An old memory of Old Glory

(Note: Most of this blog appeared as a a column in Greater Pittston Progress on June 14, 2015.)

I don’t recall how I knew of the John Greenleaf Whittier poem Barbara Frietchie in June of 1967, after all there was no such thing as Google then, but I do recall using its two most memorable lines in my graduation speech:
“Shoot if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
My speech, titled “Let Freedom Ring,” was about Patriotism. I delivered it at the Masonic Temple (now Scranton Cultural Center) in Scranton 50 years ago today.
This was two years before Woodstock and three years before Kent State. Our parents, many of whom had stormed the beaches at Normandy, or, as did my dad, fought from island to island in the Pacific, had instilled in us a love of country. And that included a love and respect for the American flag.
I’m sure I found Barbara Frietchie back then during hours and hours of library research. I accessed the entire poem on the web in a matter of seconds last Monday, along with a good amount of interesting ancillary information not the least of which was a revelation that the famous poem honored the wrong person.
Whittier’s words immortalize Barbara Frietchie for, at 95 years old, waving the Union flag in the face of Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops as they march through Frederick, Maryland, in 1862 on their way to Antietam.
The story goes that the flag had been riddled with bullets and lay on the ground. The elderly Barbara Frietchie scooped it up, and, in Whittier’s words:
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.
I got chills reading that.
And when I learned that Winston Churchill, when traveling through Maryland in 1943 and seeing the signs for Frederick, recited the entire Whittier poem from memory, well, it was almost more than I could bear.
Then I found out researchers have proven it was not Barbara Frietchie at all, but a woman named Mary Quantrell who waved the flag at the Confederates that day. And, for the record, not Stonewall Jackson she waved it at either.
Oh, well.
But my search for background on Barbara Frietchie did lead me to a neat little tidbit that fanned my Patriotic embers. While Flag Day, which we note today, June 14, is not an official federal holiday, Pennsylvania was the first state to make it a state holiday. That was on June 14, 1937. I like that.
Since my dad died 23 years ago, the flag has become a connection to him. Every time I hear the National Anthem, I stare at the flag and let my dad come to mind. I do not try to control my thoughts. I let it up to him. Sometimes he is a little farm boy romping through the fields of White Haven, a happy-go-lucky dog at his side. Sometimes he is the beloved Pop Pop in a plaid flannel shirt playing checkers, and cheating mind you, with my son or daughter. And sometimes he is a 19-year-old soldier with tears in his eyes trying to get some sleep on a rain-soaked muddy patch of some God forsaken Pacific isle knowing another day of battle lay ahead.
I had my dad in mind as I wrote and delivered that graduation speech in ’67. I’m glad he was in the audience to hear it. I knew it would make him proud of me. But not half as proud as I’ve always been of him.

Ed Ackerman