For the Colors, Part 2
Two particular flags carried at the Battle of Antietam illustrate the sacrifices made for the colors. The 125th Pennsylvania Infantry was organized just days before the battle. The morning of September 17 found this regiment advancing into the woods just north of the Dunker Church. Their color bearer was Sergeant George Simpson. Upon entering the woods, Confederates counterattacked and almost immediately Simpson was shot down, “he fell, his death was instantaneous…covering the flag with his body and staining it with his life’s blood oozing from his right temple.” Private Boblitz picked up the flag until he was shot down, and then Sergeant Greenland retrieved it and retreated with the regiment. That flag was given to George’s family and forty-two years later a monument was built on the battlefield by the veterans of the 125th. Carved into granite is a likeness of George Simpson holding his colors. The monument was unveiled by George’s sister Miss Annie Simpson who brought the original flag back for the ceremony. The Huntington Globe reported that the flag “will wave again over the men who made the gallant and heroic charge into the Dunker Church woods…and the sight of it will revive many of the recollections and emotions of that exciting and strenuous day.”
The flag of the 1st Texas Infantry was particularly special to the men. The white “lone star” on the Texas flag was made from their Colonel’s wife’s wedding dress. In addition, the flag was presented to the regiment at the Confederate Capital in Richmond by President Jefferson Davis and his wife. It was this flag that led the Texans into the cauldron of death that was the Cornfield at Antietam. As they advanced the color bearer was shot down, another soldier picked up the flag but he too was shot down. Again and again these Texans saw a man in their front killed or wounded carrying the colors. The regiment would lose 82% of their soldiers killed and wounded and nine color bearers fell beneath their flag. Their greatest loss was their Lone Star flag, dropped in the din and destruction in the corn. The Union soldier who found it said “that thirteen men lay dead within touch of it and the body of one of the dead lay stretched across it.” The Texans, like the Pennsylvanians would do anything, including giving their lives to save their colors and all that they represented.
Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher wrote during the war about what his flag represented. “A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation’s flag, sees not the flag only, but the nation itself; and whatever may be its symbols, it insignia, he reads chiefly in the flag the government, the principles, the truths, and the history which belongs to the nation that sets it forth.” Thankfully our nation’s flag was carried forth through four years of horrific struggle to reunification.
As Jerome Watrous, a veteran of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry reflected, “We realized after Appomattox that the lives of thousands of our comrades who had died on battle fields had in a way been woven into our colors. Then we realized that it was equally true that we have been woven into the colors. It was not only our flag, the flag of our country, but that we were part of it. We had helped to cleanse it; we had given the new-born nation a new and clean flag. The old, faded, torn, furled flags are sacred remnants of the new-born nation’s untarnished emblem.”
Back in South Carolina when Mattie Brunson heard her father’s stories about his flag she asked, “Who was Baxter Rollins?” Private Rollins, answered Joseph, was the sixteen-year-old color bearer for the battery. While serving the battery at Antietam, a piece of artillery shell knocked him down and mortally wounded him just as he fired the cannon. The wheels of the gun rolled over and crushed his feet. Crippled and dying, the men tried to carry Baxter to the rear. With tears in his eyes he said, “Don’t take me to the rear boys, carry me to my flag. I know I must die, and I want to die by my flag.”