Dolly Harris, Greencastle’s Heroine
Frances M. Harris, daughter of a Greencastle cabinet maker, John Harris, was likely born about November 2, 1845. She lived with her family in a weatherboard house, on the lot just south of 45 North Carlisle Street, where the annex to the Susquehanna Bank (formerly the Citizens Bank) is now located. According to the 1858 and 1868 maps of Greencastle, the house set back a fair distance from the street, probably about 30 to 40 feet. This is in stark comparison to all the other houses and buildings of 1858 and 1868, and which, to this day, are still situated along the sidewalk.
As Frances grew up, family and friends nicknamed her Dolly. There are no known letters, journals, diaries, or other records of what her family life was like, but it was possibly very similar to that of their neighbors. Current events were probably discussed each day during the Civil War, perhaps around the dinner table, including topics printed in The Pilot. Maybe that’s why Dolly, at about the age of 17, was so impassioned and very brave; so passionate that she was empowered with the courage to express her feelings toward Gen. George E. Pickett and his men, as they marched through Greencastle in late June on the 26th and 27th, 1863.
It was about June 15, 1863, when Confederate Rebel troops, in mass, started to march across the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time and touched the homeland soil of citizens in Antrim Township and Greencastle. By the end of June, the citizens of Antrim and Greencastle had watched, from their farms, homes and the sidewalks, for days on end, as the Confederates made their way to Gettysburg. They marched; they rode horses; they drove wagons, all the while plundering food, supplies, livestock, and animal feed from township farms and homes and businesses in town. Could it be that Dolly was just plain infuriated with all the ravaging that had taken place over almost two weeks’ time? Or, was it a combination of both her patriotism and her anger that prompted her actions and the event, on the dirt road of North Carlisle Street?
As Pickett’s troops, preceded by the General and his staff, marched through town on North Carlisle Street, the following account was given in the Public Opinion newspaper’s obituary account for Dolly Harris. For whatever reason, only known to Dolly, herself, “Dolly Harris…rushed to the street in front of the leader of the southern band, waved the stars and stripes in his face and roundly denounced the troopers as traitors to their country, cut throats, and plunderers.” Aware that his men could very well retaliate physically, Pickett rose in his stirrups, removed his hat and saluted the courageous young lady and the flag, thereby quelling an uprising in the street. Following suit, Pickett’s men also saluted young Dolly, and as the division’s band passed by, it “serenaded” Dolly by playing Dixie.
It was more than 20 years later, at the Gettysburg Reunion in 1887, that the flag-waving girl incident was first mentioned in a speech made by Col. William Aylett, of Pickett’s division. Aylett said, “Why the bravest woman I ever saw was a Pennsylvania girl who defied Pickett’s whole division as we marched through the little town called Greencastle. She had a United States flag as an apron which she defiantly waved up and down as our columns passed by her and dared us to take it from her.”
At this point, the Harrisburg Telegram picked up on Aylett’s story. The assigned reporter was to investigate and find out who this young girl was. The reporter tracked down Robert E. Garrett of Baltimore, who during the Civil War was an officer in the Fourth Alabama regiment, which was part of Pickett’s division. He remembered the flag-waving girl as “dark haired with a dark complexion.” Garrett was even able to identify her home on North Carlisle Street.
John Boyd was a southern friend of the Harris family; and during the Northern invasion, he was a member of Company K of the Fifty-Seventh Virginia Volunteers. Receiving permission from his commander, General Armistead, Boyd left camp (which was south of town) to visit the Harrises overnight, and then joined his unit the next morning. The Harrisburg Telegram’s reporter didn’t just talk to Boyd, but interviewed him under the circumstances of an affidavit, dated September 17, 1887. Before he rejoined Company K the next day, Boyd remembered the following: “An earlier officer had told her (Dolly) to take off the flag apron. Dolly replied, ‘Not for you or any of your men.’ He raised his hat and passed on.” Boyd continued, “The next I remember well was General Pickett and his staff. As they passed, Dolly waved the stars and stripes at them. General Pickett saluted her and the boys all along the line gave her one of the old rebel yells.”
The Harrisburg Telegram did not stop there. Two more affidavits were acquired in September 1887 – one from Dolly’s mother and one from Dolly herself. Both of their accounts agreed with that of Col. Aylett and John Boyd’s.
Controversy arose when, in the October 15, 1891 issue of Greencastle’s Valley Echo, Charles W. Gaff, editor, published an account of the flag-waving girl incident. In both the article and a poem, he identified the girl not as Dolly Harris but as Sadie Smith, a girl who lived about one block north of Dolly Harris on North Carlisle Street. However, the preponderance of evidence gathered by the Harrisburg Telegram, leads one to conclude that Dolly Harris was, indeed, the flag-waving girl on that late June day in 1863.
To be taken into consideration is the posthumous publication of the personal letters written during the war by Pickett to his beloved fiancée, LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell, who he later married. Contradicting the printed content of the letters, though, is the Pickett Society, which takes great exception to the letters, claiming that Sallie embellished the letters before giving them to Samuel S. McClure, who secured the rights from Sallie, to publish the letters in his magazine, McClure’s Magazine, beginning in 1893. The society has long questioned whether the incident ever happened. Did she run out on her porch or to the sidewalk? It is only in Pickett’s letter that it is mentioned that Dolly ran out onto the porch of her “vine bowered” home to wave the flag.
One needs to look at all the claims and sort out the discrepancies. How many individual accounts are consistent with each other? How many are not?
The Dolly Harris incident inspired a number of published poems, well into the first three decades of the 20th century. Some of the authors include: Charles W. Gaff, editor of the Valley Echo, who believed the girl was actually Sadie Smith; Helen Gray Cone, a professor of literature at Hunter College; W. W. Jacobs of Waynesboro; J. Howard West; George W. Keetoman, Highfield, Md., known as the South Mountain Bard; and Moody Rock, a well-known teacher in Montgomery Township.
Besides the Harrisburg Telegram, the Dolly Harris and Gen. George Pickett incident was also written about in Greencastle and Chambersburg newspapers, the New York Times, and the Cosmopolitan and Confederate Veteran.
Dolly married John R. Lesher, a Civil War veteran and GAR member. She and her husband lived in Waynesboro, where they raised four sons and two daughters. In her adult years, Frances’ nickname was Fannie(y). In about 1898, the Leshers moved to Chambersburg.
Frances “Dolly” Harris Lesher died suddenly on Saturday, February 17, 1906 of a heart attack, while helping Mrs. Simon at her ice cream parlor on Memorial Square in Chambersburg. She was a member of the Methodist church and was buried* on February 19, 1906, with full military honors, in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Chambersburg. The military ceremony was led by the officers of Chambersburg’s Col. Peter B. Housum Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. Dolly Harris is the only woman from Franklin County who was considered to be a Civil War heroine and was the only woman buried with military honors!
Researched and compiled by
1. When War Passed This Way, William P. Conrad and Ted Alexander, White Mane Publishing Co., Inc., 1987 (second printing)
2. Greencastle 1858 and 1868 maps
3. From Richard “Dick” Lesher,
great-grandson of Dolly Harris Lesher.
Although there are no existing
personal letters or diaries written by Dolly about the incident or any other
handwritten family records, one part of the Lesher family oral history, says
that Dolly concealed a dagger under the flag.
* According to the Cedar Grove Cemetery’s records, Dolly Harris Lesher was buried on February 19, 1906. Contradicting that is the Public Opinion’s obituary notice and the follow-up article, which indicate that she was buried on either February 20 or 21, 1906.