Interesting Family Stories

In Frederick, MD, there is an interesting local historical character known as Barbara Fritchie who during the American Civil War, 1862, defied the Confederate soldiers as they marched into Frederick warning them not to touch the US flag that hung from her roof. She was a Unionist, in 1863 a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier stated Fritchie said to a Confederate general to “Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag.”

Waving the 50 stars along with the red and white stripes, whether at one’s house, business, car window or even as a tattoo on the arm has once again become a very visible way to exhibit one’s patriotism. In our contemporary times, we sometimes think we are the only ones who know how to display and if need be defend our flag. But the history of the United States is filled with innumerable true stories of private individuals more than willing to show their pride and preserve their country’s high flying symbol if it becomes necessary. One definite moment centered a couple years before Barbara Fritchie’s statement, around one Frederick citizen, Joseph Groff in 1861 while America was on the brink of war with itself.

Differences of opinion were especially felt within the states like Maryland that bordered the traditionally southern vs. northern states of the United States. Dissimilarity trickled down within every area of the state, to every city or town and even within individual households. Each side felt they were right and that all others should conform to their opinion.

One of Frederick’s entrepreneurs was Joseph Groff, originally from Pennsylvania. He had worked on canal boating in Harper’s Ferry, had stockyards and a hotel in Pennsylvania and built a store building in Frederick, which he now called his home. Joseph knew hardship and worked for everything he achieved. Being in the community of Frederick gave him, along with his wife and children, the feeling of stability and the opportunity to grow with this town.

One of his prized possessions was a large U. S. flag he had brought with him from Philadelphia. In early spring of 1861 to demonstrate his support of the Federal government he had an unwavering desire to exhibit his U. S. flag. But it was an enormous flag, easily 20 feet in length, but where to display it. Then he was struck with an idea. Why not sting it from the top of his store across the main street in the town to the other side and secure it to that building. This way all people, citizen or visitor could view the flag, as they came down the main thoroughfare in Frederick.

With the help of Joseph’s seventeen year old son, William, the U. S. flag was secured firmly to the buildings, safe from harsh wind or rainstorms. Joseph stepped back, then stood in the middle of the street and admired the immense red and white stripes and the cluster of 34 white stars on its blue background. He felt very elated and proud of his actions that day.

What Joseph did not count on was the reaction from a large number of secession supporters in Frederick. As word spread of the U.S. flag on display people left their homes and businesses to see it first hand. Added to the crowd were those in support of keeping the flag visible. A roar of hollers, shouts and arguments filled the air, each person trying to be louder than another to get his point across. Collectively there appeared more people in favor of removal of the flag but Joseph absolutely refused to have the flag touched by anyone.

Leaders within the secession crowd thought they had come up with a solution for the flag‘s removal. They shouted at Joseph that they would have Mr. Poffinberger, a large combatant gentlemen and supporter of secession, come immediately into town from his home on the outskirts of Frederick. With Poffinberger as their leader they would surely be able to rip the flag down and thrash Mr. Groff within an inch of his life. With such a threat, Joseph did not back down but instead drew closer to the angry crowd so they could see the fire in his eyes and hear his every word. Looking them all directly in the face, eye to eye, Joseph called out, “If any man took that flag down he would have me to whip first and if that man came in to do it, I would meet him.” With those remakes Joseph turned and walked into his store. The crowd retreated in various directions still talking among themselves.

Forty-year old Joseph waited and prepared himself to do battle if it became necessary. Hours blended into days and no Mr. Poffinberger came into town. No further crowds gathered to demonstrate against the placement of the U.S. flag. Joseph won out and the flag continued to wave between the two buildings. One man alone stood up for his beliefs and this large piece of cloth in spite of the threat of personal harm.

Joseph Groff was my 2nd great grandfather and I located the information on his defending the U. S. flag at his store before Fritchie. Check local hometown stories and maybe your ancestors were part or the inspiration for heroic events.

Photos: Barbara Fritchie defying the Confederates and Joseph Groff in 1890 – a Union veteran.

Related FamilyTree Blogs:

Stories of Coincidences

Find the Family Story

Preserving Family Stories

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