Sawyer's Flag Collection: The 8th Ohio and Pickett's Charge

 The echoes of battle had hardly been stilled at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 3, 1863 when Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry received an order to march his regiment back to Federal lines “as soon as I pleased. We threw ourselves into a formation the men called a sandwich, that is half our regiment in front with our colors and the captured flags, then our multitudinous prisoners, and our rear guard with fixed bayonets. Colonel [Samuel S.] Carroll had just returned from Cemetery Heights and not having heard from us since the night before, made anxious inquiry as to our fate. “There they are,” said a staff officer, pointing to us just as we were getting our prisoners into line. Carroll, greatly excited, sprang up upon a gun, surveyed us through his glass and startled at the unexpected sight, exclaimed, “Look you fellows! There comes my old Eighth with the balance of Lee’s army!”

8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry monument at Gettysburg
(Image courtesy of Phil Spaugy)

          Colonel Carroll and Lieutenant Colonel Sawyer had good reason to be pleased with the 8th Ohio. The regiment, with roughly 200 men in the ranks, had held an important position out in front of the main Federal line at Cemetery Ridge, a position which not only allowed the 8th Ohio to pour in a flanking fire into Pickett’s Charge, but to lay directly in the rear of the collapsing Confederate line and scoop up prisoners by the bushel. Among the trophies of the battle were three Confederate battle flags, one belonging to the 38th Virginia of General Lewis Armistead’s brigade from Pickett’s Division, another belonging to the 34th North Carolina of Colonel William J. Lowrance’s brigade (originally Scales) of Dorsey Pender’s Division, and a third flag whose identity has been lost to history.

          The men of the 8th Ohio, exhausted, begrimed with the soot of battle, and down to barely 100 uninjured men, looked with pride upon the trophies they had wrested from their Confederate opponents. Corporal John Miller of Co. G, a German immigrant, was specially noted for capturing two of the three flags. “He rushed forward and killed the color bearer of the Rebel regiment in our front and took his flag away,” recalled Hospital Steward Charles Merrick. “Our boys say the whole Rebel brigade fired at him and it seems astonishing he was not cut into strings.” Private James Richmond of Co. F captured the third flag but was ordered to turn it over to a staff officer and never saw the flag again.

          The two known captured flags were similar in design, being both 48” square-shaped Army of Northern Virginia “Southern Cross” flags featuring 13 stars on a blue saltire with a red field designed by a South Carolinian congressman named William Porcher Miles. The flag of the 38th Virginia was adorned only with the regimental number “38” and “Va.” and had a few bullet holes. The flag of the 34th North Carolina gave the history of the numerous engagements that the Tar Heels had participated in: Mechanicsville, Coal Harbor, Frazier’s Farm, Cedar Run, [2nd] Manassas, Ox Hill, Harper’s Ferry, Sharpsburg, Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. It likewise was riddled with bullet holes. For the men of the 8th Ohio, several of those names evoked their own memories of hard-fought battles such as Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Capturing the flags had been a chaotic climax to what had started as a quiet afternoon.

Battle flag of the 34th North Carolina that was captured by the 8th Ohio at the end of Pickett's Charge

Lieutenant Colonel Sawyer tells the story of the 8th Ohio on July 3rd in this account drawn from both the regimental history of the 8th Ohio and from a speech Sawyer made during the dedication of the regimental monument in 1887 at Gettysburg. To set the scene, the regiment had been sent forward on the previous afternoon to drive a group of Confederates away from the Emmitsburg Road and had held the position all night and all through the morning. The men had mixed it up with the Confederates twice during the evening after which they feasted on a meal of captured bread, ham, and cheese. Another fight in the morning had brought the whole regiment up to the skirmish line and cost Sawyer another four men killed and 25 wounded and had nearly cost Sawyer his life when a Rebel bullet went through his hat, grazing his skull, and making the colonel see stars. With the regiment so reduced, all of the officers had grabbed rifles and took their places in line waiting for the next move on the part of Lee’s veterans.

In our front, all was quiet between 12 and 1 o’clock when two shots were heard from Lee’s right at an interval of about a minute. “A signal! A signal!” shouted the men when suddenly broke from the long Confederate line on Seminary Ridge the deafening storm and roar of a hundred pieces of artillery. This fire was replied to by at least an equal number of our own guns. Nothing more terrific than this storm of artillery can be imagined. The missiles of both armies passed over our heads. The roar of the guns was deafening, the air was soon clouded with smoke and the shriek and startling crack of exploding shells above, around, and in our midst. Horse and his rider go down, caissons and limbers are blown up, streaking the very earth with their awful concussion. The driving through the air of fence rails, posts, and limbs of trees coupled with the groaning of dying men, the neighing of frantic and wounded horses all created a scene of absolute horror.

Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer, 8th Ohio Infantry

We stood beneath this darkened sulfurous canopy dazed as it were, wondering how and when the end and what the fate of the day. Our line of skirmishers was kept out to watch any advance, but the rest of the men kept well down in the cut of the road. Here for nearly two hours we sat stock still and not a word was uttered. Only two of my men were killed during the cannonade and they were literally cut in two.  The ricochet of round shot in our vicinity was quite frequent as well as the fragments of shells that exploded in the air.

Finally, the artillery ceased firing, and all knew that an assault was the next movement. Soon we saw the long line of Rebel infantry emerge from the woods along the Rebel front that had hitherto concealed them. These troops were of the divisions of Pickett and Pettigrew. They moved up splendidly, deploying into column as they crossed the long sloping interval between the Second Corps and their base. At first it looked as if their line of march would sweep our position, and we looked back to our division headquarters anxious for some signal of recall. All was activity there and along the corps line artillery and infantry were rapidly forming. An order just then recalling the 8th would have been to very pleasant, but none came.

As the Rebels advanced, their direction lay considerably to our left, but soon a strong line with flags directed its march immediately upon us. We drew back as much as we could from the left and advanced to the picket line. Every man who could stand on his feet was there, musket in hand, the officers thus armed as well. We advanced into a left wheel and formed facing the line of the Rebel left flank which was now seen passing us and the Bliss premises. I formed the few remaining braves in a single line and as the Rebels came within short range of our skirmish line, we charged them. Some fell, some run back, most of them, however, threw down their arms and were made prisoners. We changed our front and taking position by a fence, faced the left flank of the advancing column of Rebels and the men were ordered to fire into their flank at will. We had advanced too near the enemy, but at all events, there was now no way of retreat- we must take our chances where we stood. Our blood was up, and the men loaded and fired and yelled and howled at the passing column.

The 8th Ohio monument at Gettysburg looking over into the fields where the men of Picketts' and Pender's divisions charged on July 3, 1863. 
(Image courtesy of Phil Spaugy)

The front of the column was nearly up the slope and within a few yards of the Second Corps’ front and batteries when suddenly a terrific fire from every available gun burst upon them. The distinct graceful lines of Rebels underwent an instantaneous transformation. They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Their track as they advanced was strewn with dead and wounded. A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle, but on they went, too much enveloped in smoke and dust now to permit us to distinguish their lines or movements for the mass appeared more like a cloud of moving smoke and dust than a column of troops. Still they advanced amid the now deafening roar of artillery and storm of battle.

Our little band, some down under cover, some kneeling, some standing, were pouring their steady fire into this moving almost solid mass as it charged up the gentle slope that led to Hancock’s front. Now a sheet of flame burst like a tornado upon the devoted mass. “Close up! Close up!” rung along their lines, which were fast losing their grand organic form and becoming indistinct amid the smoke and dust and debris of battle. Above the turmoil of battle, we could hear curses, shouts, shrieks, and could see hats, guns, legs, arms, and mutilated carcasses hurled out into the less murky atmosphere. I with some other officers and men stood and watched this scene in utter amazement-not a word was spoken- we stood with bated breath. I doubt if any one of us during that dreadful moment thought of himself or even of the result while this appalling struggle lasted.

Suddenly the column gave way, the sloping landscape appeared covered all at once with the scattered and retreating foe. A withering sheet of missiles swept after them and they were torn and tossed and prostrated as they ran. It seemed as if not one would escape. Of the mounted officers who rode so grandly in the advance, not one was to be seen on the field as all had gone down. The 8th Ohio had made a complete compass by left wheel and now faced the Emmitsburg Road exactly reversed in front from where we started. Our fire had been kept up till nearly our last round of ammunition was exhausted with a steady aim on the Rebel column, whether visible or invisible, amid the cloud that enveloped it. Now swarms of Rebels came down upon, apparently not any longer in a fighting mood, for they had thrown away their guns and were apparently more intent on safety than glory: pale, faint, and some with their tongues hanging from their mouths. Our line was extended in single file along the road as far as it would possibly reach with orders to capture all the fugitives that came within reach and require them to lay down prone on the ground and await further orders.

We advanced and cut off three regiments or remnants of regiments as they passed us, taking their colors and capturing many prisoners. We had no trouble with the prisoners. They took kindly to the situation, but there were squads, however, trying to save their flags and we organized counter squads. The colors captured were those of the 34th North Carolina, 38th Virginia, and one that was taken from the captor by a staff officer, the number of the regiment not being remembered. Very many of our prisoners were severely wounded and we let them drift up to our well where our own wounded fellows helped them to slack their parched tongues. Still our squads are scouring the field and bringing in fresh batches of prisoners, faint and gasping.

The battle was now over. The field was covered with slain and wounded and everywhere was to be seen white handkerchiefs held up asking for quarter. The Rebel loss had been terrible, the victory to the Union army complete. When we received the order to take the position [on the Emmitsburg Road], we numbered 209 officers and men and of these lost 102 killed and wounded. We were relieved soon after the battle and with the little remnant of our regiment, with our own colors and our three Rebel flags flying and more prisoners, twice over than we had in men, we marched back within our lines. Officers and men congratulated us and when we passed the 14th Indiana [brigade mates who the 8th had served with for more than a year], Lieutenant Colonel [Elijah H.C.] Cavins complimented us with a present arms and we were greeted with a hearty cheer from his gallant regiment. For nearly two days, our little band had stood alone nearly a half mile in advance of the battle line.

We were not required to take our place in line but were permitted to select a position beyond General Meade’s headquarters where it was quiet and where tents and fresh rations were brought to us without requisition, and some old regulation for the coming 4th of July wherewithal to splice the main brace. Well, we quietly took our rations and laid ourselves away for a night’s sleep, the first for more than a week. Our losses in taking the position and in this last almost daredevil sort of fight had been heavy: 18 killed, 83 wounded, and one missing.


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