previous next

Returning Confederate flags.

John Lamb.

On April 30th, 1887, R. C. Drum, Adjutant General, addressed a letter to Hon. William C. Endicott, then Secretary of War, calling attention to the fact that a number of Confederate flags, which the fortunes of war had placed in the hands of the government at Washington, were stored in the War Department.

He suggested in an able letter the propriety of returning to the regular constituted authorities of the respective States the flags that were borne by the organizations formed in their territory.

On June 7th, 1887, the Adjutant General having been instructed by the Secretary of War, through the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, made a tender of these flags to the Governors of the respective States.

On June 16th, 1887, before sufficient time had elapsed for carrying out the order, the President revoked his approval of the suggestion of the Adjutant General, and directed that no further action be taken until the Congress should make final disposition of these flags.

No further steps were taken until February, 1905, when a Virginia member of Congress offered a joint resolution to return these flags. He secured a hearing from the Committee on Military Affairs and presented the matter in a short address, at the conclusion of which Mr. Capron, of Rhode Island, a Grand Army man, offered a resolution that the Committee report the resolution favorably. It was passed without a dissenting vote and Mr. Capron was directed to make a report to the House.

The Speaker was seen and consented at once to recognize a member with a view to calling up the measure. When he did so the Virginia member happened to be absent and Mr. Capron was recognized. He asked that the resolution be passed and there was not a dissenting vote.

The work had been quietly done by sounding the views of the members and the few objectors had been silenced by the overwhelming sentiment in its favor. In a day or two the resolution went through the Senate without objection, thus becoming a law as soon [301] as signed by the President, which he did without hesitation or delay.

In obedience to this law, the Secretary of War returned to the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia sixty-two flags that had been captured during the war, or at the surrender of our army at Appomattox.

This action on the part of the United States marks an epoch in American history; for it most certainly indicates a change of sentiment in the North and West. It is no secret that the action of the government in failing to carry out the order made in 1887 was due to a popular demand, voiced in great part by the Grand Army of the Republic, that these flags should not be returned. The members of this organization were approached in 1905, and those high in authority expressed themselves in approval, saying the time had come for the return of these ensigns. The war with Spain had been fought. The sons of men who wore the blue and the sons of men who wore the gray, had marched shoulder to shoulder in a conflict which, however unfortunate, had gone far to unite the two sections. Officers who had served with distinction on the side of the South for four years had cheerfully answered the call to arms and participated in the short struggle with old Spain. The names of Fitz Lee and Wheeler had become as familiar to the minds of men as those of Miles and Shafter.

Public opinion had been silently moulded by English and Southern writers. The word ‘rebel’ had been changed in histories and essays for the more euphonious term ‘Confederate.’ The houses of York and Lancaster in the New World were drifting close together through the logic of events. The time was ripe and the appeal was answered gracefully. The report of the House Committee said in part:

Thus it will appear that the administration in 1887 advised the return of these flags to the properly constituted authorities of the States, and that former Secretaries of War had before that time returned 44 of these flags and that most likely all would have been returned but for the fact that the Adjutant General in 1887 called attention to the matter and the President decided that final disposishould originate with Congress.

The reasons given for this action in 1887 apply with more force to-day. Nearly twenty years have passed since that time. The [302] loyalty of the Southern States is nowhere questioned. The sons of the men who carried many of these flags have entered the army of the United States and helped to fight its battles. Organizations of men who wore the blue as well as men who wore the gray, will be glad to have again in their keeping the ensigns under which they marched to victory or defeat. We think it will be a graceful act of the Congress to return these flags to the respective States, and we feel assured that it will tend to produce still more kindly feelings between the sections of our reunited country.

The Committee on Military Affairs are unanimous in recommending that the resolution be adopted.

The return of these flags sent a thrill of joy through the whole South. This feeling was voiced through the press, through the action of Confederate Camps, and through private letters. Many of these reached the representative who prepared and offered the resolution and will be preserved and handed down to his children's children.

The Southern States to-day hold no relics more precious to the gray-haired veterans than those shot-riddled, shell-torn, bloodstained banners which they followed through raining bullets and thundering cannon. No feature of this reunion brings such bitter, yet sweet memories, as does the sight of these flags waving beneath Southern skies once more.

The flag of the Stonewall Brigade, which accompanied these flags, was graciously sent by the Governor of this State to the command in Jefferson and Berkeley counties—the Alsace and Lorraine of the New World. You should have seen the survivors of that immortal band as they gathered around the stand at Shepherdstown, and with tears streaming down their cheeks, strain their eyes to behold again on that flag the name of Cross Keys and Port Republic and Winchester and Manassas and Cold Harbor and Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Then you should have seen the three thousand of another generation and heard the shouts of joy that rent the air as they pressed to the front and each side of the Grand stand to look upon the blood-stained banner under which their fathers had marched to victory or died in defending. Had you been at Louisville you would have seen a delegation of those old heroes carefully guarding that banner and showing it with pride and exultation to the members of our western army, who as they passed uncovered, said: [303]

Boys; there's Stonewall Jackson's old flag. Don't you wish God had spared him to be with his men at Gettysburg?

Could these battered and torn and soiled banners speak to us to-night, what a story of sacrifice and suffering and anguish and bloodshed and death would they unfold? It does not take much stress of the imagination for these old soldiers to interpret the silent story they tell. They represent over fifty organizations of Virginia troops. Some saw first Manassas and heard the shouts of the victors on that historic field. Others waved along the ramparts at Yorktown and saluted John Bankhead Magruder as he passed over the sacred soil on which the Father of his country won American Independence. Others were borne in triumph at Gaines' Mill and Cold Harbor; at Savage Station and Frasier's Farm, or went down amidst carnage and death on Malverns' blood-stained hill. Others passed from hand to hand at Slaughter's Mountain, until the field was red with blood and the Thirteenth Virginia led by gallant James A. Walker saved the day.

Some were borne in triumph at Groveton, where the genius of Jackson made sure a great victory. Some others were gathered by the foe on the heights of Gettysburg, because Jackson was not there to put in the last brigade as he had done at Groveton. Others were carried over with Johnson's men at the Bloody Angle, the artillery having been withdrawn and the position exposed.

These ensigns might tell a pathetic story of beleaguered Petersburg; a story of hardships cheerfully borne, of heroic deeds unsurpassed in the annals of war; of poor fare and grim want; alas, of some desertions too, when soldiers saw the end had come, and wives and children were without food at home!

These old flags refuse to dwell on the scenes at Five Forks and Sailor's Creek. At the latter place a number of them fell into the hands of the Federals. We were passing the brook ‘Cedron’ to our ‘Gethsemane.’ Brave men wept like children bereft of their mothers. Virginia was in ashes; every landscape marred by ruins; every breath of air a lament, and every home a house of mourning. When the last command to ‘stack arms’ came to that ragged starving army many soldiers tore the ensigns from their staffs and concealed them in their bosoms. These are sometimes seen at reunions and Camp Fires. The flag of the eighth Alabama Regiment, and the second company of Richmond Howitzers was cut into small pieces and distributed among the men. [304]

These flags will revive many a thrilling story in the minds of old soldiers, who, around the firesides of our Southland, will relate how they served as the rallying point for broken and scattered commands, and often were saved from capture by daring color bearers, who one after another fell in the attempt to save from capture the banners that had been presented by the fair women of the South, with the injunction, that living, they would defend them, or dying, make them winding sheets to wrap them for immortality.

Many of the flags were captured after hard fought battles. Some had never waived over battlefields, but were stored away and taken by the enemy. Single companies were not permitted to carry flags. Each flag, however, represents a sentiment and has a history. They represent the patriotism and affection of our glorious Southern women who sent forth their sons to battle, with the Roman matron's injunction, and gave the parting kiss to loved ones whom they cheerfully assigned to their country's call.

From the daughters of these women have come the strongest and most touching letters that have reached the representative who introduced in Congress the resolution that returned these flags. These will be kept as rich souvenirs and left to posterity that they may help to teach the lessons of reverence for the devotion and sacrifice of our Southern men and women.

Several of these ensigns were captured from the cavalry arm of our service. These men have waited patiently for forty years before having ample justice done to their heroism and valor. The English historians are telling the story of their deeds and giving them full credit for their sacrifices. From the frozen shores of the Baltic to the Isles of Greece. ‘The Isles of Greece—where burning Sappho loved and sung.’ All Europe is delighting to honor their chivalric souls and measure their manhood by those of her heroic slain. Scotland names them with those who fell at Bannockburn; England recognizes them in the spirit of Balaklava; and France counts them worthy to descend to posterity with those of her own Imperial Guard.

The best made and preserved flag here belongs to the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues. On it is inscribed the battles through which that splendid command passed. Their organization is still preserved. The sons of those gallant soldiers revere the memories and glory in the deeds of their heroic sires. This flag will some day pass into the keeping of the command that bore it so gallantly [305] through the war, and be exhibited on every Memorial day when the citizens of the ‘twin cities by the sea’ pay their annual tribute to the memory of their dead.

Many of these flags will be recognized by the old soldiers who marched under them to victory or defeat. They will recall many sleeping recollections of the past; around many of which memory lingers.

No more with gallant spreading folds
     And colors fresh and bright:
They fling their gleaming stars and bars
     Triumphant to the light.

But slowly, round their broken staff
     They droop in faded fold:
Their service o'er, their duty done,
     Their wondrous story told.

These furled and silent banners stir
     No sad regret and pain,
For we read their fairest history
     In the story of their fame.

Virginia's part in the conflict that began so auspiciously and ended so disastrously on her soil, will be told by two other Virginians, who are to participate in these interesting exercises. One, a former Governor of this Commonwealth, a soldier in the war between the States and a resident of this city, is well equipped for his task. The other, so well known and loved in this Common—wealthher able chief magistrate—and one of her finest orators, will receive these emblems on behalf of the State he loves so well and serves so faithfully.

The pleasing task assigned me has been performed in a spirit of veneration for the past, of gratitude for the present, and an abiding faith in the future of this noble Commonwealth. These flags are committed to her keeping.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1887 AD (4)
February, 1905 AD (1)
1905 AD (1)
June 16th, 1887 AD (1)
June 7th, 1887 AD (1)
April 30th, 1887 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: