“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.
by John Greenleaf Whittier
The voice of my grandmother fills my head, accompanied by visions of ‘soldier’ children marching around the kitchen table, broomsticks over their shoulders.
I’m not sure if this is an actual memory of my older brothers wielding the broomsticks, or if it is the memory of a story told. The story would have been of earlier times and the children, my Dad, my uncles, and their cousin.
No matter which is true, it is still Nanna, Olive Willis, that I see. Her thin frame is rock-steady, and her strong, determined voice declares “Dies like a dog! March on!”, followed by the barely-whispered “he said.”
And it was Nanna who was Barbara Frietchie, the one who dared to stand at her window in the Maryland town of Frederick and wave the Union flag at ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and his Confederate troops.
Olive Ann Willis was born 17th March—St Paddy’s Day—1896. It was as a young teen in the town of Boulder, on the goldfields of Western Australia, that her talent as an elocutionist came to the fore. She won several gold medals for her efforts in Recitation at the Boulder eisteddfods and competitions.
You can read the whole poem of Barbra Frietchie here. There has been much debate whether Barbara Frietchie did actually do what Whittier wrote about – perhaps a blog post for one of her descendants.
I have more to add to this story. I was contacted by Olive’s niece who shared some more stories with me. Olly (as she was known) taught her sister Dulcie, 12 years her junior, some elocution.
Dulcie also won prizes at the eisteddfod. One time, Dulcie won 1st prize at a Christmas fete (fair) for her recitation of “Little Orphan Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley. Afterwards, she found her father at one of the local hotels. He was so pleased with the win, he lifted Dulcie up onto the bar, where she marched up and down the length of it while reciting the poem.
Advertising (1908, April 8). Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1950), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article96578106
The Boulder Eisteddfod. (1910, May 31). Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA : 1896 – 1916), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article33366858
The Boulder Eisteddfod. (1910, May 31). Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA :1896 – 1916), p. 14. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article33366923