Unyielding Determination at Cemetery Hill
The battle flags carried by Southern units were usually presented in a similar manner as the Desoto Rifles of New Orleans in 1861: “Receive from your mothers and sisters, from those whose affections greet you, these colors woven by our feeble but reliant hands; and when this bright flag shall float before you on the battlefield, let it not only inspire you with the patriotic ambition of a soldier aspiring to his and his country’s honor and glory, but also may it be a sign that cherished loved ones appeal to you to save them from a fanatical and heartless foe.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Unyielding Determination at Cemetery Hill
“Choking down their fear, and with their colorbearers leading them on, they started over the rise and then up into the face of the Yankee artillery. The guns on the hill “vomit[ed] forth a perfect storm of grape, canister, shrapnel, etc.” But their commander shouted “forward!” and on they marched, “over fences, ditches, through marshy fields”
After crossing the valley, the left flank of the Federal infantry behind a stone wall at the base of Cemetery Hill hit them with a sheet of flame and lead. Yet because of the darkness and the rolling nature of the terrain, their aim way high; most of the bullets shrieked overhead while the Louisiana Tigers kept going, up the hill and into the first line of [enemy] rifle pits.
The fighting became hand to hand as both brigades climbed the slope. One Southerner remembered “with bayonets and clubbed guns we drove them back” out of the Federals’ lines.
Seeing their forward lines break and the Rebels come screaming at them, the troops in the Federal second and third lines of rifle pits broke and ran. With [Brigadier-General Harry T.] Hays’ Tigers hot on their tails, the Federals retreated to the breastworks and emplacements around two batteries at the top of the hill . . . along the way scores of Federals surrendered, but the Confederates refused to stop and take them prisoner officially, instead simply ordered them to the rear.
It was pitch dark, but now the Louisianans and North Carolinians were in among the [enemy] guns on the crest. Here the fighting became “desperate,” recalled Capt. James F. Beall of the Twenty-first North Carolina:
“[B]ut like an unbroken wave, our maddened column rushed on, facing a continual stream of fire. After charging almost to the enemy’s [third] line, we were compelled to fall back, but only a short distance. The column reformed and charged again, but failed to dislodge the enemy. [Our] brigade held its ground with unyielding determination – ever keeping afloat our flag to battle and breeze.”
Over on the right of [Col. Isaac] Avery’s brigade the Sixth North Carolina had fought its way up . . . At least 75 Tarheels crossed the [enemy’s] wall, fighting with clubs, knives, stones, fists and anything else a man could use to defend himself or attack the enemy.
A Confederate colorbearer, probably from the Sixth North Carolina, jumped up on the wall, pistol in one hand, flag in the other. He shouted out “surrender you Yankees,” but a Federal stuck his bayonet into him and pulled the trigger of his rifle, blowing a hole clear through the Confederate. A Federal soldier grabbed for [the falling flag] at the same moment another Confederate grabbed the other end. The ensuing tug-of-war was won by the Rebel.
What was left of the Sixth cleared the ridge and captured the Federal guns, then retreated down the side of the hill to the stone wall, taking their battle flag with them.
When the first colorbearer of the Twenty-first North Carolina was killed while charging up the hill, the flag was picked up by Major Alexander Miller. When Miller went down, Pvt. J.W. Bennett picked it up, and was also shot. Four more men of the Twenty-first North Carolina were killed carrying the flag, then Capt. James Beall picked it up. “The hour was one of horror,” recalled Beall:
“Amid the incessant roar of cannon, the din of musketry, and the glare of bursting shells making the darkness intermittent – adding awfulness to the scene – the hoarse shouts of friend and foe, the piteous cries of wounded and dying, one could well imagine, (if it were proper to say it), that “war is hell . . .”
To remain was certain capture, to retreat was almost certain death. Few, except the wounded and dead, were left behind. Here, these brave North Carolinians ‘stood, few and faint, but fearless still.”
(The Damned Red Flags of the Rebellion, The Confederate Battle Flag at Gettysburg, Richard Rollins, Rank and File Publications, 1997, excerpts, pp. 131-134)