The Flag Capturing Machine: The 149th New York and the Chattanooga Campaign

     Capturing a flag during the Civil War represented the height of ambition and the peak of glory for most soldiers whether they wore the Blue or the Gray. A regiment or battery’s flags were a source of intense pride and were carried by the bravest men of the unit, surrounded by a stout guard, all of whom were ready to pick up the flag and carry on if the color bearer was struck down. To lose your flag to the enemy was considered a humiliation, a surefire sign that your unit had been bested in battle; but the fact was, battlefield flag captures occurred frequently and oftentimes had nothing to do with a regiment’s bravery or courage. Call it the chances of war, but colors were lost in some of the craziest circumstances. [Case in point- the regimental colors of the 72nd Ohio were captured at Shiloh by being accidentally left in a wagon, having never been unfurled.] Regardless of the chances of war, men still fought and died and took incredible risks to capture or preserve a set of colors.

To capture a single flag in battle was considered quite the accomplishment, but what the 149th New York accomplished during the Chattanooga campaign ranks as simply extraordinary. In two separate engagements of the campaign (Lookout Mountain and Ringgold), the soldiers from the 149th captured a total of five colors and as historian Greg Biggs commented recently were “a flag capturing machine.” Three of the four men who captured flags were subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865, while two more soldiers who displayed conspicuous courage were awarded the Medal of Honor in the late 1800s. It staggers the imagination to think of a single regiment of 16 officers and 222 men capturing five flags and earning five Medals of Honor all in the course of a single campaign.  

This Kurz & Allison print of the Battle of Lookout Mountain depicts Sergeant John Kiggins of the 149th New York waving his flag so that Union artillery in the valley below would cease firing on his regiment. Kiggins would be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1892 for this action. 

To ensure that posterity knew which regiment captured the flags, four of the five colors received painted inscriptions days within their capture noting that their possession came courtesy of “the 149th N.Y Vols., 3rd Bde., 2nd Div., 12th A.C.” Three of those colors today reside in the collection of the American Civil War Museum (former Museum of the Confederacy) and thanks to Greg, I’m able to share images of each of those flags in today’s post.

The 149th New York was raised in the Syracuse, New York area in late summer of 1862 in response to President Lincoln’s call for “300,000 more” troops to suppress the rebellion. Henry A. Barnum was commissioned colonel and the regiment sent to the defenses of Washington in the immediate aftermath of Antietam where it was then assigned to the 12th Army Corps. The regiment first saw action at Chancellorsville in May 1863 where it suffered a loss of 15 killed, 68 wounded, and 103 missing. Perhaps most famously, the 149th New York, as part of General George Greene’s brigade took part in the defense of Culp’s Hill (see here) losing roughly 50 men but gaining great credit for their superb fighting on that field.

The 149th New York traveled west with the 12th Corps in September 1863 and soon found itself conducting operations to relieve the siege of Chattanooga. The 149th took part in the fight at Wauhatchie in late October (see here) and by the morning of November 24, 1863 found itself standing in front of Lookout Mountain and tasked with driving the Confederates off the mountain. It was a foggy and misty morning, and once General John Geary figured out a way to get across Lookout Creek, he had the two brigades of his division on the move determined to make a name for himself and for the 12th Army Corps. Ahead waited the five veteran regiments of General Edward C. Walthall’s Mississippi brigade.

Second Lieutenant Theodore F. Stevens of Co. F of the 149th continues the story: 

On Monday morning, we were ordered to be ready to move at daylight, but as nothing was said in the order about breaking camp, no one supposed that we were going out except on a reconnaissance in force of something of that sort. But we were shortly convinced that it was no holiday excursion we were bound upon as it soon became evident to all that we were expected to storm the hitherto supposedly impregnable and naturally fortified position of the enemy. In the dim of early morn, their works could be faintly seen towering some 4,000 feet above our heads and every man in the ranks regarded it as almost certain destruction to advance. Yet, no one shrank from making the attempt and when the order to advance was given, every man moved onward steadily and silent.

Not a sound could be heard save the low spoken word of command or the cracking of dry limbs under the feet of the advancing column. Thus we moved on, momentarily expected a volley of musketry from the foe whom we doubted not were posted behind the large rocks which jutted out from the sides of the mountain, and where they only awaited our nearer approach in order to make their aim sure. But, fortunately for us, the thick woods which covered the side of the mountain prevented their discovering our movements and deeming it utterly impossible for men to climb the steep hillside, they remained in fancied security until we were right in the midst of one of their camps. This camp was situated on the side of the mountain some distance from its summit.

Immediately upon arriving in sight of the Rebel camp, our boys rushed in pell-mell yelling like so many demons. The Rebels, meantime, were taken completely by surprise, took to their heels like so many frightened sheep, stopping only occasionally behind the shelter of some friendly rock to give us a volley and then away they would go again. Had it not been for the shelter afforded them by the rocks and uneven surface of the ground, scarcely a man of them would have escaped death or capture. Even as it was, we killed and wounded many of them and took a large number prisoners but without severe loss to ourselves.

After surprising the first camp, our advance was so rapid that the enemy had no time to rally and get into position to check our progress and in less time than it takes me to write it, they were driven from the summit of the mountain and ere nightfall we had undisputed possession of the position whence the Rebels had for so long a time defied the combined powers of our army to dislodge them. I tell you that it was a proud day for the Second Division of the 12th Army Corps. But our joys were no unmixed with sadness on beholding the bloody and mangled remains of the brave boys and beloved comrades who had fallen. But our success far exceeded our expectations and when the stars and stripes were planted upon the summit of the mountain, our little band caused the hills and valleys to resound with their shout of triumph.

 During this action, the 149th New York fought against portions of two Confederate brigades: General Edward Walthall’s brigade comprised of the 24th, 27th, 29th, 30th, and 34th Mississippi regiments, and later clashed with Colonel John C. Moore’s brigade comprised of the 37th, 40th, and 42nd Alabama regiments. The 149th N.Y. captured three battle flags which were described below in a supplemental report from Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Randall of the regiment.

 

29th Mississippi flag captured November 24, 1863 by Sgt. Norman F. Potter, Co. E, 149th N.Y.

Hardee flag of 29th Mississippi of Walthall’s Brigade. War Department Captured Flag designated as WD95 was described as measuring “3 feet 2 inches long and 2 feet 7 inches wide with a dark blue groundwork, a white border 2 inches in depth with a white oblong center 11 inches in perpendicular depth and 16-1/2 inches in length. The one with the oblong center was taken from the hands of the Rebel sergeant who carried it by First Sergeant Norman F. Potter of Company E while in the advance of our line and near the beginning of the felled timber beyond the Rebel camps on Lookout Mountain. He disarmed the sergeant and passed him to the rear a prisoner. Sergeant Potter was afterwards severely wounded and is now in the hospital.”

     First Sergeant Potter’s wound cost him his right arm, and he was discharged for wounds July 22, 1864 at Rochester, New York. The 39-year-old New York native was awarded the Medal of Honor June 24, 1865 while at home in New York and lived to the age of 73, dying April 25, 1900. He is buried at Delphi Falls Baptist Church Cemetery in Delphi Falls, New York.

 

34th Mississippi flag captured November 24, 1863 by Private Peter Kappesser, Co. B, 149th N.Y.

Hardee Flag of 34th Mississippi of Walthall’s Brigade. War Department Captured Flag designated as WD 94 was described as measuring “3 feet 2 inches in length, 2 feet 8 inches in width, white border 1-1/2 inches deep, dark blue groundwork with a round white center 14-1/2 inches in diameter. This was taken from the sergeant who bore it by Private Peter Kappesser of Co. B as our line was charging through the Rebel camps on Lookout. This sergeant was also disarmed and passed to the rear as a prisoner.” Deeds of Valor noted that “the Rebel sergeant with his color guard was attempting to retreat under the cover of some rocks. Private Kappesser boldly rushed upon them and demanded their surrender. The Rebel sergeant and his guard were panic-stricken and handed him the colors. Private Kappesser quickly tore the flag off the staff and thrust the bunting under his coat. He hastened to the rescue of a comrade who was wounded and writing in pain and taking him upon his back, he carried the comrade and flag into his own ranks. During the intensely cold night, the daring soldier wore the Confederate flag as a scarf around his neck and used it for this purpose until the Battle of Missionary Ridge was over when he gave it to the commanding officer of his regiment.”

Private (later Corporal) Peter Kappesser, Co. B, 149th N.Y.

Private Kappesser served out the remainder of his three year term of service, mustering out June 12, 1865 at Bladensburg, Maryland. The 26-year-old German native was awarded the Medal of Honor on June 28, 1865 while home in New York. Kappesser lived to the age of 91, passing away after an appendicitis operation on May 31, 1930 in Syracuse, New York and he is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in that city.

 

This is not the actual flag captured by Private John McAlister of Co. I, 149th N.Y. at Lookout Mountain but is a representative example of an unadorned Hardee-style flag issued in 1863. 

Hardee Flag of 37th Alabama of Moore’s Brigade. The identity of this flag is somewhat speculative as none of the three colors captured on Lookout by the 149th N.Y.  were marked with unit designations at the time of capture and the identity was arrived at by a process of elimination and by a statement in the Alabama Department of Archives and History stating that the 37th Alabama lost their colors at Lookout Mountain. This flag was described as “similar to the first two described [29th Mississippi and 34th Mississippi] and was taken by Private John A. McAlister of Co. I in the assault upon Lookout Mountain. McAlister was afterwards severely wounded and taken to hospital carrying the flag with him. We have been unable to learn what hospital he has been taken to or to obtain possession of the flag.”

Private McAlister, like First Sergeant Potter, sustained a severe wound in the right arm which was later amputated. He was mustered out of service for his wounds January 26, 1865. Since his flag never went through the official channels, McAlister was not awarded a Medal of Honor. Its current location is unknown.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Randall of the 149th N.Y. was wounded July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg and was killed in action July 20, 1864 at Peach Tree Creek. We are indebted to Colonel Randall for the detailed descriptions he provided of the flags his regiment captured near Chattanooga.

          Three days later on the morning of November 27, 1863, the 149th New York was in pursuit of the Confederate army and was called upon to drive them from Ringgold Gap. Captain George K. Collins of Co. I picks up the story:

         Arriving at the place designated, the regiment was met by troops retiring in disorder from the position. Under the direction of Colonel Randall, the right wing of the regiment was posted under cover along the back of the Chickamauga River while the left wing found shelter in and around an old barn to the left. Other regiments of the brigade came forward and took positions near the 149th. The place occupied was a little less than a half mile from the Ringgold station and so far into the gap that the mountain towered 200-300 feet over the heads of the men on either side. The gap was about 25 rods in width and nearly occupied by the river, the highway, and the railroad. The enemy was scattered among the trees and bushes on the hillsides above and behind a strong position in front. The firing on both sides soon resolved itself into sharpshooting. The men fired upon the enemy wherever he showed himself and he returned the compliment whenever an opportunity afforded him.

          Immediately after the arrival of the brigade, the enemy brought forward a brass field piece to a slight elevation not more than 20 rods in front and sent grape through and through the barn occupied by the men, scattering chips, splinters, and boards in every direction, but the shots were too high to do any harm. Twelve men were selected to give special attention to this piece, and they were so successful that only four shots were fired by it. Whenever anyone came forward to work or remove it, he was shot by the marksmen. Finally, by means of a prolong, it was dragged over the other side of the railroad and carried away.

          The shots of the enemy as they came down the hillside above threw dirt and splattered mud upon the men. The marksmen were not very successful in reaching the enemy on the hillsides but still the enemy did not yield. Then was heard a rumbling on the pike in the rear. The men recognized the sound and broke forth in cheers. The artillery had at last crossed the Chickamauga River. Nearer and nearer came the sound until at last Knap’s gallant old battery broke cover of the buildings and under whip and spur at a dead run whirled quickly into position in the open field, unlimbered, and commenced its work upon the ranks of the enemy. Shell followed shell up the mountainside in quick succession approaching the rapidity of a clock. Johnny Reb could not stand this and broke cover, then the infantry put in its work and the foe was a disorganized mass in retreat. The bugle sounded its note of command, the battery quickly limbered up and came forward to a new position and renewed its work amid the cheers of the men. In a few moments, all was over and the boys in blue were in possession of the field, busily engaged in gathering the spoils of the conflict and caring for the wounded and slain.

 

Private Philip Goettel of Co. B, 149th N.Y. captured two flags at Ringgold and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for that action. The star he is wearing in the above image is likely a corps badge of either the 12th or 20th Army Corps, not his Medal of Honor. 

          Among the spoils of the conflict were two sets of colors belonging to Semple’s Alabama Battery, both of which were captured by Private Philip Goettel of Co. B, 149th New York.

 


Hardee flag Battery Guidon of Semple’s Battery. War Department Captured Flag designated as WD87 and described as “a blue battery guidon 1 foot 10 inches long and 1 foot 5 inches wide with a white border 2-1/2 inches deep.” This drawing was made by Medal of Honor recipient First Lieutenant Paul Ambrose Oliver of the 12th New York ; Oliver was on staff duty with General Hooker in late 1863 penned this drawing along with images of several other flags captured during the campaign. He earned the Medal of Honor for action taken May 15, 1864 at the Battle of Resaca when he prevented two bodies of Union troops from firing into one another; he received his medal in 1892. This guidon was displayed at the New York Sanitary Fair in April 1864 but has since been lost to history.  

 

Semple's Alabama Battery flag was captured November 27, 1863 by Private Philip Goettel of Co. B, 149th N.Y. at Ringgold. This color was far larger than the Hardee flags captured previously by the regiment and presents an interesting variation on the original Stars and Bars design. 

Stars and Bars Flag of Semple’s Battery. War Department Captured Flag designated as WD92 and described as “6 feet 9 inches long and 3 feet 7 inches wide with a blue rectangular field 2 feet 4 inches by 2 feet 3 inches containing 13 eight-pointed stars, 9 arranged in a circle and 4 constituting an arc within the circle and resting on the lower part; the bars extending horizontally of nearly equal width and arranged red, white, red. These last two were taken by Private Philip Goettel of Co. B at the Battle of Ringgold near the position occupied by the Rebel guns that bore upon our regiment, having been left upon the ground when the enemy was driven back by our fire. There was no inscription upon either of the flags.”  As recalled in Deeds of Valor, “in the face of a steady outpouring of grape and canister, Corporal Goettel rushed forward and succeeded in capturing a Confederate flag. This was quite a daring feat, but still more difficult it was to keep the trophy and carry it back to his own lines. The Rebels were not willing to lose their colors without making at least a desperate attempt to save them, and thus Corporal Goettel became a veritable human target as he rushed back to his ranks. However, he escaped injury and was at once made the recipient of many congratulations from his comrades and warm praises from his superiors. A week lapsed before Corporal Goettel turned the captured flag over to his quartermaster. In the heat of engagements and fights, he had forgotten his own brave act and the importance of his prize.”

          Private Goettel had been wounded twice in 1863, the first time May 3, 1863 at Chancellorsville then again two months later at Gettysburg. The 23-year-old New York native was promoted to the rank of Corporal September 1, 1864 and mustered out with the regiment June 12, 1865 at Bladensburg, Maryland. He was awarded the Medal of Honor June 28, 1865 while home in New York. Goettel lived in Syracuse the rest of his life and passed away January 30, 1920 at the age of 79. Like Private Kappesser, he is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Syracuse.

 

Sergeant John A. Kiggins, Co. D, 149th N.Y. in this postwar image wears his Medal of Honor and G.A.R. medal. 

          The men that captured the flags weren’t the only ones who earned Medals of Honor for their actions at Lookout Mountain. The regiment’s own flag bearer Sergeant John Arthur Kiggins of Co. D also distinguished himself with his valor at Lookout Mountain. “The regiment had charged the enemy on the heights above Craven House when a Union battery in the valley below opened a damaging fire on us, mistaking us for the enemy,” Captain George Collins remembered. “Sergeant Kiggins, the color-bearer of the regiment, advanced to a point between the two lines, got up on a stump and waved his flag to attract the attention of the Union artillerymen, thus averting what threatened to be a serious disaster. In accomplishing this brave deed, he drew the enemy’s fire upon himself and nine bullets holes marked his clothing, besides one through his cap which left its mark upon his scalp and one through his thigh which attested to the accuracy of the enemy’s fire.” Kiggins would receive his Medal of Honor on January 12, 1892.

Colonel Henry Alanson Barnum of the 149th N.Y. was the regimental bullet magnet being wounded four times in the Civil War and captured once. He was commissioned brigadier general after the end of hostilities and remained in the army until January 1866. One of the finest officers the Empire State produced during the war in my opinion. 

That example of dauntless courage in the 149th New York started at the top with their own Colonel Henry A. Barnum. Barnum had come to the 149th from service in the 12th New York where at Malvern Hill in 1862 he suffered a hip wound that was thought mortal; he recovered but it took months before he was able for duty. A bullet magnet if there ever was one, Barnum suffered three wounds in the span of a year with the 149th, being struck October 29, 1863 at Wauhatchie, November 24, 1863 at Lookout Mountain, and then a final time July 20, 1864 at Peach Tree Creek. Colonel Barnum was still suffering from a wound sustained three weeks earlier at Wauhatchie but led the regiment into action at Lookout Mountain where he was wounded again. Barnum was “scarcely able to march with the regiment from the effects of wounds yet unhealed yet feeling unwilling that the regiment should go out to battle leaving him behind, accompanied us and while struggling forward greatly exhausted, he received a musket ball through the right forearm inflicting a severe wound which, with his previous exhaustion and fatigue totally disabled him.”

Colonel Barnum would receive his Medal of Honor in July 1889, but General George Thomas ordered him home on December 23, 1863 tasked with escorting the captured flags taken during the Chattanooga campaign to the War Department. He arrived home in Syracuse with the flags in tow as related in this news story from the Syracuse Daily Courier & Union:

Colonel Barnum and Sergeant Major Mortimer B. Birdseye, detailed by Major General Thomas to deliver the Rebel flags captured by the Army of the Cumberland to the War Department in Washington, reached here yesterday forenoon on their way to execute their commission. After stopping here for New Year’s, they will proceed to the capital. They have ten Rebel flags in their custody and also the war-worn, tattered, and disabled flag of the 149th which was brought home for preservation. Two of the Rebel flags are known as National flags being the stars and bars of the Confederacy. Five of them are battle flags being large square blue flags with white circles in their centers and white borders [Hardee flags, three of which were captured by the 149th N.Y.], two are Virginia battle flags square with a red ground and diagonal white stripes from corner to corner with stripes being studded with blue stars. The other is a battery guidon, square, having a blue border and white border. One of the national flags was taken at Ringgold by the 149th [Semple’s Battery] and the other captured at Mission Ridge by another regiment. Two of the battle flags were captured by the 149th at Lookout Mountain, one by the 60th New York at the same place, and two by the 18th Illinois and 11th Ohio at Mission Ridge. The two Virginia battle flags were captured at Mission Ridge and the battery guidon was taken by the 149th at Ringgold. There is a general desire that these trophies may be exhibited at the Soldiers’ Fair at Wieting Hall. Colonel Barnum desires to gratify this public wish but says that his orders are such as not to allow of their exhibition, and that they were shown publicly only at Cincinnati by the express orders of General Thomas.


          After the flags made it to the War Department, they made the rounds at the various sanitary fairs being held in the East including being displayed at Washington, D.C. in March 1864 then in New York in April 1864. In 1905, the three surviving flags that the 149th New York had captured during the Chattanooga campaign (the battery guidon of Semple’s battery was apparently later lost) were turned over to the Museum of the Confederacy where they were kept for many years. Upon the merger of the MotC with the American Civil War Museum in 2018, they are now in the custody of the American Civil War Museum.

 

Sources:

Letter from Second Lieutenant Theodore F. Stevens, Co. F, 149th New York Volunteer Infantry, Syracuse Daily Courier and Union (New York), January 1, 1864, pg. 1

Report of Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Randall, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

Collins, George K. Memoirs of the 149th Regt. N.Y. Vol. Inft., 3rd Brig., 2d Div., 12th and 20th A.C. Syracuse: Published by the author, 1891, pgs. 216-217

Beyer, Walter F. and Oscar F. Keydel. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Civil War Heroes Won the Medal of Honor. Perrien-Keydel Company, 1901.

“The Captured Rebel Flags and Their Escort,” Syracuse Daily Courier & Union (New York), January 1, 1864, pg. 2

Special thanks to Greg Biggs for his help with this post!

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