often portrayed as a young lady instead of the elderly woman that she was in 1862. Barbara Fritchie is still widely recognized as a famous Fredericktonian.