Civil War Profiles: The 1st Delaware’s ‘torn and tattered’ flags


The 152nd anniversary of the bloodiest day of the Civil War took place on Sept. 17. On that date in 1862 at Antietam Creek in Maryland, when the 1st Delaware Regiment charged “Bloody Lane,” a strong Confederate position in a sunken road, the color guard of nine men were all killed or wounded in a hail of gunfire and the regimental flags left on the field.

The Rebel position was about 100 yards at the opposite end of an open field into which the Union troops entered from the cover of woods and a cornfield. In less than five minutes, the 1st Delaware paid a toll in casualties of 286 men out of 635, including eight of 10 company commanders.

After several attempts to reclaim the flag failed because of continued heavy fighting, Maj. Thomas A. Smyth called for 25 marksmen to lay down a covering fire, while an attempt was made to retrieve the colors. Lt. Charles B. Tanner courageously volunteered to venture into the fatal area between the lines to bring the flags back.

Tanner was a Philadelphian by birth who had enlisted at age 19 in the 90-day 1st Delaware Regiment in 1861, then joined again as a sergeant when the regiment reorganized into a three-year unit. He rose quickly to sergeant-major and then second lieutenant within three-months.

Roger A. Martin recorded Tanner’s description of what happened next at Antietam. He had to cross a considerable distance; and, with the sustained gunfire, “it seemed as if a million bees were singing in the air.”

Somehow, he reached the flag and staff “splintered by shot, and the colors pierced with many a hole, and stained with the lifeblood of our comrades, when a bullet shattered my arm.” Miraculously, Tanner made it back to his comrades, despite receiving two more wounds.

Tanner spent the next month in the hospital recovering from his wounds, but renewed his heroic service at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, where he was wounded once again. Although medically discharged in September 1863; incredibly, he reenlisted a year later and suffered another wound at Petersburg.

When Delaware’s Thomas A. Smith, now a general, was killed in battle on April 9, 1865, the day Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, Tanner had the solemn duty of escorting his body back to Wilmington. The following month, Tanner mustered out of service, the war having ended.

Twenty-seven years after the war, Tanner applied for and justifiably was awarded the Medal of Honor. Martin tells us in “Delaware’s Medal of Honor Winners” that the citation read: “Carried off the regimental colors, which had fallen within 20 yards of the enemy’s lines, the color guard of 9 men having all been killed or wounded, was himself 3 times wounded.”

Today, the 1st Delaware’s regimental and U.S. flags are part of Delaware Historical Society’s collection. Both were badly damaged during the Civil War, and are in need of professional conservation. DHS launched a campaign on the recent anniversary date of Sept. 17 to raise $30,000 to perform the necessary work.

DHS’s Fall 2014 “Making History” newsletter states, “Torn and tattered from service in battle, the flags need our help if they are to survive and continue to serve through public exhibition and education.” According to Civil War News, which has taken the appeal nationally, when conservation is completed, “the flags will be introduced to the public in an exhibition at the Delaware History Museum.” All supporters will be invited to a reception to view the restored colors.

Details of the appeal can be found online at http://dehistory.org/rally-round-the-flags. Donations can be mailed to the Delaware Flag Fund, Delaware Historical Society, 505 N. Market St., Wilmington, DE 19801. For further information, call Dr. Constance Cooper at (302) 655-7161.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.