On July 3, 1863, Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee attacked Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg. Among them was the 28th Virginia Infantry Regiment. On the other side, the Union defenders included the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment.
When the dust settled, Minnesota had control of the 28th Virginia Infantry Regiment’s “battle flag,” that Confederate rebel flag we all know and rightly hate today. Today, 160 years later, the two states are still fighting over that damn flag.
The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania was not only the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War (and the bloodiest three days in American military history), but also marked its turning point. Lee’s ill-fated northern invasion, designed to destroy the bulk of the Union army and convince its leaders to let the rebel states go, failed catastrophically, marking the beginning of the end of the war.
On the third day of the battle, the 1st Minnesota Infantry, famed for having fought in almost every major engagement of the war, was ordered to charge one of the Confederate flanks as the rebels pushed Cemetery Ridge for Pickett’s charge. During the battle, 70% of Minnesotans were killed, wounded, or captured. And amid all the carnage, a bloody game of capture the flag ensued. This great story by Katy Sawyer in The Washington Post in 2000—definitely worth reading—notes how “(i)n the heat and desperation of battle…the flag was the thing they focused on. It had to be visually dramatic. Many people have lost their lives because of these pieces of fabric.
A great drama surrounded the flag on the Minnesota side:
William Lochren, in his “Narrative of the First Regiment, Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars”, recalled that “the last of our color guards, then bearing our flag in tatters, was here cut across the hand, and the flagpole cut in half. Cpl. Henry D. O’Brien of Company E instantly grabs the flag from the rest of the staff.” O’Brien, carrying the broken staff and the tattered flag, “with his characteristic gallantry and impetuosity, sprang forward with it at the first sound of the word charge, and rushed to the enemy line, the keeping noticeably ahead of all other colors… The effect was electric.For one man, the 1st Minnesota rushed to protect their flag.
O’Brien received the Medal of Honor for his actions. Virginians fought for their flag with equal ferocity:
sergeant. John Eakin carried the battle colors of the 28th Virginia to the wall. He was hit three times. A soldier grabbed the flag and was immediately shot. Colonel Robert Allen picked up the flag and was instantly mortally wounded. He managed to hand it to Lieutenant John Lee, who stepped up to the wall and waved it. A shot hit the flagpole, knocking it out of his hands and knocking it over. He grabbed it, scaled the wall and fell hurt, still waving it around.
Virginia’s flag was eventually captured by Pvt. Marshall Sherman, and although the details are disputed, he earned his own Medal of Honor for the capture.
And all of that would be a historic footnote, except that Virginia really wants the Confederate battle flag back. There’s the usual ‘legacy’ talk, and one guy who unsuccessfully sued claimed the flag’s return would help us ‘come together as Americans’ in the year 2000. This flag is everything except unifier.
Minnesota says the flag was won on the battlefield at a staggering cost in blood, and it is theirs.
Minnesota is not wrong.
President Grover Cleveland supported his return in 1887, although the then Governor of Virginia, a Confederate veteran, noted that the flags “are the property of the victors” and that the country did not need “to be tossed about again by pieces of bunting which mean nothing now”. Even Jefferson Davis, the short-lived Confederate president, agreed that battle flags belonged to the victors.
Congress then attempted to return the banners in 1905, during the Spanish American War, but Minnesota hilariously pretended they had been lost.
In the 1960s, as Southern states incorporated the rebel flag into their state flags, new demands arose. “Minnesota refused. In a polite exchange of letters, his historical society director said the 1st Minnesota’s charge at Gettysburg – in which his 262 men took six times his number – was among the state’s proudest moments,” reported the Roanoke Times. “The 28th flag symbolized that sacrifice, he wrote: ‘I honestly believe it has greater historical value if it stays in Minnesota than if it is returned to Virginia.'”
Virginia attempted lawsuits, “inter-museum loans” (as if anyone would fall for the trap), several legislative resolutions, and even tried to enlist the US military, luckily to no avail. My favorite was Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura’s. answer to one of these requests: “We took it. That makes it our heritage.” When then-Governor Mark Warner (now a US senator) asked for it in 2003, his Minnesota counterpart Tim Pawlenty said, “They don’t get it. … We think it’s it is up to us, and we are not giving it back to Virginie.”
Pawlenty, a Republican, attempted a presidential run in 2012. Today, I bet he would return the flag to curry favor with the racist nihilists of MAGA.
The Minnesota Confederate Battle Flag Question resurfaced in recent years as the Black Lives Matter movement has forced a recalculation on the racist symbol. It is no longer displayed publicly because this era lacks nuance to place it in context. Minnesota would not display a racist symbol. On the contrary, it would be to celebrate how he helped defeat, at great expense, the forces of racism. And the racists wouldn’t care anyway.