Civil War soldiers on both sides would go to extraordinary lengths to save their regimental and national flags from capture by the enemy. One Union officer who risked his life to save his regiment’s U.S. flag was 2nd Lieutenant Charles R. Tanner of the 1st Delaware Infantry.
At the Battle of Antietam, the 1st Delaware was brigaded with the 4th New York and 5th Maryland regiments in Brigadier General Max Weber’s brigade of Brigadier General William H. French’s division of the Union 2nd Corps. French marched his division south across the William Roulette farm and toward a sunken road where Major General D.H. Hill’s Division was in a strong defensive position. As the Federals emerged from a cornfield and crested a ridge, they were out in the open and exposed to Confederate fire. The 1st Delaware’s colonel ordered a charge upon the sunken road (which would later be called Bloody Lane), and scores were cut down by the musket fire from the Alabama regiments of Brigadier General Robert E. Rodes’ Brigade. Among the casualties was the flag bearer of the 1st Delaware’s national flag, and the flag itself was on the ground where the flag bearer had been killed.
The 1st Delaware pulled back to the cornfield and took cover. The men saw the colors lying on the ground between the lines, and were determined to get them back. Here’s Lt. Tanner’s account of how he got them back:
The cornfield, where we had taken up our position terminated about 100 yards distant from the sunken road, leaving nothing but short grass pastureland between us.
On coming out of the corn, we were unexpectedly confronted by heavy masses of Confederate infantry, with their muskets resting on the temporary breastwork. We all realized that the slaughter would be great, but not a man flinched, and cheerfully we went to our baptism of fire.
Our colonel dashed in front with the ringing order: ‘Charge!’ and charge we did into that leaden hail. Within less than five minutes 286 men out of 635, and eight company commanders, lay wounded or dead on that bloody slope. The colonel’s horse had been struck by four bullets; the lieutenant colonel was wounded and his horse killed, and our dearly loved colors were lying within twenty yards of the frowning lines of muskets, surrounded by the lifeless bodies of nine heroes, who died while trying to plant them in that road of death.
Those of us who were yet living got back to the edge of the cornfield, and opened such a fire that, though the enemy charged five times to gain possession of the flag, they were driven back each time with terrible slaughter.
We had become desperately enraged, thinking, not of life, but how to regain the broad strips of bunting under which we had marched, bivouacked, suffered, and seen our comrades killed. To lose what we had sworn to defend with our blood would have been, in our minds, a disgrace, and every man of the First Delaware was ready to perish, rather than allow the colors to fall into the hands of the enemy. Two hundred rifles guarded the Stars and Stripes, and if they were not to be recovered by us, the foe should not have them while a single member of the regiment remained alive.
Charge after charge was made, and the gallant Fifth Maryland, forming on our left, aided in the defense. The fire from our lines directed to the center of that dense mass of Confederates, was appalling. Over thirteen hundred noble dead were covered with earth in that sunken road by the burying part on the following day.
When the Maryland boys joined us, Captain Rickets of Company C, our regiment, called for volunteers to save the colors, and more than thirty brave fellows responded. It seemed as if they had but just started, when at least twenty, including the gallant leader, were killed and those who would have rushed forward, were forced back by withering fire.
Maddened, and more desperate than ever, I called for the men to make another effort, and before we marched fifty yards only a scattering few remained able to get back to the friendly corn, in which we sought refuge from the tempest of death.
Then Major Thomas A. Smyth (afterward Major General, and killed on the day General Lee surrendered) said he would concentrate twenty-five picked men, whose fire should be directed over the colors.
‘Do it’, I cried, ‘and I will get there!’
There were hundreds of brave men yet alive on that awful field, and at my call for assistance, twenty sprang toward me.
While covering that short distance, it seemed as if a million bees were singing in the air. The shouts and yells from either side sounded like menaces and threats. But I had reached the goal, had caught up the staff which was already splintered by shot, and the colors pierced with many a hole and stained here and there with the lifeblood of our comrades, when a bullet shattered my arm. Luckily my legs were still serviceable, and, seizing the precious bunting with my left hand, I made the best eighty yard time on record, receiving two more wounds.
The colors were landed safely among the men of our regiment just as a large body of Confederate infantry poured in on our flank, compelling us to face in a different direction. We had the flags, however, and the remainder of the First Delaware held them against all comers.
After saving the flag, Tanner received a battlefield promotion to first lieutenant. He also was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire at the Battle of Antietam.
“The Battle of Antietam” by Jacob D. Cox. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence Buel.
Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam
by Stephen W. Sears
“To Save the Stars and Stripes” by Charles B. Tanner. In Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes won the Medal of Honor. Compiled by Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel.