What do the Worrill Grays, Chalmers’ Division, and the 50th Virginia Infantry all have in common?
All three Confederate units had their colors captured by Medal of Honor recipients who are buried in Missouri. Of the 35 Medal of Honor recipients honored for acts of valor during the Civil War who are buried in Missouri, 12 of these individuals received their award for either capturing the flag of the enemy or defending the colors of their regiment from imminent capture. So, what is the significance of capturing a flag in battle?
In a time before radio communication, flags were vital points of reference to direct soldiers on the battlefield. The colors carried by regiments led soldiers into battle and directed their movements, often serving as rallying points in the noise and smoke of mid-battle chaos. The fact that the flags were so vital to the successful function of military regiments made them prime targets of enemy soldiers, sharpshooters, and cannon. This in turn also ensured these flags were extremely well protected—the fighting was often the thickest around the regimental colors and thus any soldier who could penetrate the defenses around an enemy’s flag and return with it to their own lines showed tremendous bravery in the face of mortal peril.
The exploits of Cpl. Harrison Collins near Richmond Creek on December 24, 1864, were recounted in a letter from Brigadier General John T. Croxton to Lt. Colonel A. J. Alexander, Chief of Staff of the Cavalry Corps. General Croxton writes:
“I have the honor to forward herewith a rebel battle-flag captured from Chalmers’ division yesterday evening. The capture was made by Corpl. Harrison Collins, Company A, First Tennessee Cavalry. The corporal saw the rebel standard bearer, under the direction of a rebel major, trying to rally his men. He determined to have the flag; led a charge, killed the major, routed his men, and secured the flag.”
Capturing an enemy flag was almost always an impressive feat, but one must assume that some instances made better stories than others. Such was likely the case for Captain Patrick H. Pentzer, who was among the first Union soldiers to reach Confederate entrenchments during the Battle of Fort Blakeley, Alabama, and thus was positioned to personally receive the surrender of a Confederate general officer and his headquarters flag. While the circumstances of this event surely made for a good story, Pentzer was just one of 10 Union soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing a flag during this assault on April 9, 1865.
In addition to the nine Union soldiers buried in Missouri who were awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing a flag of the enemy, three such soldiers received the Medal of Honor for risking their lives to defend their regiment’s colors.
Although he had already been granted a medical furlough due to his wounds from Antietam, German-born Pvt. (later 1st Lt.) Martin Schubert picked up the colors after several color bearers had been killed or wounded during the Battle of Fredericksburg and carried them until he was wounded again. Paul Taylor’s 2005 book, Glory was Not Their Companion: The Twenty-Sixth New York Volunteer Infantry, published Schubert’s own recollection of the event:
“My old wound, not yet healed, gave me considerable trouble. I went into the battle [Fredericksburg] with the regiment, however, against the protests of my colonel and captain, who insisted that I should use the furlough. I thought the Government needed me on the battlefield rather than at home.”
Corporal (later Major) Henry D. O’Brien took up the fallen colors of his 1st Minnesota Infantry during the infamously tragic “Pickett’s Charge” at the Battle of Gettysburg and fearlessly rushed the enemy. Caleb Jackson of Company G apparently witnessed the event and provided this account (the primary source document is unknown):
“When General Pickett made his famous charge his men succeeded in striking our line near a battery and close to our right flank and for a moment it seemed that we would be overwhelmed. At this critical time the last of our color guards was shot and the flag fell to the ground. Corporal Henry D. O’Brien, of Company E, though not a member of the color guard instantly seized it and waving it over his head rushed ahead of the Regiment and close up to the muzzles of the Confederate muskets. His example was quickly followed by the rest of the men and the Confederates were beaten back leaving the colors of the 28th Virginia with our command.
“Corporal O’Brien’s action at that time was fearless and as daring as anything I saw during the war, and there is no doubt in my mind that it was one of the principal causes that led to the defeat of the Confederates at that point. I looked at his face and smiled as he broke off a piece of the shattered staff and threw it to the ground and marched on. He was struck in the head by a musket ball and although stunned by the force of the blow he held to the colors until he was again struck in the left hand. This occurred at the moment of victory.”
The Battle of Missionary Ridge was part of the Chattanooga Campaign fought between Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Braxton Bragg. Captain Freeman Davis recovered two flags of his 80th Ohio Infantry after both color bearers were shot down during the successful assault on the ridge on November 25, 1863. The Ohio Illustrated Magazine for January 1907 contains an article mentioning Davis’s courageous feats, “Eight Buckeyes at Missionary Ridge,” by Joseph Olds Gregg, who was Past Department Commander of the Department of Montana, G.A.R:
“When Freeman Davis, of Company B, saw the two flags go down with their bearers and exposed to capture by the enemy, who were pushing the regiment back, he ran back in the face of the deadly fire directed at him, caught up a flag with each hand and successfully bore them to a place of safety. In view of these heroic deeds, here described in detail from the official records and the testimony of eye-witnesses, it seems no wonder that a clean majority of all the medals awarded by Congress for conspicuous gallantry at Missionary Ridge, were given to sons of Ohio.”
The capture and recovery of regimental colors provided opportunities for soldiers to demonstrate conspicuous gallantry in the face of danger, and these events strongly influenced the outcome of battles and maybe the war. While, unfortunately, some of those credited with bravery for capturing colors in the American Civil War obtained flags abandoned on the field or confiscated from their subordinates, many more of these tales—such as those related here—recount genuine acts of inspiring courage and sacrifice.