The Color Bearer Tradition The War Between the States was the heyday of American battleflags and theirbearers. With unusualhistorical accuracy, many stirring battle paintings showthe colors and their intrepid bearers in the forefront of the fray or as arallying point in a retreat. The colors of a Civil War regiment embodied itshonor, and the men chosen to bear them made up an elite. Tall, muscular menwere preferred, because holding aloft a large, heavy banner, to keep itvisible through battle smoke and at a distance,demanded physical strength. Courage was likewise required to carry a flaginto combat, as the colors “drew lead like a magnet.” South Carolina’sPalmetto Sharpshooters, for example, lost 10 out of 11 of its bearers andcolor guard at the Battle of Seven Pines, the flag passing through four handswithout touching the ground. Birth and Early Life in Charleston Born in Charleston in 1824, Charles Edmiston and his twin sister, Ellen Ann,were the third son and second daughter, respectively, of newspaper editorJoseph Whilden and his wife, Elizabeth Gilbert Whilden.
The births of twomore sons, Richard Furman in 1826 and William Gilbert in 1828, would completethe family, making seven children in all. Young Charles’ roots ran deep intothe soil of the lowcountry. His Whilden ancestors had settled in theCharleston area in the 1690’s, and an ancestor on his mother’s side, the Rev.
William Screven, had arrived in South Carolina even earlier, establishing theFirst Baptist Church of Charleston in 1683, today the oldest church in theSouthern Baptist Convention. Like many Southerners who came of age in thelate antebellum period, CharlesWhilden took pride in his ancestors’ role in the American Revolution,especially his grandfather, Joseph Whilden, who, at 18, had run away from hisfamily’s plantation in Christ Church Parish to join the forces underBrigadier General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion fighting the British. At the time of Charles’ birth, the family of Joseph and Elizabeth Whildenlived comfortably in their home on Magazine Street, attended by their devotedslave, Juno Waller Seymour, a diminutive, energetic black woman known as“Maumer Juno” to four generations of the Whilden family. Raisedby Maumer Juno from the cradle, Charles soon developed a strong attachment tothe woman – an attachment that would endure to the end of his life. Theprosperity of Joseph Whilden and his family would prove less enduring,however, and business reversals, beginning in the late 1820’s, combined withJoseph’s stroke a few years later and his eventual death in 1838, wouldreduce his family to genteel poverty. To help make ends meet, Maumer Junotook in ironing.
Despite a lack of money for college, young Charles managedto obtain a good education. Details about Charles’ schooling are sketchy, butthe polished prose of his surviving letters reflects a practiced hand and acultivated intellect. Charles’ admission to the South Carolina bar atColumbia in 1845 is further evidence of a triumph of intellect and effortover financial adversity.
In the closing decades of the antebellum period, when Charles Whilden wasgrowing up in Charleston, the city was the commercial and cultural center ofthe lowcountry as well as South Carolina’s manufacturing center and mostcosmopolitan city. By the time Charles Whilden reached adulthood, however,the Charleston economy was in decline, and the city’s population wouldactually diminish during the decade of the 1850’s. Not surprisingly, after abrief attempt to establish a law practice in Charleston, Attorney Whildenchose to seek his fortune outside his home town. But the practice of law inthe upcountry town of Pendleton also failed to pan out for Whilden.Confronted with a major career decision, Whilden elected not only to leavethe law but also to leave the Palmetto State for the north. The 1850 federal censustakers found Charles Whilden living in a boardinghouse in Detroit, Michigan, where he worked as a clerk, probably in anewspaper office.
Speculation in copper stocks and land on Lake Superior soonleft Charles deeply in debt to his youngest brother, William, who had builtup a successful merchandising business back home in Charleston. Desperate toget out of debt, and perhaps longing for adventure, in the spring of 1855Charles Whilden signed on as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army. After anarduous two-month trek from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Whilden arrived in theold Spanish city of Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, on August 27, 1855, wherehe took up his duties as civilian private secretary to the local garrisoncommander, Colonel John Breckinridge Grayson of Kentucky, who would laterserve the Confederacy as a brigadier general in Florida. Life in New Mexico Territory When Whilden arrived in Santa Fe, the city had been under U.
S. jurisdictionfor only a few years, and the population was overwhelmingly Hispanic andRoman Catholic, causing the Baptist Whilden to complain, in an early letterto his brother William in Charleston, that “there are so many Saints daysamong these Hottentots, that it is hard to recollect them.” So isolated wasSanta Fe from the U.S.
that mail reached the city only once a month fromMissouri. Looking on the bright side of his cultural and geographic isolationin New Mexico Territory, in a letter written in May 1856 Charles expressedhis intention to William to remain in New Mexico until “I have paid up all mydebts, for I can do it better out here, than in the States, as there are noconcerts, Theatres, White Kid Gloves, Subscriptions to Charities or churches,or gallivanting the ladies on Sleigh rides and &c to make a man’s money fly.” Whilden’s duties as Colonel Grayson’s secretary were relatively light,leaving him ample time for other pursuits – perhaps too much time for his ownfinancial good. His April 30, 1857 letter home to Charleston states: “Inaddition to the offices I hold in this Territory of Warden of a MasonicLodge, President of a Literary Society, member of a Territorial DemocraticCentral Committee &c …, I have lately added that of Farmer.” Dreaming ofmaking enough money to satisfy his debts to William and to establish a lawpractice in Texas, Charles had purchased a 16 acre truck farm near Sante Fe,establishing his claim as a “farmer.” Alas, the farm would prove to beunprofitable. In his spare time, Whilden also occasionally edited the Santa Fe newspaperwhen the regular editor was busy. During the Presidential election campaignof 1856, Whilden penned an editorial supporting the renomination of PresidentFranklin Pierce, a pro-Southern Democrat, and he expressed the hope in aletter to William that Pierce would be re-elected and “give me a fat office.
”Whilden’s hope for a political sinecure also proved to be a dream. Marriage was another unrealized dream. After his own marriage in 1850,William Whilden badgeredhis elder brother to end his bachelorhood and tosettle down. In December 1854, when he was stillin Detroit and aged 30, afriend had tried to interest Charles in marrying his fiftyish, red-headedaunt.
Seizing the opportunity to turn the tables on William, Charles wrote toWilliam not to be surprised if he married the woman and took up William onhis standing offer to permit Charles to honeymoon at William’s stylish newhome in Charleston. Whatever romantic aspirations Charles may haveentertained when he arrived in New Mexico, the dearth of eligible women inthe territory soon quashed. In a letter to William written seven months afterhis arrival in Santa Fe, Charles could count only six unmarried Americanladies in all of New Mexico, none of whom, however, lived in Santa Fe. However boring it may have been, life in Santa Fe also afforded Whilden timefor puffing his meerschaum pipe, reading his subscriptions to the pepperyCharleston Mercury newspaper and thehighbrow Russells Magazine and reflectingon the mounting sectional tensions of the prewar years. In a letter toWilliam dated March 26, 1856, Charles complained that the “Government isbecoming more abolition every day” and he predicted that the “Union may lasta few years longer, but unless a decided change takes place in Northernpolitics, it must at last go under.
” The War Begins Events would prove Whilden correct. On December 20, 1860, delegates to theso-called Secession Convention, meeting in Institute Hall in downtownCharleston, only a short distance from Charles Whilden’s boyhood home onMagazine Street, unanimously adopted the Ordinance of Secession, taking SouthCarolina out of the Union. The bombardment of Fort Sumter in CharlestonHarbor four months later heralded the beginning of the shooting war. A lesser man than Charles Whilden might have been content to sit out the warin New Mexico Territory. After all, Whilden had been gone from the South formore than a decade. He was fast approaching 40. Whilden’s frequentdenunciations of abolitionism in his letters were based on principle, notpolitical expediency or financial self-interest. Apart from a nominal,undivided interest in his beloved Maumer Juno that he shared with hissiblings, Charles held no slave property.
Furthermore, he was more than 1,000miles from South Carolina, with little money for travel. But Charles Whildenwas no ordinary man. Undeterred by the obstacles confronting him, Whildenresolved to answer South Carolina’s call to arms. According to a reminiscencewritten in 1969 by his grand niece, Miss Elizabeth Whilden Hard ofGreenville, South Carolina, the “only way he could get back to Charleston wasby the Bahamas, and on his way back to Charleston the ship was wrecked,he spent some time in an open boat, suffered sunstroke, and as a result hadepileptic attacks.” The date of Whilden’s harrowing return to Charleston is conjectural, as noneof his correspondence from the early war years has survived, but the likelydate is late 1861 or early 1862. Whilden’s Confederate service records in theNational Archives in Washington, D.C. commence with his enlistment in 1864,but Miss Hard’s reminiscence may be correct that her Great Uncle Charles“enlisted a number of times, but when he had an epileptic attack would bedischarged.
Then he would go somewhere else and enlist again.” Confederateservice records are notoriously incomplete, and it stands to reason thatCharles Whilden would not have risked life and limb returning to Charlestononly to avoid military service once home. Irrespective of whether or not he had seen prior service, Whilden demonstrably enlisted “for the war” at Charleston on February 6, 1864, as aprivate in Company I (known as the Richardson Guards) of the 1st Regiment,South Carolina Volunteers. Lieutenant Wallace Delph enlisted Whilden, and thelieutenant can be forgiven if he looked askance at his new recruit. By moststandards, Whilden was a marginal recruit.
Though intelligent and patriotic,Whilden was also in his 40th year, the red hair of his youth turned grey. Hisurban background and string of sedentary occupations better suited him fora Richmond clerkship than active service in the field. On top of everythingelse, Whilden was epileptic.
Whilden’s new regiment was a proud outfit. The 1st Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers, was known popularly as “Gregg’s lst SouthCarolina” after its first colonel, Maxcy Gregg, in order to distinguishthe regiment from several other South Carolina infantry regiments alsoidentified numerically as the “lst Regiment.” The successor to a regimentorganized by Col. Gregg in December 1860 for six-months service, the 1stRegiment, SCV, was arguably the very first Rebel infantry regiment. At thetime of Whilden’s enlistment, the regiment was part of Brigadier GeneralSamuel McGowan’s brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. At one time partof A.P.
Hill’s vaunted Light Division, McGowan’s South Carolinians had won areputation for hard fighting on many a bloody field. That reputation wasshortly to be put to its sternest test at a strategic Virginia crossroadsvillage known as Spotsylvania Court House. The Fight at the Mule Shoe Following his repulse at the Wilderness on May 5 and 6, 1864, Union Generalin Chief Ulysses S.
Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to move southeastabout 12 miles to the vicinity of Spotsylvania Court House (NPS Web Site),hoping to get between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. GeneralRobert E. Lee, however, was quicker, and elements of the Confederate FirstCorps arrived at Spotsylvania Court House just ahead of the Federals. Overthe next few days a series of collisions in the area occurred as both sidestook up positions and brought up additional units. The Army of NorthernVirginia settled into a defensive line at Spotsylvania that bulgednorthward in the center to form a salient or “mule-shoe,” with elements ofLieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps defending the mule-shoe. At first light on May 12, nearly 19,000 men of the Union II Corps, takingadvantage of ground fog, attacked the tip or apex of the mule-shoe, quicklyoverwhelming Major General Edward Johnson’s 4,000-man division defending theapex.
Once inside the mule-shoe, the Federals threatened to advance southwardlike a tidal wave. Only their own disorganization and a series of desperateConfederate counterattacks halted the Union advance before it resulted in ageneral rout. With most of Johnson’s Division dead or prisoners, a considerable segment ofthe works inside the apex of the mule-shoe was unoccupied by any Confederatetroops. To correct this, General Lee forwarded two brigades from the ThirdCorps, Harris’s Mississippians and McGowan’s South Carolinians, during themid-morning hours of the 12th. With a cheer and at the double quick,McGowan’s Brigade advanced towards the tip of the mule-shoe in support ofHarris’s Brigade, sloshing through rain and mud and under heavy fire. At the head of each of the brigade’s five regiments, two soldiers carried theregimental state flag and the national battleflag. The blue silk state flagfeatured a palmetto tree encircled with a wreath of oak and laurel leaves;the national battleflag displayed the familiar blue, starred St.
Andrew’scross dividing a red field. When the regular color bearer was shot, Whildeninsisted upon bearing his regiment’s national colors into the fight, althoughhe was not a member of Company K, the regiment’s color company. LieutenantJames Armstrong, the commander of CompanyK and Whilden’s messmate, relented,though, according to Armstrong’s postwar account, Whilden was “feeble inhealth and totally unfitted for active service…. In fact, he was stumblingat every step.
” Watching Whilden struggle to keep up with his command,Armstrong offered to relieve Whilden of the flag and to carry it himself.Whilden relinquished the flag to the lieutenant, but only after Armstrong hadpromised to restore it to him when the regiment halted. As the commandarrived at the next line, “Whilden came rushing up, took the flag and bravelybore it throughout the fight,” Armstrong recalled.
The lieutenant was being literal when he wrote that Whilden “bore” the flag,because, when the top of his flag staff was shot away during the advance,Whilden tied the battleflag around his waist and continued forward. WhenWhilden and his comrades finally halted in the late forenoon, they fell intotrenches west of the mule-shoe tip. Perhaps two hundred yards of thesalient’s defenses then remained in Federal hands. In his recent book onGrant’s Overland Campaign, Noah Trudeau writes: “Along those two hundredyards of mutually held trenches, men now killed each other with zealousabandon. In a war that had birthed its share of bloody angles, this day andthe morning of the next at Spotsylvania would give birth to the bloodiest ofthem all.” For the next 17 hours or so, McGowan’s Brigade would hold its position alongthe apex of the salient front and would maintain a more or less continuousfire. At times the two sides were only a few yards apart.
Now and then ahundred or so Yankees would surge forward over the Confederate trenches, onlyto be immediately hurled back in desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Rain fellintermittently during the afternoon of the 12th, adding to the misery of thecombatants. About 10 o’clock that evening, a large oak, some 22 inches indiameter and cut almost in half by Federal rifle fire, fell down on worksmanned by Whilden’s regiment, wounding several men and startling a greatmany more. While this desperate fighting took place, other Confederates wereconstructing a new defensive line across the base of the mule-shoe about amile to the rear of the Mississippians and South Carolinians. Finally, at 4o’clock in the morning of May13, the brigades of Harris and McGowanwithdrew to the new line. Thus ended the longest sustained hand-to-handcombat of the war. The toll on McGowan’s Brigade had been heavy. GeneralMcGowan was wounded early in the advance, and the commander of Gregg’s 1stSouth Carolina, Col.
C.W. McCreary, fell wounded almost in Whilden’s arms.Total casualties within the brigade exceeded 40 percent. One of thesecasualties was the impromptu flag bearer, Private Charles Whilden.
At somepoint before McGowan’s Brigade retired to the relative safety of the newdefensive line, a bullet tore open Whilden’s shirt, inflicting a wound to hisshoulder. With the flag still tied around his waist, Whilden was carried to afield hospital. For all intents and purposes, the war was over for him.
The next day, May l4, Charles hurriedly wrote a letter to his brother,William, who was then serving as an artillery officer near Charleston. Afterdescribing the fighting of the preceding two days and the heavy losses of hisbrigade, Charles turned to a more personal subject. “If it should be thedecree of the Almighty that I should lose my life in this War,” he wrote,then William should have his meerschaum pipe and his sisters-in-law shoulddraw for his watch and chain. What little remained of his property, Charleswrote, should be “equally divided between Sisters Charlotte & Ellen Ann — Ipromised dear Mother that they should never want if I could prevent it.” Sent to the General Hospital at Camp Winder in Richmond to recover hishealth, Whilden was furloughed to Charleston in late August. Listed as“absent sick at Charleston” on the muster rolls of his regiment for Septemberthrough December 1864, Whilden never recovered sufficiently to returnto active service.
After the War In common with other Confederate veterans, Charles Whilden struggled to puthis life back together after the war. He might have succeeded, but onSeptember 25, 1866 he died suddenly in Charleston at age 42. According toElizabeth Hard, her Great Uncle Charles “died without fame or glory, as onan early morning walk he suffered an epileptic attack and fell in a pool ofwater from rain collected on the pavement.” The man who had survived theBloody Angle at Spotsylvania drowned back home in a few inches of groundwater. The story of the flag that Charles Whilden carried so courageously atSpotsylvania does not end with his death.
After Whilden was wounded atSpotsylvania and hospitalized, the flag was stored with his other effects.Given to Whilden when he was furloughed to Charleston in August 1864, theflag was in his possession when he died about two years thereafter. About 15 years after the war, Edward McCrady, Jr., a prominent Charlestonlawyer who had captained the color company of Gregg’s 1st South Carolinaearly in the war and had later risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel of theregiment, petitioned William Whilden to turn over the battleflag that he hadinherited from his brother Charles. McCrady had possession of the regiment’sblue state colors, and he professed a desire to reunite the two flags.
In aletter written on New Year’s Day, 1880, McCrady pled his best case, pointingout that his regiment had carried the battleflag “in every battle until May1864? and that, for years during the war, he had “lived with the flag inhis tent, and slept with it by his side in the bivouac.” After consultinghis three surviving brothers, two of whom were Baptist ministers, WilliamWhilden declined McCrady’s request, essentially on the grounds thatMcCrady had no higher claim to the flag than any other veteran of theregiment. In declining, however, Whilden indicated a willingness to entrustthe flag to a collection of Confederate relics. Following William Whilden’s death in 1896, custody of the battleflag passedto William’s daughter, Mrs. Charles Hard of Greenville.
In 1906, Mrs. Harddelivered up the flag to her Uncle Charles’ old friend and messmate, JamesArmstrong, a postwar harbor master of Charleston who had commanded the colorcompany of Gregg’s 1st South Carolina at Spotsylvania. In his letter to Mrs.
Hard expressing his appreciation for the flag, Armstrong promised to“communicate with the other officers of the Regiment in regard to sending theflag to the State House to be placed alongside of the blue State flag.”Armstrong assured Mrs. Hard that, “until sent there it will be kept in afire proof vault.” Time passed, and the battleflag remained with the aging Armstrong. Finally,in 1920, Mrs.
Hard wrote to Armstrong about the flag. Rose McKevlin,Armstrong’s nurse, responded, informing Mrs. Hard that Armstrong’s leg hadbeen amputated the prior month as a result of a wound he had suffered atSpotsylvania more than half a century previously.
The letter explained thatArmstrong had tried to convene a meeting of the surviving officers to discussthe flag but that he had failed to do so, and it concluded with the promisethat Armstrong, being the senior of the two surviving officers of theregiment, would send the flag to the Secretary of State in Columbia to beplaced alongside the blue state colors of the regiment already there.Although the evidence is not conclusive, the old soldier evidently made goodon his nurse’s promise on his behalf by turning over the battleflag tothe state before he died. . PRINCIPAL SOURCESused in preparing this essay1.
James Armstrong and Varina D. Brown, “McGowan’s Brigade at Spotsylvania,”ConfederateVeteran, vol. 33 (1925), pp. 376-379. 2. J.F.
J. Caldwell, The History of a Brigade of South Carolinians, KnownFirst as “Gregg’s,” andSubsequently as “McGowan’s Brigade” (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Press, 1984reprint of 1866ed.). 3. Compiled Service Record of CharlesE. Whilden, 1st Regiment, South CarolinaVolunteers,Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizationsfrom the State ofSouth Carolina, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, RecordGroup 109, NationalArchives, Washington, D.C.
4. Fairfax Downey, The Color-Bearers (Mattituck, NY: J. M. Carroll & Company,1984). 5. William D.
Matter, If it Takes All Summer, the Battle of Spotsylvania(Chapel Hill: University ofNorth Carolina Press, 1988). 6. John Hammond Moore, editor, “Letters From aSanta Fe ArmyClerk, 1855-1856, CharlesE. Whilden,” New Mexico Historical Review, vol.40,no.2 (April 1965),pp.
141-164 (relating to letters from CharlesE. Whilden to his brother,WilliamG. Whilden, orMrs.WilliamG.
Whilden, the originals of which are in the South CarolinianaLibrary). 7. John Belton O’Neall, Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of SouthCarolina(Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, Publishers, 1975), Vol.II, at p.614. 8.
Noah Andre Trudeau, Bloody Roads South, the Wilderness to Cold Harbor,May-June 1864(Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989). 9. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Cityof Detroit, WayneCounty, Michigan, Schedule1-Free Inhabitants, National Archives MicrofilmPub. No.T-6, ReelNo.146, p.
8 (reverse). 10. CharlesE. Whilden Letters, 1855-1856, MSS in the South CarolinianaLibrary, University ofSouth Carolina, Columbia, SC.
11. CharlesE. Whilden Letters, 1854-1920, MSS in the South CarolinaHistorical Society,Charleston, SC (which collection also includes letters of Edward McCrady,Jr., WilliamG. Whilden,Mrs.
Charles Hard and Rose McKelvin respecting the battleflag of Gregg’s 1stSouth Carolina and atypescript of Ella Hard’s October23, 1969 letter to the Director of Archives,Columbia, SC,respecting her great uncle). 12. Ellen Whilden, Life of Maumer Juno of Charleston, S.C., A Sketch ofJuno (Waller) Seymour(Atlanta, GA: Foote & Davies, 1892).