We all know that museum collections are repositories of rare and fascinating items, but every so often we have the exciting opportunity to rediscover something so rare, special, and unique that it occupies its own universe. Here at the Delaware Historical Society, we are fortunate enough to have original Civil War battle flags from many of the Delaware regiments but two in particular from the First Delaware Regiment have a fascinating story to tell thanks to the efforts of Paul Preston Davis, one of our members and dedicated researchers.
For Mr. Davis, it began with a photograph in our collections of the color guard of the First Delaware Regiment, who are posed lined up in uniform along with two battered flags, one federal stars and stripes and one with the state seal. From here it was only a short hop to wondering about the possible stories contained within: Who were these men? When and where was this picture taken? Could these flags possibly still survive somewhere and what was their story? Thus began a research odyssey that has led Mr. Davis to some fascinating conclusions.
According to his research, this photo was taken at Garrett’s studio in Wilmington in January 1864, when those who had reenlisted in the First Regiment were in town on a thirty-day furlough. The First Delaware Infantry was originally organized in Wilmington as a three month regiment in May 1861 but later reorganized as a three year regiment in September of that year and served through the war. And what about the battered flags in the picture? Could they still possibly survive somewhere? Amazingly, the answer is a resounding yes. They are part of our collections here at the Society, but that is only the beginning of this story. The flags entered our collection on January 29, 1884 as a gift from the Association of the Survivors of the First Delaware Volunteer Infantry Regiment, along with a brief history of the regiment prepared by Captain William P. Seville of Company E.
The First Delaware received new regimental colors in August 1862, just before the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) at which it fought. It was during this battle that the then-newly-minted flags in the photo were almost lost to the enemy but were saved at the last minute by Second Lieutenant Charles B. Tanner (1842-1911) of Company H, who made a dramatic and legendary charge onto the field to rescue them, getting his arm shattered by a bullet in the process (years later, Tanner would receive the Medal of Honor for his valor). Not surprisingly, the flags were no longer in great shape when the regiment got them back. Tanner described the flags as “pierced with many a hole, and stained here and there with the lifeblood of our comrades.” In his published history of the regiment, Captain Seville also noted that the entire color guard of the regiment at Antietam was either killed or wounded and that the rescued flags were so badly damaged that they were never again used in battle.
Mr. Davis’ research has led him to believe, however, that this was not the case. He believes that the flags rescued at Antietam were the same flags that the regiment fought under at the later battles of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), and Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) before it returned to Wilmington in 1864. He bases his conclusions on the fact that state regimental colors were normally acquired from the regiment’s home state and that the First Delaware did not have an opportunity to return home or replace its flags at any time between 1862 & 1864 because it was continually on the move with the rest of the army. After Antietam, the regiment appointed a new color guard headed by Sergeant John M. Dunn (who was present at later battles and returned to Wilmington with the regiment in 1864), but there is no conclusive proof or record that it also replaced its flags at this time. Additionally, Mr. Davis notes that the display of battle-worn flags in combat was not at all unusual and would have in no way disgraced the regiment.
All this makes for fascinating reading and we are delighted to be able to add Mr. Davis’ research efforts to our object file on the history of these flags. It only further serves to confirm that they are treasures indeed! Not only were they present at Antietam, but were also at some of the other major battles of the Civil War, including Gettysburg. We are hoping to make them a very high priority for conservation as state and national treasures. Watch this space as we hope to be able to bring good news updates on this later…