John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie"

Updated on May 19, 2016
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Greenleaf Whittier



The speaker in Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie" offers a tribute to the patriotism of an elderly woman.

John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie," a twenty couplet narrative poem, is based on a legend that made its rounds during and after the Civil War. Differing accounts exist regarding the facts of Mrs. Frietchie's action.

About the genesis of the poem, Whittier has explained that he did not create the story; he had read it in reports from newspapers that he considered trustworthy sources. He also says that the story had been widely spread throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., long before he penned his poem about it.

First Movement: "Up from the meadows rich with corn"
The speaker describes a beautiful cool September morning with "meadows rich with corn" surrounding the "clustered spires of Frederick," a Maryland town that would soon be invaded by troops of the rebel army of General Robert E. Lee, led by General Stonewall Jackson.

Forty Confederate troops came marching into town when apples and pears were hanging full in the fruit trees. The rebels were hungry, and they came to acquire food for their starving warriors. The Confederates invaded with their flags proudly displayed, but by noon they had pulled down their banners.

Second Movement: "Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then"
Barbara Frietchie was a ninety-year old patriot of the Union. She recovered the flag of the Union which had been brought down by the Confederates. Frietchie supposedly displayed the flag in the window of her attic for all to see. She especially wanted the invading throng of rebels to see that the town had at least one patriot still loyal to the Union cause.

As the forty troops were marching past Barbara Frietchie's house, Stonewall Jackson got a glimpse of that flag, and thus he commanded his soldiers to fire at the banner.

Third Movement: "Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff"
But Barbara Frietchie grabbed the banner, leaned out the window, and yelled at the troops to shoot her if they felt they had to, but she commanded them not to shoot the flag, which she called, "your country's flag." Barbara Frietchie was professing her loyalty to her country and also insisted that that same country still belonged even to the misguided rebels.

Stonewall Jackson's reaction demonstrates that in his heart he felt the old woman was correct; the general's face took on a "blush of shame" and a "shade of sadness." His natural nobility was moved to reveal itself at the "woman's deed and word," and the leader barked the command, "Who touches a hair of yon gray head / Dies like a dog! March on!"

Fourth Movement: "All day long through Frederick street"
As the soldiers marched through the streets of Frederick, Barbara Frietchie's flag continued to remain visible over the heads of the rebel host. They obeyed Jackson's order not to assault the old woman and her flag, which remained safe well into the night.

Fifth Movement: "Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er"
In the final movement of Whittier's poem, a tribute to Barbara's patriotism is offered, as well as to General Jackson's brave ability to appreciate and accept the ninety-year-old patriot's loyal sentiments toward her country.

The speaker describes a peaceful town with the war long over. The flag that Barbara Frietchie loved and honored now stands over her grave, and

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law.
The heavenly stars look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Barbara Frietchie and the Frederick, Maryland, town patriots have become stars themselves for their brave patriotism.

Reading of John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie"

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    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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