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This Lewis Miller sketch shows Brig. Gen. John Gordon's Confederates lowering the massive US flag in the town square of York PA on Sunday, June 28, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign. (YCHC)

“How the old flag came down”

It was Sunday morning, June 28, 1863. A bright and sunny day loomed for the residents of central York County, Pennsylvania.

So did trouble.

For most of the morning, the vanguard of Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early’s division approached York from the west. The bulk of the division headed through Weiglestown toward Emigsville, where they would turn south on the Harrisburg-York Turnpike (now N. George Street) and march into York from the north.

In downtown York, citizens had decided to keep flying a massive 18′ x 35′ flag over the town square.

When Early’s men entered town about 10:00 a.m., they found the banner waving defiantly.

They hauled it down.

Many stories exist as to exactly what the Southerners did with the flag. Some accounts suggest it was ripped up and used for bandages after the battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps the first Confederate general to ride into York, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon of Georgia, tucked it into his saddlebags. Maybe it was packed into a supply wagon. The recounting of this incident is muddied and varied.

Here’s just one postwar reminiscence, taken from the June 28,1876, issue of the York Dispatch. The event was the raising of a flag over York’s center square to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United States.

Postcard of the National Hotel / Tremont House in downtown York (author’s postcard collection)

“There had been a dispute about hauling down the flag,” says Adam Spangler, “but I had determined that it should be taken to a place of safety, and had taken my knife to cut the lanyards, as the head of the rebel column came past the Tremont — now the National House; when the chief burgess [David Small] interfered, and ordered me placed in the watch house. His order was not obeyed, but I was prevented from saving the flag, and in another moment I had the mortification of seeing rebel hands haul down the old stars, and General Gordon hanging it over the horn of his saddle and trailing it in the mud, behind him. I was almost insane with indignation, and at once run to my home and loaded a gun intending to as General Gordon passed, to blow his brains out, but was stopped by my father, who said that if I were to do so the Rebels would burn down the town, and massacre the people. Thus the flag was lost, and the Rebel General was spared to become a Senator, and carry the treason into the capitol.”

“We are about to raise a new flag; it will float over the spot hallowed by the assembling of our national Congress. May it never be disgraced by the hand of domestic traitor, or foreign foe; still may it float, the glory of a free nation, unsustained by wrong to our fellow man, and; of at any coming time any man shall haul down that flag to its disgrace, ‘shoot him on the spot.'”