Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Jim Taub
On July 1st, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg began. As the forces of both armies converged on the sleepy Pennsylvania town that Wednesday morning, each regiment carried with them a symbol of what they were fighting for. In the style of the British Army, Union Infantry regiments carried two flags, or colors. One was the national, or stars and stripes, and the other was the regimental, usually the flag of the state from which the regiment was raised and mentioning the number and type of the unit. Confederates infantry regiments, on the other hand, generally only carried one flag into battle. While each Confederate army, and sometimes even corps, had its own design for regimental colors, the most famous that sticks with us today is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The flag had an extreme morale value for the men it belonged to. As Gordon Rhea described one South Carolina color bearer in battle: “Here, floating in the vapor above this unimaginable scene of death and horror, was a symbol of hope to the men of the 1st South Carolina. The flag still flew, and the battle was not lost! Soldiers began running toward the banner and the improbable figure who held it aloft.”
The color and the color bearer were different for every regiment, the design may have been a little different, and each man was truly different from one another. Yet it did not matter which side the flag flew on, its design, or the uniform of the man carrying it. Each flag held a special connection to the unit it belonged to. Flags stood for what the men were fighting for, to lose it was a shameful action, to capture an enemy flag was one of the most heroic things a soldier could do. By capturing a flag, you in a sense, deprived the enemy of everything they were fighting for. We know so much about these banners, yet there is still much more to learn.
One of the regiments which fought on the first day, the 2nd North Carolina Infantry, carried this flag into the fighting at Gettysburg and the flag bears the scars of those three days.
Flag of the 2nd North Carolina Infantry
The 2nd North Carolina Infantry was raised in May, 1861 shortly after North Carolina seceded from the Union. They saw intense fighting on the Peninsula and in the Seven Days Battles, as well as at Second Bull Run and during the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Although not heavily engaged, they were present at Fredericksburg, and suffered heavy casualties during the Confederate attacks at Chancellorsville. By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, the men of the 2nd were seasoned veterans of Ramseur’s Brigade, Rodes’ Division, Ewell’s Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. On July 1st, they hit the Union line at the point where the I and XI Corps joined. After moving down from Oak Hill alongside the 4th North Carolina, they plunged into the 13th Massachusetts, 107th Pennsylvania, and 16th Maine. The combined 2nd and 4th N.C. drove the Federals from the field and took between 800 and 900 prisoners. All of this history is compiled and proven by the letters and diaries of the soldiers who were there, as well as through the Official Reports of officers after the battle. However, while many might think that the history books on the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg are closed, there is still so much that we simply don’t know, and lots of room for historians to research and develop new theories on the topic. Such is the issue with the flag of the 2nd North Carolina.
One of those questions, which until recently was unsolved, revolves around the 2nd North Carolina and their flag. In the archives of Gettysburg National Military Park sits a Confederate battle flag. Stenciled in yellow is a simple “2” with “N.C.” on opposite sides of the middle star. Battle honors include Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor (Gaines’ Mill), Malvern Hill, and others – all battles that occurred before Gettysburg. The interesting thing about this flag however, is not its features, as all are very common with other Confederate battle flags. Instead, what is interesting is what is unknown about this flag. There is actually no written evidence that points to this flag being flown at the Battle of Gettysburg. To prove that it was, we have to delve into a wide range of information.
No Official Documentation
In the archival registry of the Park, the flag is listed as having been captured at Gettysburg. However, there exist no corresponding War Department, or official Army of the Potomac records which claim a flag captured at Gettysburg belonged to the 2nd North Carolina Infantry. Moreover, no Confederate records indicated the 2nd lost their flag at Gettysburg. In fact, they had only been heavily engaged near Oak Hill on July 1st, driving back members of the Union I and XI Corps from that position through the town as previously described and did not even participate in the Confederate attacks on the 2nd or 3rd. So, there is little chance that they lost these colors. However, the lack of a Gettysburg battle honor also means that the flag must have been retired or captured at some point before or soon after the battle. The newest honor on the flag is Chancellorsville so the diligent historian should be pointed to that engagement to try to shed some light on the situation.
The 2nd North Carolina suffered heavily in the Battle of Chancellorsville. On May 3rd, 1863, the 2nd and the rest of Ramseur’s Brigade assaulted the Federal positions around Fairview. They gained a foothold in the Union line but ultimately had to be pulled out of the line due to the cost of the fighting. Within about fifteen minutes the 2nd suffered 259 casualties, nearly 75% of the number engaged. Among the many casualties suffered by the 2nd was their color guard, those soldiers assigned to guard the unit’s flag, which was completely wiped out. The flag of the 2nd, issued just a month before, was captured by a Union soldier from New Jersey. The 2nd, now without a flag, had to be issued a generic stenciled flag from the reserves held by the Confederate Quartermaster Corps for the upcoming campaign – the campaign which would take them into Pennsylvania. This is the flag housed at Gettysburg.
The 2nd, having lost their color at Chancellorsville received this flag as a replacement, and used it during the Gettysburg Campaign. After Gettysburg, Rodes’ Division received new flags to replace the many lost at Gettysburg and so all of the regiments therefore turned in their colors. This flag of the 2nd was only flown at Gettysburg before a replacement arrived to be used for the 1864 Campaigns. It was, therefore, not actually lost during the battle but must have found its way to the Gettysburg archives by some other, as yet unknown, path.
What does this tell us of our knowledge of Gettysburg?
This shows truly just how much more there is to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War. Every day new finds come to light which change our perspective on the war, the battles, and the soldiers who fought in it. Objects such as the flag of the 2nd North Carolina, which although housed in the most visited Civil War site in the country, still retain a high level of question and mystery surrounding their provenance and use illustrate this clearly. In some cases, however, while the artifacts are important and interesting, their provenance is not what people want or assume. The archivist and the historian have to question provenance and maintain their objectivity to truly understand what was true and what leftover physical evidence represents.
 Gordon C. Rhea, Carrying the Flag: The Story of Private Charles Whilden, the Confederacy’s Unlikely Hero (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 215.
 Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg–the First Day (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 192.
 Walter Clark, “Second Regiment,” in Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War 1861-’65, vol. 1 (Raleigh: E.M. Uzzell, Printer, 1901), 170.
 Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996), 336.