‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,

But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.

— “The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie,”

by John Greenleaf Whittier

Barbara Fritchie was a Unionist during the Civil War. (Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland)

Alas, one of my childhood heroines turns out to be a sham. Although gray-headed Barbara Fritchie did in fact live in Frederick when Confederate troops marched through town en route to their historic defeat at Antietam 150 years ago, she was not the one who defiantly displayed the Union flag as legend recalls.

The brave flag-waver was instead a neighbor named Mary Quantrell, according to witnesses’ accounts and news reports from the era. But virtually no one remembers Quantrell because Fritchie was the one immortalized a year after the event in a propagandistic Civil War poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Despite its illegitimacy, the Fritchie story offers intriguing insights into how historical myths arise and are exploited for status and profit. A reconstruction of Fritchie’s house is still one of Frederick’s top tourist draws, even though city officials are careful to describe her celebrated act on Sept. 10, 1862, as “alleged.”

The ballad of Frederick’s best-known citizen delighted me when I encountered it in school, and I am not alone. Winston Churchill surprised his host, Franklin Roosevelt, by reciting its 60 lines from memory on a visit to Frederick in 1943.

I took pride that a fellow Marylander had been stoutly pro-Union and stood up to famed rebel general Stonewall Jackson. The poem says Fritchie, 95, shamed Jackson into leaving her and the flag alone.

Now I learn that Fritchie’s fame sprang from poetic license run amok. This emerged when I researched the tale in advance of Monday’s anniversary of Antietam, the crucial battle that prompted Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Quantrell, in her late 30s, held up the Stars and Stripes on her porch while Confederate soldiers tramped down Patrick Street, according to seven witnesses cited in a book by a Frederick resident who respected Fritchie but wanted to get the story right.

Quantrell had a verbal altercation with a Confederate officer, who was probably Gen. A.P. Hill rather than the better-known Jackson.

No firsthand account speaks of Fritchie displaying the flag or even being seen in public that day. Professional historians have long dismissed the story.

Whittier was apparently misled by thirdhand information he received from a fellow writer in Washington. When Quantrell died in 1879, both major Frederick newspapers identified her as the genuine inspiration for the ballad.

“Both women were real-life residents of Frederick, but when it comes to Whittier’s poem, Mary Quantrell was the real-life heroine,” said Christopher Haugh, a Frederick County tourism official who has been researching the matter for six years.

Whittier’s papers at Swarthmore College include an 1876 letter from Quantrell pleading with him to correct the record. Directly beneath her signature, she identified herself, in quotes, as “Barbara.”

Disputes about the poem’s veracity arose almost immediately after it was published.

Neither Fritchie nor Gen. Jackson was available to comment, as both had died before the ballad appeared.

Fritchie’s stardom was preserved partly because her nieces and other descendants labored for decades to promote her reputation and protect the family name. They led a campaign that erected a memorial to her in 1914 over objections that it honored a woman for something she never did.

Fritchie was the subject of a song, a Broadway play and three silent films. A motorcycle race and horse race are named for her.

The Fritchie fable has long been one of Frederick’s most reliable moneymakers. Local merchants have used her name and image since the early 1900s to attract tourists and sell local products, including women’s stockings, hams and canned vegetables. I remember eating Barbara Fritchie chocolates as a child after touring the house.

“Her name was merchandising gold,” said Carrie Blough, curator of the Historical Society of Frederick County. She organized a current exhibition of Fritchie products and memorabilia.

Nobody has put Mary Quantrell’s name on a can of peas. Her grave, which tourism official Haugh intrepidly located in Glenwood Cemetery off North Capitol Street in Northeast, bears no mention of her feat.

“I hope at some point I can get some marker or plaque. I feel some bonding with this poor Mary Quantrell,” Haugh said.

I’d donate a few bucks to that cause. If we still thrill to an act of patriotic courage a century and half after the fact, we ought to honor the individual who actually did the deed.

The exhibition “The Fritchie Phenomenon: Barbara Fritchie in Popular Culture,” runs through Dec. 31 at the Museum of Frederick County History. For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.