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Nearly two months after the battle of Gettysburg 24-year-old Isaac Dunsten of the 105th Pennsylvania Infantry lay on officers’ row at Camp Letterman, the large tent hospital established just east of the town. On July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle, a bullet had shattered the lieutenant’s right thigh. A splint was applied to the damaged limb, and for weeks a variety of tonics, stimulants and astringents were administered with little effect.

Eventually Dunsten began to slip in and out of delirium, sleeping only after heavy doses of morphine were pumped into his system. At one point the tormented officer tore off all the bandages within his reach.

By the evening of August 26, the end seemed imminent and the sacrament of Holy Communion was performed at Dunsten’s request. Following the solemn service, those gathered around the bedside watched intently as he remained perfectly still, apparently on the verge of death. About that time a glee club from Gettysburg paid a visit to the hospital. Without knowing what was transpiring inside, the carolers paused by Dunsten’s tent and belted out the opening lines of George Frederick Root’s popular ballad: “Yes, we’ll rally ’round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again, Shouting the battlecry of freedom.”

Nurse Anna Holstein recalled the electrifying effect the song had on Dunsten: “The words and music seemed to call back the spirit to earth, and forgetting his crushed limb and intense suffering, he sprang up, exclaiming: ‘Yes, boys, we did rally ’round the flag; and you will rally oft again!’ then sank back exhausted, and soon was at rest.”

In an era dominated by real-time intelligence, stealth fighters and special operations forces, it is difficult for modern Americans to comprehend the deep reverence Dunsten and his comrades held for their battle flags. But as historian Robert Krick points out, “soldiers on both sides died by the thousands around and for their flags” during the Civil War. What powerful mystique did these banners hold that caused ordinary men to perform almost superhuman deeds? And why did men vie for the honor of carrying them when death or serious injury was often the result?

For soldiers in both blue and gray, regimental flags or “colors” served as powerful visual icons of the ideals and values they fought to uphold—government, family, community and the concepts of duty, honor and courage. Veteran units proudly displayed their battle honors upon their flags, and the more tattered, bullet-torn and bloodstained they were, the more cherished they became. These swaths of fabric told a regiment’s history more forcefully than words ever could.

Battle flags also served an important utilitarian function. The Civil War was the last major conflict fought with Napoleonic tactics, which dictated that soldiers stand nearly shoulder to shoulder in well-ordered lines to deliver a heavy volume of fire. After the exchange of a few volleys, a battlefield often became shrouded in a low-lying cloud of whitish smoke. Hoisted on wooden staffs at least 8 feet long, the large, brightly colored regimental banners were sometimes the only visible elements of the contending forces, thus allowing rear-echelon commanders to monitor the movement of troops from a safe distance.

Flags were even more vital to frontline infantry officers and the men in the ranks. As a regiment advanced in line of battle, the color-bearer, positioned near the center of the formation, stepped off several paces ahead of the other troops. It was his duty to preserve the proper length and cadence of the march while orienting the line in the proper direction. In the deadly close-quarters combat that ensued, the sight of the flag floating above the chaos steeled the resolve of the men. If the line gave way, the men usually could be counted on to rally around the colors.

Physical stamina and unflinching courage were requisite qualities of a good color-bearer. One former soldier described another vital attribute: “I resolved my very best to be a leader—for a good color-bearer must at times be that regardless of personal consequences.”

Remarkably the color-bearer did not carry a weapon. His protection, and that of his flag, were the sole responsibility of the color guard, which usually ranged in size from two to nine men. Like the bearer, these soldiers were chosen for their bravery and steadiness. If the color-sergeant was shot down, a member of his escort immediately picked up the standard. Since flags were the focal point of 19th-century combat, the casualty rate of the color party and the companies in the closest proximity to it was often extremely high.

Because of a stand of colors’ vital function and its emotional appeal, losing one was considered a terrible disgrace. As a result, Civil War soldiers often resorted to drastic measures to save their flags from being seized, exposing themselves to great risk of death, injury or capture.

At Gettysburg the men who advanced the colors found themselves embroiled in some of the fiercest fighting of the three-day conflict. Some of these incidents have become legendary, such as the story of Color-Sergeant Benjamin Crippen of the 143rd Pennsylvania defiantly shaking his fist at swarming Southern soldiers before falling dead in the folds of his flag. Many other dramatic incidents, however, have been relegated to obscurity. The following stories are drawn from four small-unit actions that occurred across different days and sectors of the battlefield.

The 147th New York vs. the 55th North Carolina

Early on the morning of July 1, 1863, the advance elements of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia collided outside Gettysburg. Both sides rushed reinforcements to the scene, and the fighting escalated. The Union I Corps defended the western approach to the town. Confederate troops from A.P. Hill’s and Richard Ewell’s corps converged upon the area from the west, north and northeast.

As part of Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s brigade, the 147th New York was among the first Union infantry regiments to arrive. Near the McPherson farm, the 380 New Yorkers crossed the Chambersburg Pike and formed up near the bed of an unfinished railroad cut. Recruited in Oswego County the previous summer, “The Plowboys” of the 147th had yet to experience major combat.

Soon after taking position, the 147th and two sister regiments engaged in a sharp fight with a Confederate brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis, a nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The 55th North Carolina worked its way around the right flank of the Union line and poured in a murderous fire. To avert disaster, orders were sent forward directing the troops to fall back to a more secure position. The commander of the 147th was severely wounded before he could transmit the command to his men. As a result, the New Yorkers stood alone against three Confederate regiments.

“The fight was fierce and hot,” recalled Lieutenant J. Volney Pierce, “the boys… were falling like autumn leaves; the air was full of lead.” Finally, after a half-hour of this unequal contest, a courier rode into the maelstrom and delivered the retreat order.

The men rose up and dashed eastward through the open fields and along the railroad cut. Color-Sergeant John Hinchcliff, whom a fellow soldier described as “a Swede, six feet two, fair haired, blue eyed,” offered a conspicuous target as he attempted to escape with the flag. He was struck by several bullets and killed instantly. Sergeant William Wybourn, known as “a brave Irish lad,” rushed back and pulled the blood-soaked standard from underneath Hinchcliff’s lifeless body.

Lieutenant Pierce narrated the remarkable conclusion of the incident: “I climbed up the rocky face of the cut, on the south side, and made my way with many of our men across the meadow between the railroad cut and the Chambersburg Pike, crossed the pike into a small peach orchard, and I overtook the colors in the hands of Sergeant William A. Wyb[o]urn. Just as I joined him he received a shot, and fell on the colors as if dead. I tried to remove the colors, but he held to them with true Irish grit. I commanded him to let go, and to my surprise he answered, ‘Hold on, I will be up in a minute,’ rolled over and staggered to his feet and carried them all through the fight, and was commissioned for his courage.”

Like the 147th New York, the 55th North Carolina marched to Gettysburg as an untried unit. Nonetheless its commander, Colonel John Kerr Connally, a former attorney and U.S. Naval Academy midshipman, had already earned a reputation for his impetuous behavior and fierce unit pride. A year earlier Connally had challenged a fellow officer to a duel over a disputed report that censured the conduct of his regiment.

As Davis’ men confronted the 147th New York and other Union infantrymen in the ripening grain fields north of the pike, the Confederate battle line advanced steadily up the slope. Because of the undulating nature of the ground, the Tar Heels popped into view moments before the two Mississippi regiments advancing on their right, and thus drew the first infantry volley of the battle. Connally soon realized that his battle line extended far beyond the right flank of the Union position. To maximize this opportunity he ordered the 55th to execute a right wheel. This maneuver would allow his soldiers to fire directly down the length of the Union formation, thus exposing the Yankees to a deadly crossfire.

Several color-bearers of the 55th were shot down during the movement. At this critical juncture, the regiment’s colonel seized the battle flag and rushed out several paces in front of his men. The rash move attracted the fire of the enemy, and Connally fell to the ground after sustaining wounds to his left arm and right hip. Major Alfred Belo rushed over to his superior and asked if he was badly wounded. “Yes, but pay no attention to me!” came the reply. “Take the colors and keep ahead of the Mississippians.” As his men rushed after the now-fleeing bluecoats, Connally was borne to the rear on a stretcher.

The colonel would never again be well enough to resume command of his unit. After a successful postwar career as a lawyer and politician, Connally developed into an eloquent preacher in Asheville, N.C. In 1904 the United Confederate Veterans awarded him the Cross-of-Honor for his bravery at Gettysburg.

The 13th Massachusetts vs. the 5th Alabama

Later on July 1, during the sanguinary struggle for Oak Ridge north of the unfinished railroad bed, two beloved color-bearers fell within a hundred yards of each other. The 13th Massachusetts was organized in the Boston area during the summer of 1861 as patriotic fervor swept through the North. Roland Morris, a 22-year-old Nantucket native, was studying in Germany when the war broke out. He immediately rushed home and joined the 13th. Young, attractive and highly popular with his comrades, the former scholar was a natural choice for the position of color-sergeant.

As the I Corps marched through Maryland en route to Gettysburg, Morris left the ranks without permission to visit some friends he had made there during the regiment’s early service. After he was discovered missing, Colonel Samuel Leonard punished him for the infraction by taking away his flag. On the morning of July 1, with tears in his eyes, the sergeant begged the colonel to return his colors. The wish was granted after Morris promised not to repeat his transgression.

In a postwar reminiscence, Lieutenant William Kimball narrated the tragic ending of the story:

The writer will ever remember how our beloved comrade, Color-Sergeant Morris, on the morning march from Marsh Creek was the life of the company, full of fun and making us all feel “gay and happy” with his jokes and high spirits….As we approached Gettysburg we could hear firing ahead of us….We reached an oak grove near the Mummasburg Road. Across the road was a barn occupied by some of the rebels who made us their mark; and it was here and from one of their sharpshooters that Morris received his mortal wound. I saw him when he was shot; he leaped into the air and fell to the ground, struggling and crying in agony. The rebel bullet passed through his breast apparently. I detailed two comrades to take him to the rear, and I never saw him again.

In 1885 the veterans of the 13th Massachusetts erected a granite monument surmounted with a likeness of Morris upon the spot where he fell on that memorable July afternoon.

The 5th Alabama was originally held in reserve but later joined in the attack on the Union forces occupying Oak Ridge. As the regiment rushed down the lane of the Moses McClean farm, it was subjected to volleys from the front and blasted by musketry and artillery fire from the left. Caught in a deadly crossfire, the men fell back after an action that lasted only about 15 minutes.

In the short but spirited encounter, Company D lost one killed, five wounded and three captured. The lone mortality devastated the tightly knit Greensboro Guards. As the attack ground to a halt, the regimental color-bearer, Private George “Tone” Nutting, shouted “Come on boys!” to encourage his faltering comrades. Shot down almost immediately, he died on the field moments later.

Corporal Samuel Pickens, who had left the field to assist a wounded comrade, received the sad news later in the day. He recorded in his diary that his friend and messmate died with the colors, and that “a nobler, more generous boy never lived. He was a great favorite & will be much missed.” A few days later a grief-stricken Lieutenant E.P. Jones wrote his sister: “Our loss was not heavy compared to what the loss was in some other companies of the regiment; but still we feel deeply and mourn much the death of poor ‘Tone.’ I know of no one in the company who would have been missed more and talked of as much as he, in fact, he was the life of the company, always in a good humor, full of fun and as brave as a lion. Every one in the company liked him, and feel that we have not only lost a brave soldier, but a friend whose place cannot be filled.”

The 1st Texas vs. the 99th Pennsylvania

By the evening of the first day, the Union forces had been driven through the streets of Gettysburg. During the night and throughout the next day, the remainder of both armies streamed into the area. The new defensive line of the Army of the Potomac stretched from the wooded Culp’s Hill, just southeast of the town, around Cemetery Hill, down the spine of Cemetery Ridge and to the base of Little Round Top. Encouraged by his success on the previous day, General Robert E. Lee planned to dislodge the Union army from its strong position. He ordered Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to strike the Federals’ left flank with his veteran First Corps and roll it up with successive attacks spreading northward. But delays hampered Longstreet, and by the time he maneuvered his troops into position, Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles had placed his two III Corps divisions directly in the path of the Confederate assault.

The vital assignment of leading Longstreet’s attack on the Union left fell to the nearly 8,000 combat veterans of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Division. About 4:30 p.m., following a sharp artillery exchange, Hood rode along his front line before halting near his old command, the Texas Brigade. The general stood majestically in his stirrups, and gesturing east toward Little Round Top, he shouted, “Fix bayonets, my brave Texans; forward and take those heights!”

In response, Lt. Col. Phillip A. Work, commander of the 1st Texas, pointed to his unit’s flag and urged his men to “follow the Lone Star Flag to the top of the mountain!” Early in its history the regiment received the nickname the “Ragged First” because of its shabby appearance and lack of discipline. Despite that less than flattering sobriquet, the regiment knew how to fight. As Colonel Work later asserted, “The success of the Texas regiments was not due to the training of Hood or any other commander, but that they were composed of an intelligent, educated, adventurous and high-spirited people.”

Color-Sergeant George A. Branard of the 1st Texas certainly fit this description. Originally the fourth corporal of Company L, “The Lone Star Rifles,” and a member of the color-guard, Branard was promoted to color-sergeant on May 11, 1862, after bravely bearing the flag during the brigade’s first experience under fire at Eltham’s Landing along the York River.

While Branard was home on furlough in December 1862, six Houston ladies presented him with a miniature First National pattern flag measuring 63⁄4 by 131⁄2 inches with a single star in the canton. Against army regulations, the independent-minded Texan affixed the smaller flag to the staff of his Southern Cross standard, and it was carried this way throughout the rest of the war. Sergeant Branard and his flags would be in the thickest of the action at Gettysburg.

After descending a gradual slope, the 426 men of the 1st Texas emerged at the base of a rock-strewn, triangular-shaped field. Looming ahead of the Texans on a narrow elevation known as Houck’s Ridge stood four cannons supported by a line of blue infantrymen. At the southern end of this elevation lay a massive outcropping of huge boulders. The geological oddity known as Devil’s Den was aptly named considering its eerie appearance and the savage, chaotic nature of the fighting that erupted there.

The 1st Texas charged up the slope only to be repulsed twice by Union counterattacks. One Texan described the seesaw battle as “one of the wildest, fiercest struggles of the war.” The timely arrival of Brig. Gen. Henry “Old Rock” Benning’s brigade of Georgians tipped the scales in favor of the attackers by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Following behind the first wave, Benning threw his fresh troops into the heated contest. At first, confusion reigned as the various regiments became intermingled in the rough terrain. Some of the Georgia infantrymen mistakenly fired into the backs of the Texans. To halt the friendly fire, Branard stepped into the open and vigorously waved his flag.

Afterward Branard and the color-bearer of the 15th Georgia engaged in a footrace for the summit. The Texan opened up a lead on his competitor and found himself well in advance of the main body. His gallantry apparently elicited the approval of the Union infantrymen on the ridge as some of them shouted, “Don’t shoot that color-bearer—he is too brave.”

When Union troops finally withdrew from the area, they left behind three guns from Captain James E. Smith’s 4th New York Independent Battery. Sergeant Branard sought out the largest rock on the crest near the guns and planted the flag of the 1st Texas. His moment of triumph was short-lived. A nearby Union shell burst splintered a large portion of the flagstaff and “hurled the hero unconscious down the slope of the mountain.”

After reviving a few moments later, the incensed color-bearer was determined “to whip the whole Yankee nation by himself.” Obviously Branard was in no condition to attempt such an ambitious task, and for now capturing Devil’s Den would have to suffice.

Among the Union troops defending Devil’s Den were the members of the 99th Pennsylvania, who would later point with pride to the heroism of their own color-bearer, Harvey May Munsell. When the regiment was organized two years earlier, no one would have looked to the scrawny 18-year-old recruit for inspiration. His fellow soldiers admired his pluck, however.

A native of New York’s Steuben County, Munsell was managing a lumberyard for an uncle in Oil City, Pa., when the war broke out. His opposition to slavery drove him to enlist. Thwarted in his efforts to join a local company, the patriotic youngster traveled to Philadelphia to sign up with the 99th. Through hard work and perseverance, Munsell was promoted to corporal, then to sergeant. The honor of carrying the state colors was bestowed upon him in August 1862.

At Fredericksburg, he rushed forward impetuously in the face of an enemy attack, an act that inspired his own unit and adjacent regiments to charge into the onrushing Southerners and push them back. His bravery at Chancellorsville earned him the Kearny Cross, a medal awarded to select III Corps soldiers for gallantry.

As he watched the dark masses of enemy infantry heading toward Devil’s Den, Munsell studied the countenances of his companions, noting their ghostly appearance. The color-sergeant realized that all of them thought he was “the only man in the regiment not frightened half out of his senses.” However fearless he looked outwardly, Munsell later admitted, “I mechanically prayed as I never prayed before or since. My heart was in my mouth….

Frightened almost to death, and not a soul in the regiment knew it but myself…I would have sooner died two hundred thousand times than to continue in the terrible suspense when seconds seemed hours.”

When the fighting erupted, the soldiers of the 99th looked to Munsell and his flag as a guide. The sergeant inspired them to stand “as firm as the rocks beneath their feet” as he took his accustomed place at the front of the line. Munsell’s clothing was rent by 11 bullets, but he remained unharmed. The worst was yet to come.

During the Union retreat from the area, the color-bearer navigated the first several hundred yards without incident. Suddenly shells whizzed past him. One struck near his feet, and the concussion sent him tumbling to the ground on top of his flag. Several nearby comrades thought he had been killed instantly by the blast. Munsell was merely “playing possum,” however. Later, when the coast was clear, he “jumped up and ‘skedaddled’ to the rear.”

Upon reaching his regiment, he quietly took his place in line and nonchalantly unfurled the standard. “Such a shouting I have never heard before or since,” recalled Munsell. “Men who saw me fall…came up and looked at the flag, and felt of me to see if there wasn’t some mistake or humbug about it”

The veteran soldier thought he had accomplished more during that one eventful afternoon than he previously had in his entire life. Major John W. Moore, commander of the 99th, agreed, writing that the sergeant’s “courageous conduct” was “worthy of the most decided approval.” Munsell would later receive the Medal of Honor for his efforts.

The 28th Virginia vs. the 1st Minnesota

Unable to break through the main enemy line during the fighting on July 2, Lee eventually opted for an all-out assault upon the Federal center on the third day. Following a massive artillery barrage to soften the enemy position, more than 12,000 infantrymen stepped out from behind Seminary Ridge and advanced briskly across a mile of open terrain to punch a gaping hole through the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

A low stone fence that originated near a copse of trees and ran northward to the Abraham Bryan farm offered some protection for the blue-coated defenders. Just north of the copse, the fence abruptly turned east for a short distance before resuming its northerly course, forming a sharp angle in the line.

Major General George E. Pickett’s Division of Longstreet’s corps, about 6,000 strong, was a logical choice to spearhead the infantry attack, since it had been held in reserve following its arrival on the field on July 2. Pickett’s three fresh brigades formed up on the low ground near Spangler’s Woods.

At about 3 p.m., after a cannonade that lasted roughly two hours, the Southern infantrymen rose to their feet and marched briskly toward Cemetery Ridge. As the soldiers of Richard Garnett’s Brigade closed in on the Nicholas Codori farm along the Emmitsburg Road, they entered the most lethal phase of the attack. One officer recalled that “the storm of lead and iron seemed to fill the air, as in a sleet storm, and made one gasp for breath.” He noticed that many of the men bent over in a half stoop as they marched up the slope.

Garnett shouted above the tumultuous roar: “Faster, men, faster! We are almost there!” An instant later, he fell dead from his horse. Color-Sergeant John Eakin of the 28th Virginia received three wounds as he rushed toward the stone fence near the Angle. After a bullet struck him in the upper arm, he finally relinquished the flag to a comrade, who advanced only a few steps before being shot dead.

Colonel Robert C. Allen, commander of the 28th, picked up the standard only to be knocked down with a mortal head wound near the fence. Somehow he handed off the flag to Lieutenant John A.J. Lee of Company C. After receiving the colors from the dying Colonel Allen, the 24-year-old farmer from sparsely populated Craig County, Va., earned the distinction of being the first man from Pickett’s Division to enter the Union lines. As the 28th Virginia forged ahead of the other regiments in Garnett’s Brigade, the Union defenders in their front pulled back and re-formed a short distance to the rear. Lieutenant Lee sprang over the low stone fence and struggled forward until a shell knocked the flag out of his hands.

After he fell with a slight wound, the dauntless officer retrieved the broken standard and attempted to break his sword to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. A Union soldier described as a “big burly German” commanded Lee to surrender, but a nearby comrade stabbed the would-be captor with his bayonet. Another Yankee soon stood over the Confederate officer. Lee must have been shocked by the bedraggled appearance of the man who placed the tip of his bayonet just inches from his chest, demanding, “Throw down that flag, or I’ll run you through.” Although Confederate soldiers were habitually destitute, the grueling campaign also had been hard on their Union counterparts. Barefoot and wearing a torn and soiled frock coat and trousers, Private Marshall Sherman of the 1st Minnesota could not pass up the “opportunity of depriving the Rebs of the stimulus of their colors.” The “ragged and blackened” private received the wild applause of his comrades as he passed to the rear with the captured banner of the 28th Virginia and his prisoner.

As Lee was being led away, Colonel Allen took his last breath. His final thoughts concerned the fate of his flag—“Whar was the colors?” he asked. Actually, a portion of the 28th Virginia’s flag would continue to see service. During the close-quarters fighting the staff of the 1st Minnesota’s flag had also been shattered. After the Southern attack had been repulsed, the Minnesota infantrymen used a splintered section from the Virginia flagstaff to repair their own. To one of the men this event “fore-shadowed the time when Union and Confederate should unite in upholding the colors of the old Union forever.”

During the 50th anniversary celebration of the battle, a former member of the 28th Virginia was attempting to locate his quarters when he stumbled into the tent occupied by Captain Thomas Pressnell and several other veterans of the 1st Minnesota. After learning of the Confederate’s unit affiliation, Pressnell informed him that they had captured his regiment’s flag at Gettysburg and that it was now in St. Paul. They invited their former adversary to spend the night with them. Before departing the next morning, the Virginian remarked, “I’m sorry we lost that flag, but if we had to lose it, I’m glad it was you fellows who got it.”

Michael Dreese is the author of Never Desert the Old Flag! 50 Stories of Union Battle Flags and Color-Bearers at Gettysburg and This Flag Never Goes Down! 40 Stories of Confederate Battle Flags and Color-Bearers at Gettysburg. For additional reading Richard A. Sauers’ Advance the Colors!, two volumes.

This article was written by Michael Dreese and originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!