Dusting the Colors
by I.A. Isherwood
Bombarded by dozens of canon, the commander of the Third Division, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac steadied his men with torrents of vitriolic encouragement. When the bombardment concluded, skirmishers emerged from the woods opposite, followed by infantry in three lines, walking towards their defensive position along Cemetery Ridge. The assaulting Confederates appeared fearfully strong.
When within 100 yards of our line of infantry, the fire of our men could no longer be restrained. Four lines rose from behind our stone wall, and before the smoke of our first volley had cleared way, the enemy, in dismay and consternation, were seeking safety in flight. Every attempt by their officers to rally them was in vain. In less time than I can recount it, they were throwing away their arms and appealing most piteously for mercy. The angel of death alone can produce such a field as was presented. (O.R. Series 1: 27, p. 454)
Alex Hays’s division took fifteen battle flags, dropped from hands of desperate men in the hundred yard killing space between his formidable position and the Emmitsburg Road. Desperation drives defeat and if ever there were desperate men it was those opposite Hays who, wounded in spirit if not in body, threw down their arms and fell upon the mercy of the killers to their front.
What happened next is a part of Gettysburg lore. Hays and two of his staff officers, Captain George Corts and Lieutenant David Shields, rode out in front of the division dragging captured Confederate flags in their wake, their men cheering as they did so. Their blood was up with victory that they undoubtedly knew had been secured by standing their ground.
It is worth mentioning that Hays and his aides not only dragged the flags in front of their men, but did so in front of Confederates – those who had run and were looking on distantly, those who lay wounded and dying, and those who threw themselves upon the mercy of their captors – the gesture one of deliberate disrespect, of intentional humiliation towards defeated men.
The anecdote should give pause to those who wish to romanticize the Civil War.
I bring up this story for a particular reason. We are in the anniversary week of the Battle of Gettysburg – 152 years since Hays, Corts, and Shields dragged their captured Confederate flags in the dirt – and anniversaries are a time for reflection. At present the nation is rehashing an old, exhausting, debate about Confederate symbols and their place in public spaces. I happen to live in a town that is a living memorial to the Civil War so we deal with issues of history and so-called heritage on a daily basis.
Yesterday, I saw something rather curious that brought to mind the Hays anecdote. I went to lunch with a colleague at a local burger joint, The Blue and Gray, where they serve hamburgers named after Civil War generals with either a Union or Confederate flag shoved through the bun. We got our unionist burgers and folded Old Glory carefully to make sure we did not grease the colors. Enjoying my Sickles burger, I looked out the window and saw a woman walking up the street with a Confederate flag draped across her shoulders.
Gettysburg is something of a Civil War theme park and normally I would pay no attention to this sort of thing. But not this week. It was clear that our Confederate superhero was performing something of a political act. We watched her walk up to the town square where she stood with a single compatriot, the two of them holding up their flags at passing cars. It was an awkward way to pay homage to, well, something.
The incident, if we can call it that, played on my mind yesterday afternoon. So I took my colleague up to the national cemetery to find the grave of Captain David Shields, the fellow who rode with Hays.
Shields was from Edgeworth, Pennsylvania. He enlisted at age seventeen in 1861 in the 63rd Pennsylvania. He was nineteen years old when he was at Gettysburg. He lived a long life despite his war wounds dying in 1937 at age 93. He wished to be buried where he had fought, a short distance from where he rode with Hays.
He was a brave soldier – suffering wounds and hardships over three years of war. He was committed to his cause – crushing a rebellion. He was loyal to his country – the United States of America. He risked and almost gave his life to bring together a fractured nation.
This week, as this Confederate flag nonsense continues here in heritage central, I’ll be remembering him.