The Delaware Historical Society holds the federal and regimental colors of the 1st Delaware Volunteers, which served in the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  The regiment received the flags in August 1862 as a gift from the people of Delaware.  Between September 1862 and July 1863 the flags saw service on the front lines at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  The flags have been in the collection of the Delaware Historical Society since 1884.

 

 

 
1st Delaware Volunteer Colors (Delaware Historical Society Collection)  Photo courtesy of Steve Boyden
1st Delaware Volunteer Colors
(Delaware Historical Society Collection)
Photo by Steve Boyden

 

 

 

 

The flags bear the tears and tatters of their battles - and because of their condition, they currently cannot be exhibited.  They are backwards in the photos because that is the only way they can be rolled out in their present condition.


US flag belonging to 1st Delaware Volunteers (Delaware Historical Society Collection)

US flag belonging to 1st Delaware Volunteers
(Delaware Historical Society Collection)
Photo by Steve Boyden

 

 

 

Flags have powerful meanings.  Thomas Murphey, chaplain of the 1st Delaware and the author of one of the two 19c histories of the unit, eloquently expressed the soldier’s love for his flags when the decimated 1st Delaware mustered in August 1863, after Gettysburg.  After mourning the loss of men, he said,


- Rev. Thomas G. Murphey, Four Years in the War

Rev. Thomas G. Murphey, Four Years in the War

 

 


On September 17, 1862, the 1st Delaware and its flags participated in Antietam, their first big battle. In particular, the regiment was involved in the fight at the Sunken Road.  The men were attacked by Confederates, then as the line of the 1st Delaware began to disintegrate, Union troops fired on them from behind.


 


Lieutenant Seville reports:“On the ground, a few yards in advance, where the line was first arrested, lay a large number of our men, killed or wounded, and among them lay the colors of the regiment, one of which was held by Lieutenant-Colonel Hopkinson, who was wounded.” (William P. Seville, History of the First Regiment, Delaware Volunteers [1884]) The second flag was protected by a wounded color bearer, Sergeant John W. Eccles, who threw his body over the banner. Realizing the danger, a group of men, led by Captain James Rickards, organized a push to return to the original line, recover the colors, and hold the position, if possible. Rickards was shot and killed, but the others, including Lieutenant C. B. Tanner and Sergeant John Dunn, rushed into the fray and saved the colors.

But the flags had sustained damage. Following the battle, the entire color guard was replaced. At its head was John Dunn, who had distinguished himself in the charge to save the flags.


Stereocard, “The ‘Sunken Road’ at Antietam”  (Library of Congress)

Stereocard, “The ‘Sunken Road’ at Antietam”
(Library of Congress)

 

 


In early May 1863, the 1st Delaware saw action at Chancellorsville.  As Stonewall Jackson outflanked the Union troops and attacked from the west, the 1st Delaware advanced and pushed Lee’s troops down towards the Plank Road. Finding themselves cut off from the rest of the army, they fell back and Lee’s troops charged. At the same time, they were receiving friendly fire from Union soldiers behind them, who thought the etire 1st Delaware had been killed or captured. Colonel Albright, the brigade commander, decided to withdraw to the original line.


 

Seville writes: “The men were cautioned to move slowly to the rear, and when outside of the wood to reform the line left in front. This was done, and our appearance in the field, with our colors flying, caused a cessation of the fire from our batteries. The line formed, the command ‘About face!’ was given, and at the words ‘Forward, march!’ we moved forward in ordinary quick time, and w/ almost as much precision as if on review. This sudden appearance & deliberate retreat so greatly amazed our commanders, who were looking on, that a staff-officer was sent galloping towards us to learn who we were, and report in time to sweep us out of existence if we should prove to be enemies carrying the national flag.”  (William P. Seville, History of the First Regiment, Delaware Volunteers [1884])


Edwin Forbes, “Attack on the Union Position at the Chancellorsville House,” 1863 (Library of Congress)

Edwin Forbes, “Attack on the Union Position
at the Chancellorsville House,” 1863
(Library of Congress)

 

 


At Gettysburg, the 1st Delaware endured Pickett’s Charge on the afternoon of July 3.  About three hours of constant bombardment, aimed at softening the front lines, was followed, around 4:30, by a full-on charge. When Pickett’s charge was broken, the flags, one carried by Color-Sergeant John M. Dunn, led the entire 1st Delaware over the stone wall to combat the Confederates at close range. Hundreds of prisoners were taken, and the 1st Delaware captured three enemy flags. In his formal report, Lt. Dent commended John Dunn, “who, colors in hand, led the regiment across the stone wall in its countercharge.” [Seville 89] His fellow color-sergeant, Thomas Seymour, was praised posthumously, having been “cut in two by a shell."


 


The 1st Delaware pursued the Confederates, arriving in early August at Bristersburg, Virginia. While there, their chaplain, Rev. Thomas Murphey, observed the men in the first Sunday morning inspection after the Battle of Gettysburg. Murphey was overcome by the decimation of the regiment—now only a few more than 200 men. The flags, which Murphey had delivered to the Regiment only one year ago, seemed to suffer along with the troops: “soiled, pierced and tattered, [the flags], drooping, hugged the staff as if in mourning for the braves who had fallen beneath them, and in their defence.” [10]

But there was little rest. The 1st Delaware participated in the Battle of Bristoe Station, the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station and the Battle of Mine Run. In these battles, the regiment served primarily as skirmishers, so it is unlikely that the flags were used.

Edwin Forbes, “Picketts Charge on the Union Centre  at the Grove of Trees about 3 PM” (Library of Congress)

Edwin Forbes, “Picketts Charge on the Union Centre
at the Grove of Trees about 3 PM”
(Library of Congress)

 

 

 

In December 1863, the 1st Delaware was in winter camp at Stevensburg, Virginia. Many of the men reenlisted for 3 more years and got a 30 day furlough to go back home to Wilmington. They arrived on January 1, 1864, and were welcomed with an enthusiastic procession through the streets to Old Town Hall, where an “elegant and bountiful” dinner was given them.

The flags came back to Wilmington “torn almost to tatters with the shot and shell of the enemy.”  At this time, the flags were retired and left in the care of Association of the Survivors of the First Delaware Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  The regiment received new flags, which it carried until the end of the war.


Wilmington Daily Commercial,  June 1, 1868 (Delaware Historical Society Collection)

Delaware Gazette, January 5, 1864
(Delaware Historical Society Collection)

 

 


While on furlough, the color guard posed with the flags for two photographs in the studio of Wilmington photographer Ellwood Garrett. Sgt. John Dunn, who carried the Federal flag and led the charge in Gettysburg, stands in the center. The flags show the scars of battle, in Seville’s words, “the stains and rents of the terrible struggles through which [they] had passed.” (William P. Seville, History of the First Regiment, Delaware Volunteers [1884])



Recent research has proved that the flags in the photographs are indeed the flags in the Delaware Historical Society’s collection—the tears match up.  It is surmised that the photographs were taken to be sold at the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia later that year.

After their furlough ended, the 1st Delaware returned to the war and fought until the end.


Color Guard of 1st Delaware Volunteers, January 1864 (Delaware Historical Society Collection)

Color Guard of 1stDelaware Volunteers, January 1864
(Delaware Historical Society Collection)

 

 


But even though the flags were retired, their service was not yet over.  They were used in Decoration Day observances between 1868 and 1877, continuing to stand as powerful symbols of the cause for which men fought and died.

 

 

Wilmington Daily Commercial,  June 1, 1868 (Delaware Historical Society Collection)

Wilmington Daily Commercial, 
June 1, 1868
(Delaware Historical Society Collection)

 

 


Twenty years after the war, in 1884, the Association of the Survivors of the First Delaware Volunteer Infantry Regiment, decided that it was time to place the flags where they would be preserved as part of Delaware’s historical record.  They presented them to the Historical Society of Delaware, then 20 years old, where they have remained ever since.

 

 

First Presbyterian Church, Delaware Historical Society Collections

First Presbyterian Church
Delaware Historical Society's First Home
Delaware Historical Society Collections

 

 

 

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