The Color Bearer Tradition The War Between The States Was The Heyday Of American Battleflags And Their Bearers With Unusualhi
The Color Bearer Tradition The War Between the States was the heyday of American battleflags and their bearers. With unusualhistorical accuracy, many stirring battle paintings show the colors and their intrepid bearers in the forefront of the fray or as a rallying point in a retreat. The colors of a Civil War regiment embodied its honor, and the men chosen to bear them made up an elite. Tall, muscular men were preferred, because holding aloft a large, heavy banner, to keep it visible through battle smoke and at a distance, demanded physical strength. Courage was likewise required to carry a flag into combat, as the colors “drew lead like a magnet.” South Carolina’s Palmetto Sharpshooters, for example, lost 10 out of 11 of its bearers and color guard at the Battle of Seven Pines, the flag passing through four hands without touching the ground. Birth and Early Life in Charleston Born in Charleston in 1824, Charles Edmiston and his twin sister, Ellen Ann, were the third son and second daughter, respectively, of newspaper editor Joseph Whilden and his wife, Elizabeth Gilbert Whilden.
The births of two more sons, Richard Furman in 1826 and William Gilbert in 1828, would complete the family, making seven children in all. Young Charles’ roots ran deep into the soil of the lowcountry. His Whilden ancestors had settled in the Charleston area in the 1690’s, and an ancestor on his mother’s side, the Rev. William Screven, had arrived in South Carolina even earlier, establishing the First Baptist Church of Charleston in 1683, today the oldest church in the Southern Baptist Convention. Like many Southerners who came of age in the late antebellum period, Charles Whilden took pride in his ancestors’ role in the American Revolution, especially his grandfather, Joseph Whilden, who, at 18, had run away from his family’s plantation in Christ Church Parish to join the forces under Brigadier General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion fighting the British. At the time of Charles’ birth, the family of Joseph and Elizabeth Whilden lived comfortably in their home on Magazine Street, attended by their devoted slave, Juno Waller Seymour, a diminutive, energetic black woman known as “Maumer Juno” to four generations of the Whilden family.
Raised by Maumer Juno from the cradle, Charles soon developed a strong attachment to the woman – an attachment that would endure to the end of his life. The prosperity of Joseph Whilden and his family would prove less enduring, however, and business reversals, beginning in the late 1820’s, combined with Joseph’s stroke a few years later and his eventual death in 1838, would reduce his family to genteel poverty. To help make ends meet, Maumer Juno took in ironing. Despite a lack of money for college, young Charles managed to obtain a good education. Details about Charles’ schooling are sketchy, but the polished prose of his surviving letters reflects a practiced hand and a cultivated intellect. Charles’ admission to the South Carolina bar at Columbia in 1845 is further evidence of a triumph of intellect and effort over financial adversity.
In the closing decades of the antebellum period, when Charles Whilden was growing up in Charleston, the city was the commercial and cultural center of the lowcountry as well as South Carolina’s manufacturing center and most cosmopolitan city. By the time Charles Whilden reached adulthood, however, the Charleston economy was in decline, and the city’s population would actually diminish during the decade of the 1850’s. Not surprisingly, after a brief attempt to establish a law practice in Charleston, Attorney Whilden chose to seek his fortune outside his home town. But the practice of law in the upcountry town of Pendleton also failed to pan out for Whilden. Confronted with a major career decision, Whilden elected not only to leave the law but also to leave the Palmetto State for the north.
The 1850 federal censustakers found Charles Whilden living in a boarding house in Detroit, Michigan, where he worked as a clerk, probably in a newspaper office. Speculation in copper stocks and land on Lake Superior soon left Charles deeply in debt to his youngest brother, William, who had built up a successful merchandising business back home in Charleston. Desperate to get out of debt, and perhaps longing for adventure, in the spring of 1855 Charles Whilden signed on as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army. After an arduous two-month trek from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Whilden arrived in the old Spanish city of Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, on August 27, 1855, where he took up his duties as civilian private secretary to the local garrison commander, Colonel John Breckinridge Grayson of Kentucky, who would later serve the Confederacy as a brigadier general in Florida.
Life in New Mexico Territory When Whilden arrived in Santa Fe, the city had been under U.S. jurisdiction for only a few years, and the population was overwhelmingly Hispanic and Roman Catholic, causing the Baptist Whilden to complain, in an early letter to his brother William in Charleston, that “[t]here are so many Saints days among these Hottentots, that it is hard to recollect them.” So isolated was Santa Fe from the U.S. that mail reached the city only once a month from Missouri. Looking on the bright side of his cultural and geographic isolation in New Mexico Territory, in a letter written in May 1856 Charles expressed his intention to William to remain in New Mexico until “I have paid up all my debts, for I can do it better out here, than in the States, as there are no concerts, Theatres, White Kid Gloves, Subscriptions to Charities or churches, or gallivanting the ladies on Sleigh rides and &c to make a man’s money fly.” Whilden’s duties as Colonel Grayson’s secretary were relatively light, leaving him ample time for other pursuits – perhaps too much time for his own financial good. His April 30, 1857 letter home to Charleston states: “In addition to the offices I hold in this Territory of Warden of a Masonic Lodge, President of a Literary Society, member of a Territorial Democratic Central Committee .., I have lately added that of Farmer.” Dreaming of making enough money to satisfy his debts to William and to establish a law practice in Texas, Charles had purchased a 16 acre truck farm near Sante Fe, establishing his claim as a “farmer.” Alas, the farm would prove to be unprofitable.
In his spare time, Whilden also occasionally edited the Santa Fe newspaper when the regular editor was busy. During the Presidential election campaign of 1856, Whilden penned an editorial supporting the renomination of President Franklin Pierce, a pro-Southern Democrat, and he expressed the hope in a letter to William that Pierce would be re-elected and “give me a fat office.” Whilden’s hope for a political sinecure also proved to be a dream. Marriage was another unrealized dream. After his own marriage in 1850, William Whilden badgeredhis elder brother to end his bachelorhood and to settle down. In December 1854, when he was stillin Detroit and aged 30, a friend had tried to interest Charles in marrying his fiftyish, red-headed aunt. Seizing the opportunity to turn the tables on William, Charles wrote to William not to be surprised if he married the woman and took up William on his standing offer to permit Charles to honeymoon at William’s stylish new home in Charleston.
Whatever romantic aspirations Charles may have entertained when he arrived in New Mexico, the dearth of eligible women in the territory soon quashed. In a letter to William written seven months after his arrival in Santa Fe, Charles could count only six unmarried American ladies in all of New Mexico, none of whom, however, lived in Santa Fe. However boring it may have been, life in Santa Fe also afforded Whilden time for puffing his meerschaum pipe, reading his subscriptions to the peppery Charleston Mercury newspaper and thehighbrow Russells Magazine and reflecting on the mounting sectional tensions of the prewar years. In a letter to William dated March 26, 1856, Charles complained that the “Government is becoming more abolition every day” and he predicted that the “Union may last a few years longer, but unless a decided change takes place in Northern politics, it must at last go under.” The War Begins Events would prove Whilden correct. On December 20, 1860, delegates to the so-called Secession Convention, meeting in Institute Hall in downtown Charleston, only a short distance from Charles Whilden’s boyhood home on Magazine Street, unanimously adopted the Ordinance of Secession, taking South Carolina out of the Union.
The bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor four months later heralded the beginning of the shooting war. A lesser man than Charles Whilden might have been content to sit out the war in New Mexico Territory. After all, Whilden had been gone from the South for more than a decade. He was fast approaching 40. Whilden’s frequent denunciations of abolitionism in his letters were based on principle, not political expediency or financial self-interest.
Apart from a nominal, undivided interest in his beloved Maumer Juno that he shared with his siblings, Charles held no slave property. Furthermore, he was more than 1,000 miles from South Carolina, with little money for travel. But Charles Whilden was no ordinary man. Undeterred by the obstacles confronting him, Whilden resolved to answer South Carolina’s call to arms. According to a reminiscence written in 1969 by his grand niece, Miss Elizabeth Whilden Hard of Greenville, South Carolina, the “only way he could get back to Charleston was by the Bahamas, and on his way back to Charleston the ship was wrecked, he spent some time in an open boat, suffered sunstroke, and as a result had epileptic attacks.” The date of Whilden’s harrowing return to Charleston is conjectural, as none of his correspondence from the early war years has survived, but the likely date is late 1861 or early 1862. Whilden’s Confederate service records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
commence with his enlistment in 1864, but Miss Hard’s reminiscence may be correct that her Great Uncle Charles “enlisted a number of times, but when he had an [epileptic] attack would be discharged. Then he would go somewhere else and enlist again.” Confederate service records are notoriously incomplete, and it stands to reason that Charles Whilden would not have risked life and limb returning to Charleston only to avoid military service once home. Irrespective of whether or not he had seen prior service, Whilden demonstrably enlisted “for the war” at Charleston on February 6, 1864, as a private in Company I (known as the Richardson Guards) of the 1st Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers. Lieutenant Wallace Delph enlisted Whilden, and the lieutenant can be forgiven if he looked askance at his new recruit. By most standards, Whilden was a marginal recruit. Though intelligent and patriotic, Whilden was also in his 40th year, the red hair of his youth turned grey. His urban background and string of sedentary occupations better suited him for a Richmond clerkship than active service in the field.
On top of everything else, Whilden was epileptic. Whilden’s new regiment was a proud outfit. The 1st Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers, was known popularly as “Gregg’s lst South Carolina” after its first colonel, Maxcy Gregg, in order to distinguish the regiment from several other South Carolina infantry regiments also identified numerically as the “lst Regiment.” The successor to a regiment organized by Col. Gregg in December 1860 for six-months service, the 1st Regiment, SCV, was arguably the very first Rebel infantry regiment. At the time of Whilden’s enlistment, the regiment was part of Brigadier General Samuel McGowan’s brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. At one time part of A.P.
Hill’s vaunted Light Division, McGowan’s South Carolinians had won a reputation for hard fighting on many a bloody field. That reputation was shortly to be put to its sternest test at a strategic Virginia crossroads village known as Spotsylvania Court House. The Fight at the Mule Shoe Following his repulse at the Wilderness on May 5 and 6, 1864, Union General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant ordered the Army of the P …