The most precarious role on the battlefield is serving as a member of the color guard. The standard-bearer leads the unit into battle and absorbs the brunt of enemy gunfire.
During the Civil War, it was not uncommon for a half-dozen men carrying the flag to become casualties in a single battle. Whenever one went down, another color-guard member spontaneously took hold of the flag pole and pressed on with the unit rallying behind him.
A story that appeared in the Richmond Examiner and was reprinted in the New Orleans Times Picayune on Aug. 23, 1863, reflects to what ends combatants will go to protect the flag. It involves Sgt. Charles S. Clancy, color-bearer for the 1st Louisiana Regiment in Nicholls’ Brigade of Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s Division, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Corps, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On July 2, 1863, during the battle at Gettysburg, Pa., Union forces took Clancy prisoner “whilst bearing his colors up to the very front of the enemy’s breastworks [on the south slope of Culp’s Hill] amid a perfect tornado of shell and bullets.” Cut off from any possibility of escape, “Clancy tore his already bullet-torn flag from its staff, and secured it underneath his shirt.”
Following the battle, Clancy joined other Rebel POWs who entrained under Union guard to Fort McHenry in Baltimore for processing. His ultimate destination was the prison at Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River, just east of Delaware City.
Retaining the 1st Louisiana colors under wraps, Clancy managed to keep his prize from being discovered. He subsequently gained release by feigning “extreme illness” and joined other seriously sick and wounded prisoners sent back into the South by steamer.
Upon arriving in New Orleans, Clancy revealed his secret and exhibited the regimental flag for all to see. According to the article, “The flag bears the perforations of upwards of two hundred bullets, and one shell, and the piece of another [shell] passed through it in the fight at Gettysburg.”
More significant, it was noted that Clancy was the sixth color-bearer of the regiment, five having fallen in other battles with the same flag in their grasp. Miraculously, Clancy had carried the flag for the better part of a year without becoming a statistic.
The newspaper article ventured that the proud Louisiana regimental color-bearer could claim he carried the flag “farther into the North than the Confederate flag has ever yet been advanced.” While technically not correct, it represents the perceived sentiments of what the Confederate army accomplished at Gettysburg.
On the other side of the coin, Bradley Schmehl’s painting “Into the Wheatfield” depicts the 2nd Delaware Regiment charging across open land on July 2 at Gettysburg, in the face of intense enemy gunfire. The 2nd Delaware of Col. John Brooke’s Fourth Brigade, Brig. Gen. John Caldwell’s First Division, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, was part of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac.
In this painting, the color guard leads the way, carrying both the Delaware state flag and the U.S. national flag. The state flag color-bearer is shown falling victim to a gunshot wound.
Before either the bearer or the flag hit the ground, the nearest member of the guard reaches out to grab and retain the leadership position of the Delaware banner. The scene illustrates the primacy of the color guard’s role and its importance, despite the hazards involved.
Members of the color guard are the unsung heroes in warfare, including the conflict between the states more than 150 years ago. It is a job for which only the heroic need apply.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.