In American history classes in high school we learned of the story of a woman who insisted on waving her country’s flag during the Civil War even as a Confederate general was leading his troops in retreat through the town of Frederick, Maryland and back into northern Virginia. We knew her name to be Barbra Fritchie, but several other spellings were used, including Frietchie and Frietschie.
At that time, Miz Fritchie was ninety years old, and although she occasionally cheered on Union Army troops, it may have been a woman in nearby Middletown who actually waved the flag in this particular incident as Confederate soldiers passed by.
To add to the confusion, John Greenleaf Whittier had only heard of this incident through other reports and constructed his narrative from a distance. Although Lee is mentioned early in the poem, it was Stonewall Jackson who was actually leading Lee’s army. Flags may have also been waved at A. P. Hill and Ambrose Burnside as their armies passed through this area during those times. Be that as it may, Whittier’s poem honoring Barbara Frietchie became a tribute to the local community in Frederick as well as an inspiration to abolitionists across the land.
In more recent times, several contemporary artists have taken up this theme: weaving and waving the American flag in and out of their work. It is not just a gimmick, and it does eliminate some of the clichés that surround the use of the American flag. These pieces re-establish some of the flag’s symbolic potential and point to the irony that its use implies in these current times. Three such artists are: Sonya Clark, Donald Lipski, and Thornton Dial. The descriptions written concerning these pieces, as well as the artists’ own statements provide lyrical interpretations regarding this work.
Discussing the process of un-weaving, combining and re-weaving certain flags for an exhibition at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles in 2020, Sonya Clark stated: “We are at a chapter in our history that once again acknowledges how racial injustice is deeply woven into the fabric of this nation. We are at a turning point. We must unravel those strands of injustice.”[ii]
In an essay accompanying a Donald Lipski exhibition at the Fabric Workshop in 1991, the poet and critic John Yau observed: “In his most recent work—Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?—Lipski continues to apply a wide range of specific, usually repetitive processes, to the American flag. In ‘Flag balls,’ with the help of others, he rolled thousands of yards of continuously printed flag material into giant spheres. In doing so, he extends the process in which a flag achieves a greater dimension, reminding viewers that we are all part of a larger pattern.”[iii]
And last, but not least, there is the very title that Thornton Dial chose for the piece included in his exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2003. It beautifully summarizes and states the purpose of his work: “Don’t matter how raggly the flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together.”
So here is the entire poem, written by John Greenleaf Whittier, on the flag waving done by Miz Barbara Fritchie during the Civil War, interspersed with examples of these three contemporary American artists.
“Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
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.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!”[iv]
[i] Brockett, L. P. and Mary C. Vaughan; Woman’s Work in the Civil War: a Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience; Zeigler, McCurdy & Co.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1867; p. 10.
[ii] Clark, Sonya; From the artist’s statement for the “Democracy 2020 Exhibition: Craft & the Election;” Craft in America Center; Los Angeles, California; 2020.
[iii] Stroud, Marion Boulton, et al; Donald Lipski: Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?; The Fabric Workshop; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1991; Unpagenated.
[iv] Whittier, John Greenleaf; “Barbara Frietchie;” The Atlantic Monthly; Boston, Massachusetts; October 1863.