Few spots on any Civil War battlefield witnessed more hellish combat than the Mule Shoe salient at Spotsylvania Court House in Central Virginia during the 1864 Overland Campaign – arguably the deciding fighting that ultimately doomed the Confederacy’s chance at winning independence.
Heavy rains pummeled the heavy forested country also pot-marked with broad open meadows and farmlots in Spotsylvania County. There a South Carolinian private, a 40-year-old, epileptic desk clerk from Charleston found himself amidst the intense slaughter of hand-to-hand combat where his remarkable courage helped save Robert E. Lee’s army from catastrophic defeat.
Gordon Rhea’s superb book: Carrying the Flag; The Story of the Private Charles Whilden, The Confederacy’s Most Unlikely Hero, expertly chronicles Whilden’s wartime experience, which came after four decades of unremarkable achievements. Though born to a prosperous family, his family fell upon financial difficulties long prior to the Civil War’s commencement in his hometown. Though Charles was eager to enlist in the army, not until 1864 was he accepted into the ranks to help bolster the South’s dwindling manpower. The Union army’s thrust toward Richmond began in early May, and Charles Whilden found himself enlisted in the 1st South Carolina Infantry regiment. That regiment fought bravely at the Battle of the Wilderness just a week prior to Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s relentless attacks at Spotsylvania Court House.
Charles was not well there, so much so that he was barely able to walk when Lee needed troops to plug a breach the Union attacking forces under General Winfield Scott Hancock had created in the Mule Shoe. The emergency required quick action. Although Charles was suffering from a seizure he still wanted to carry the regimental banner into battle as most of the regiment’s color guard had been decimated during the week’s fighting prior to that rain-soaked May 12. His good friend and regiment comrade, James Armstrong, took the flag from him knowing his friend was not up to the heroic moment. Armstrong promised once the regiment made contact with the enemy, Charles could have the flag back.
In a wild charge into the earthworks, Charles grabbed the staff and began waving it high as he climbed up the traverse. Soldiers on both sides were demonically clubbing and bayoneting each other in fury. Still wracked by convulsions, Charles saw that the bullet riddled flag was about to tear from the staff. Just then a bullet pierced his shoulder staggering him, yet he grabbed the flag and wrapped it around his body as he stood back up to lead his fellow Palmetto brothers in arms in a counterattack that thwarted the Union advance. The Mule Shoe remained in Confederate hands in part to the uncanny and stunning heroism of a 40-year-old epileptic private.
“In stooping or squatting to load,” a Confederate remembered the fighting there, “the mud, blood and brains mingled, and would reach up to my waist, and my head and face were covered or spotted with the horrid paint.”
Charles Whilden survived the battle and the war and in September 1866 on a rainy Charleston day, he took off for a walk. Soon overcome by another all too common seizure, he fell to the ground, face first into a mud puddle where he drowned to death just two years after his moment of glory at bloody Spotsylvania.