What became of York’s flag taken by the Rebels in June 1863?
After Gordon’s Rebels hauled down the flag from Centre Square, its whereabouts quickly became uncertain to the residents of York. Rumors and tales abounded, including a story that General Gordon tied it to his horse’s tail and dragged it in the dirty, horse-dung-filled street. Other accounts suggested that Gordon merely draped the flag over his saddlebags and rode off toward Wrightsville. Still another story says that Avery’s North Carolina brigade ended up with the flag, tearing it into pieces and later using it as bandages after the battle of Gettysburg. Those and other stories resulted in uncertainty. Some residents even claimed to possess the missing flag! What was certain was that businessman W. Latimer Small replaced the massive flag with a new one after the battle.
In early 1888, almost 25 years after the Confederates hauled down the missing flag, Hiram Young, the editor of the York Dispatch sent a letter to Gordon, then the governor of Georgia, inquiring as to what really happened. Here is his note, as well as Governor Gordon’s response as taken from the Macon, Georgia, Weekly Telegram of March 13, 1888.
South George Street in the 1860s… Gordons’ men would have marched from right to left in this photo past the store shown here on the SE corner of Centre (also known as Central or Continental) Square about 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, June 28, 1863, en route to Wrightsville to seize the covered bridge over the Susquehanna River.
First, Hiram Young’s letter…
“York, PA., February 29, 1888
Hon. J. B. Gordon, Governor of Georgia
Recently there has been some talk in this community as to what became of the flag that floated from the flagstaff in Central Square, in June 1863, when your command came to this city.
Believing that you can throw some light on the subject, we respectfully ask that you will please give any information that may be in your power.
Some parties in this section claim to have the flag, but it is believed it was taken along by your command at that time.
It will be a matter of interest to our people to have any information concerning it, as it is probably the only flag captured by the Confederates this far North.
We should be pleased to have any reminiscences of that event which you may be pleased to furnish us.
Editor of the Dispatch”
Governor John Brown Gordon (pictured above in this photo from the Library of Congress) received Young’s letter. He directed one of his former officers who was now his assistant to pen the following response.
“State of Georgia
Atlanta, GA., February 24, 1888
Mr. Hiram Young, Editor Dispatch, York, Penn.
General Gordon directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 29th instant, making inquiries about the flag which floated from the Square in York when his command passed through that city in June, 1863, and that as it so happens that the writer was then connected with the command that entered your beautiful city on that bright Sabbath morning, he requests me also to answer, as far as I can, your inquiry about the flag.
The citizens of York who witnessed the entry of the Confederates will doubtless remember a small squad of cavalry in advance, followed by, perhaps, fifty infantry commanded by a captain who deployed his command as they advanced through the main street, stationing a sentinel at each cross street, to prevent straggling through the city. I was that captain and remember distinctly the very large flag, which floated from the square on the principal street. A courier, belonging to General Gordon’s escort, named William Beasley, assisted, I think, by a member of my company, named A. E. Choate, pulled down the flag. I caused it to be folded and placed upon the sidewalk, instructing the soldier to keep it and place it in the first ambulance or wagon that came along. Soon after it had been thrown upon the pavement, a young man, in citizen’s dress, came up and asked it he might take the flag from the pavement and hold it until it was wanted. I told him if he thought it would do him any good he might take it up and hold it. He took the flag and stood with it in his arms, holding it in front of him. My duties, as commander of the advance guard, called me to another point and I left the young man and the flag with the sentinel near the square. Afterward the flag was taken from him and placed in an ambulance and brought away as a trophy of the invasion of Pennsylvania. It was, I supposes, brought back to Virginia and sent to Richmond; but of this I do not know.
The young man above mentioned had a scar of some sort on his face, and I understood then, either from him or the sentinel, that he was an ex-soldier, one who had been discharged from the Union army after having been wounded in battle.
With your permission, I will mention that as we entered the city, and when only my little band of infantry were in sight, a patriotic lady came out on the stoop of her house on our left [on West Market Street], as we marched toward the square, and in a wild and vehement manner exclaimed, ‘I’m ashamed of York, to quietly surrender to forty or fifty nasty, dirty rebels, when there are hundreds of able-bodied men to fight them!’ I assured her that there were several thousand just behind my little band, and that the men of York were not strong enough to stop their advance. A few minutes later the Sixty-first Georgia regiment ‘ordered arms’ on the pavement near this lady’s home, and, with a scream, she suddenly disappeared, slamming the door as she retreated into the house.
I trust the good people of York will bear witness that the men of Gordon’s brigade, who passed through their city on that occasion, did so quietly, orderly and without doing violence to anyone, and without molesting private property in any way.
W. H. Harrison
Formerly Captain, Co. E, Thirty-first Georgia, Gordon’s Brigade”
The editor of the Macon Weekly Telegram then added his own brief comments to his recounting of “Tip” Harrison’s letter to Hiram Young:
“We might add that the conduct of the men of General Gordon’s brigade on the above occasion was admirable, showing, besides excellent discipline, that they were all, both officers and men, as gentlemanly as they were brave, two strong characteristics of the Confederate soldiers, whose bravery was undeniable, and shows that the American citizens North and South united in a common cause would be an invincible host. The bravery, fortitude and heroic deeds of the soldiers of both armies must ever remain the glory of American citizenship. The scars of the fratricidal strife are healed; we are to-day a united and prosperous nation, with one flag floating over us–and that the ‘Old Glory’–the stars and stripes of a reunited people.”
Despite Harrison’s thought the the flag was sent to Richmond, no primary account is known to exist which confirms its fate once it left the possession of the brave ex-Union soldier who hugged it to his bosom rather than allow the fallen banner to lie on the dusty paved sidewalk. If General Gordon knew the final outcome, he never told, relying instead upon a subordinate captain to tell his part in the tale.
Perhaps the truth will never be known. It is likely the 18’x35′ hand-stitched flag did not survive the Civil War. Or, perhaps in some ancient crate somewhere in Richmond, the crumbling remnants of York’s proud colors remain unnoticed and lost.
For much more on John Gordon’s and William Henry “Tip” Harrison’s triumphal entry into York, Pennsylvania, pick up a copy of Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 from your favorite book seller, or directly from the publisher, Savas Beatie LLC, at their website.