.. otomac to move southeast about 12 miles to the vicinity of Spotsylvania Court House (NPS Web Site), hoping to get between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. General Robert E. Lee, however, was quicker, and elements of the Confederate First Corps arrived at Spotsylvania Court House just ahead of the Federals. Over the next few days a series of collisions in the area occurred as both sides took up positions and brought up additional units.
The Army of Northern Virginia settled into a defensive line at Spotsylvania that bulged northward in the center to form a salient or “mule-shoe,” with elements of Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps defending the mule-shoe. At first light on May 12, nearly 19,000 men of the Union II Corps, taking advantage of ground fog, attacked the tip or apex of the mule-shoe, quickly overwhelming Major General Edward Johnson’s 4,000-man division defending the apex. Once inside the mule-shoe, the Federals threatened to advance southward like a tidal wave. Only their own disorganization and a series of desperate Confederate counterattacks halted the Union advance before it resulted in a general rout. With most of Johnson’s Division dead or prisoners, a considerable segment of the works inside the apex of the mule-shoe was unoccupied by any Confederate troops.
To correct this, General Lee forwarded two brigades from the Third Corps, Harris’s Mississippians and McGowan’s South Carolinians, during the mid-morning hours of the 12th. With a cheer and at the double quick, McGowan’s Brigade advanced towards the tip of the mule-shoe in support of Harris’s Brigade, sloshing through rain and mud and under heavy fire. At the head of each of the brigade’s five regiments, two soldiers carried the regimental state flag and the national battleflag. The blue silk state flag featured a palmetto tree encircled with a wreath of oak and laurel leaves; the national battleflag displayed the familiar blue, starred St.Andrew’s cross dividing a red field. When the regular color bearer was shot, Whilden insisted upon bearing his regiment’s national colors into the fight, although he was not a member of Company K, the regiment’s color company.
Lieutenant James Armstrong, the commander of CompanyK and Whilden’s messmate, relented, though, according to Armstrong’s postwar account, Whilden was “feeble in health and totally unfitted for active service… In fact, he was stumbling at every step.” Watching Whilden struggle to keep up with his command, Armstrong offered to relieve Whilden of the flag and to carry it himself. Whilden relinquished the flag to the lieutenant, but only after Armstrong had promised to restore it to him when the regiment halted. As the command arrived at the next line, “Whilden came rushing up, took the flag and bravely bore it throughout the fight,” Armstrong recalled. The lieutenant was being literal when he wrote that Whilden “bore” the flag, because, when the top of his flag staff was shot away during the advance, Whilden tied the battleflag around his waist and continued forward. When Whilden and his comrades finally halted in the late forenoon, they fell into trenches west of the mule-shoe tip.
Perhaps two hundred yards of the salient’s defenses then remained in Federal hands. In his recent book on Grant’s Overland Campaign, Noah Trudeau writes: “Along those two hundred yards of mutually held trenches, men now killed each other with zealous abandon. In a war that had birthed its share of bloody angles, this day and the morning of the next at Spotsylvania would give birth to the bloodiest of them all.” For the next 17 hours or so, McGowan’s Brigade would hold its position along the apex of the salient front and would maintain a more or less continuous fire. At times the two sides were only a few yards apart. Now and then a hundred or so Yankees would surge forward over the Confederate trenches, only to be immediately hurled back in desperate hand-to-hand fighting.
Rain fell intermittently during the afternoon of the 12th, adding to the misery of the combatants. About 10 o’clock that evening, a large oak, some 22 inches in diameter and cut almost in half by Federal rifle fire, fell down on works manned by Whilden’s regiment, wounding several men and startling a great many more. While this desperate fighting took place, other Confederates were constructing a new defensive line across the base of the mule-shoe about a mile to the rear of the Mississippians and South Carolinians. Finally, at 4 o’clock in the morning of May13, the brigades of Harris and McGowan withdrew to the new line. Thus ended the longest sustained hand-to-hand combat of the war.
The toll on McGowan’s Brigade had been heavy. General McGowan was wounded early in the advance, and the commander of Gregg’s 1st South Carolina, Col.C.W. McCreary, fell wounded almost in Whilden’s arms. Total casualties within the brigade exceeded 40 percent. One of these casualties was the impromptu flag bearer, Private Charles Whilden.
At some point before McGowan’s Brigade retired to the relative safety of the new defensive line, a bullet tore open Whilden’s shirt, inflicting a wound to his shoulder. With the flag still tied around his waist, Whilden was carried to a field hospital. For all intents and purposes, the war was over for him. The next day, May l4, Charles hurriedly wrote a letter to his brother, William, who was then serving as an artillery officer near Charleston. After describing the fighting of the preceding two days and the heavy losses of his brigade, Charles turned to a more personal subject.
“[I]f it should be the decree of the Almighty that I should lose my life in this War,” he wrote, then William should have his meerschaum pipe and his sisters-in-law should draw for his watch and chain. What little remained of his property, Charles wrote, should be “equally divided between Sisters Charlotte & Ellen Ann — I promised dear Mother that they should never want if I could prevent it.” Sent to the General Hospital at Camp Winder in Richmond to recover his health, Whilden was furloughed to Charleston in late August. Listed as “absent sick at Charleston” on the muster rolls of his regiment for September through December 1864, Whilden never recovered sufficiently to return to active service. After the War In common with other Confederate veterans, Charles Whilden struggled to put his life back together after the war. He might have succeeded, but on September 25, 1866 he died suddenly in Charleston at age 42. According to Elizabeth Hard, her Great Uncle Charles “died without fame or glory, as on an early morning walk he suffered an [epileptic] attack and fell in a pool of water from rain collected on the pavement.” The man who had survived the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania drowned back home in a few inches of ground water. The story of the flag that Charles Whilden carried so courageously at Spotsylvania does not end with his death.
After Whilden was wounded at Spotsylvania and hospitalized, the flag was stored with his other effects. Given to Whilden when he was furloughed to Charleston in August 1864, the flag was in his possession when he died about two years thereafter. About 15 years after the war, Edward McCrady, Jr., a prominent Charleston lawyer who had captained the color company of Gregg’s 1st South Carolina early in the war and had later risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel of the regiment, petitioned William Whilden to turn over the battleflag that he had inherited from his brother Charles. McCrady had possession of the regiment’s blue state colors, and he professed a desire to reunite the two flags. In a letter written on New Year’s Day, 1880, McCrady pled his best case, pointing out that his regiment had carried the battleflag “in every battle until May 1864” and that, for years during the war, he had “lived with the flag in [his] tent, and slept with it by [his] side in the bivouac.” After consulting his three surviving brothers, two of whom were Baptist ministers, William Whilden declined McCrady’s request, essentially on the grounds that McCrady had no higher claim to the flag than any other veteran of the regiment.
In declining, however, Whilden indicated a willingness to entrust the flag to a collection of Confederate relics. Following William Whilden’s death in 1896, custody of the battleflag passed to William’s daughter, Mrs. Charles Hard of Greenville. In 1906, Mrs. Hard delivered up the flag to her Uncle Charles’ old friend and messmate, James Armstrong, a postwar harbor master of Charleston who had commanded the color company of Gregg’s 1st South Carolina at Spotsylvania.
In his letter to Mrs. Hard expressing his appreciation for the flag, Armstrong promised to “communicate with the other officers of the Regiment in regard to sending the flag to the State House to be placed alongside of the blue State flag.” Armstrong assured Mrs. Hard that, “[u]ntil sent there it will be kept in a fire proof vault.” Time passed, and the battleflag remained with the aging Armstrong. Finally, in 1920, Mrs. Hard wrote to Armstrong about the flag. Rose McKevlin, Armstrong’s nurse, responded, informing Mrs. Hard that Armstrong’s leg had been amputated the prior month as a result of a wound he had suffered at Spotsylvania more than half a century previously.
The letter explained that Armstrong had tried to convene a meeting of the surviving officers to discuss the flag but that he had failed to do so, and it concluded with the promise that Armstrong, being the senior of the two surviving officers of the regiment, would send the flag to the Secretary of State in Columbia to be placed alongside the blue state colors of the regiment already there. Although the evidence is not conclusive, the old soldier evidently made good on his nurse’s promise on his behalf by turning over the battleflag to the state before he died. . PRINCIPAL SOURCES used in preparing this essay 1. James Armstrong and Varina D.
Brown, “McGowan’s Brigade at Spotsylvania,” Confederate Veteran, vol. 33 (1925), pp. 376-379. 2. J.F.J. Caldwell, The History of a Brigade of South Carolinians, Known First as “Gregg’s,” and Subsequently as “McGowan’s Brigade” (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Press, 1984 reprint of 1866 ed.).
3. Compiled Service Record of CharlesE. Whilden, 1st Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of South Carolina, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109, National Archives, Washington, D.C. 4. Fairfax Downey, The Color-Bearers (Mattituck, NY: J. M.
Carroll & Company, 1984). 5. William D. Matter, If it Takes All Summer, the Battle of Spotsylvania (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). 6. John Hammond Moore, editor, “Letters From a Santa Fe Army Clerk, 1855-1856, CharlesE.
Whilden,” New Mexico Historical Review, vol.40, no.2 (April 1965), pp. 141-164 (relating to letters from CharlesE. Whilden to his brother, WilliamG. Whilden, or Mrs.WilliamG. Whilden, the originals of which are in the South Caroliniana Library). 7. John Belton O’Neall, Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina (Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, Publishers, 1975), Vol.II, at p.614.
8. Noah Andre Trudeau, Bloody Roads South, the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989). 9. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, City of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, Schedule1-Free Inhabitants, National Archives Microfilm Pub. No.T-6, Reel No.146, p.8 (reverse).
10. CharlesE. Whilden Letters, 1855-1856, MSS in the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. 11. CharlesE. Whilden Letters, 1854-1920, MSS in the South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, SC (which collection also includes letters of Edward McCrady, Jr., WilliamG.
Whilden, Mrs. Charles Hard and Rose McKelvin respecting the battleflag of Gregg’s 1st South Carolina and a typescript of Ella Hard’s October23, 1969 letter to the Director of Archives, Columbia, SC, respecting her great uncle). 12. [Ellen Whilden,] Life of Maumer Juno of Charleston, S.C., A Sketch of Juno (Waller) Seymour (Atlanta, GA: Foote & Davies, 1892).