My Confederate Battle Flag Story

The wanton murders of nine innocent people, folks so decent and welcoming that they provided a spot in their church to a stranger, who then methodically shot them to death based on his twisted logic, shocked the nation. Resentment against symbols of hatred and racism such as the Confederate battle flags grew and resulted in many (hopefully all) being removed. I grew up in a segregated part of the south, in the rugged triangle where West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky come together. I recall the "white only" drinking fountains and separate public toilets. I recall the all-white "separate but equal" (what poppycock) schools.

For me, the reaction of decent people to take down public displays of Confederate battle flags, rancid symbols of resistance to desegregation legal rulings in the nineteen-sixties, was heartening. Hats off to Nikki Haley of South Carolina, which was the first state to secede, and the state that has clung to many of the most intransigent vestiges of racism for years.

So with all that, it's interesting that one of my family's most treasured possessions was a small book, more properly a large pamphlet, written by my great grandfather. He volunteered for the Army of  Northern Virginia, leaving his home town of Princeton, Mercer County, Virginia, and joining Virginia's 118th Battalion of General Robert E. Lee's army. He entered as a private, without education beyond elementary school (that was customary in rural areas) and rose to Lieutenant based on brevet promotions. In other words, his superior officers were killed or injured and he was selected to replace them. His war ended at one of the two battles of Cold Harbor, outside Richmond, when the New York Seventh Heavy Artillery Regiment charged at daybreak with heavy bombardment, and overran the Confederate lines. My great-grandfather was shot and bayoneted, and left for dead. He would have died for sure, but for the fact that his buddy next to him killed the Union soldier by swinging his rifle butt and smashing his head in hand-to-hand combat. Lt. George was carried to the Union trenches as a prisoner of war, most likely to succumb from his gruesome injuries. Surprisingly, the Confederate forces counter-attacked after thirty minutes, and regained their original trench lines. The charge ended with both armies in their starting positions, however George was a captive, and somehow he survived and spent the remainder of the war in difficult POW camps: first in Fort Pulaski, near Savannah GA; and finally in Baltimore, MD, after an unsuccessful escape attempt attempt in Georgia.

After General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, great-grandfather came back home to a different place: Princeton, Virginia was burned nearly to the ground (by retreating Confederate forces) and now was Princeton, Mercer County, West Virginia! The change was too much to bear for my predecessor, who moved across what was the new state border back into Virginia near Saltville.

He prospered there, and at some point, paid someone to write his memoirs, titled "One of the Immortals," which was a name given to Lee's army. My aunt, when a little girl, was presented a copy of the pamphlet, along with a note from W.W. George and a handwritten letter to her. When George died, apparently as a somewhat notable there in southwestern Virginia, someone hand drew a small battle flag that was placed on his coffin. This flag was part of the family lore designated by my Aunt Mary to me, and from her on to my oldest son. A photo of the front of the pamphlet, along with the various inscriptions as well as the small battle flag is shown. The final decision will be up to my son, JKG III, but hopefully this material will end up in the Institute for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

If you have any doubts about this story, you can read more in several noted accounts of the Battle of Cold Harbor, including Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, pages 322-323, by Gordon C. Rhea.

This small symbol is part of my family history, but I'd never want it to be a reminder to any group of the injustice forced on people before and after the Civil War. Based on when my ancestors arrived and where they lived, I have a reasonable pride in my family, but certainly agree with the recent decisions to remove public symbols of an economic and social system that was based on subjugation and bias.



10 Responses

  1. Melissa
    This is a really nice little story about our family history. I was just talking to someone recently about our family's history in the war, and wasn't able to remember the details, so this helped. I was sure to tell them about the stern portrait we have of WWG, though. :)
    • Hi Melissa. I haven't announced this blog yet, so you must be signed up for an RSS feed. Super. Yes, the family history is interesting. We are lucky that someone thought to write it down. The next time you are here, you can read the entire pamphlet. It's interesting for sure. Poppy.
  2. Jim: I enjoyed your blog about W. W. George and his pamphlet. I have either an original or a copy of it. I think his title "One of the Immortals" refers to his time as a prisoner at Fort Pulaski in 1864-65, where he must have been one of the "Immortal 600" - Confederate officers who were starved by the Union army. You can go to Wikipedia to find out the whole story. I first heard of them at Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville where I saw a grave marked "One of the Immortal 600". My father-in-law, Aston Kennedy, got Emily and me interested in family history and there's plenty of it to mine!
    • JK James George
      Hi Carter. Hmmm. You brought up a piece of history that's new to me. I'd always heard that the "Immortals" referred to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The team "Immortal 600," as referring to Confederate officers who were imprisoned is a new reference to me. The hunger aspect must have been a fact, at least at Fort Pulaski in Savannah, since in his pamphlet he refers to catching and cooking rats. Hope all is well with you. Jim.
  3. Hi Jim, Very well written piece of your family story which has a connection to American history. It is also relevant to the current situation in the country. You clearly stated your stand on the flag controversy and the social injustices of the civil war period. This eases up the reader's mind. I believe that every one should remember one's own family history and acknowledge the good. Personal pride, family pride and National pride can be a great motivator for continuous improvement in our attitudes. Vasu
    • JK James George
      Thanks Vasu. Very nice to hear about you. Appreciate your comments. All the best, Jim.
  4. Hi likely will not remember me, but I worked in your MOS Memory Division at Motorola. You and I had a several sporadic, impromptu discussions about Harley-Davidson motorcycles and working as a disc Jockey. Anyway, I ran across your profile as I was perusing LinkedIn, and wanted to finally tell you something I have genuinely and honestly felt my entire life. You were the best manager/director for whom I have ever worked in my entire career -- bar none. I was always impressed with your intelligence and kindness toward your employees, and throughout my career I tried to emulate your leadership style. I credit you for my successful career. Now that I'm retired and have ample time to do things such as peruse LinkedIn (and golf -- a lot!), I feel fortunate that I stumbled upon your profile and am finally able to tell you what I have told my friends and family for decades -- you were the best! I thoroughly enjoyed your recount of your great grandfather's role in the Civil War and the relatively current events surrounding the confederate flag. Once again, after many years, you have managed to bring thought, introspect and contemplation into my life -- this time via a blog! My very best wishes to you, Jim. I feel as if I've accomplished a goal in my life to finally express my gratitude to you. Paul Fieler
    • JK James George
      <blockquote>To Paul Fieler, Wow! Thanks so much for the poignant and meaningful remembrances. I very much appreciate your thoughts. All I can say is that I did the best I could, and tried to treat people as I would like to be treated. If you want to read some experiential-based fiction on being a DJ, take a look at my debut novel, "Reunion." I think you will get a kick of how to do it on a very low-budget AM radio station in the toolies. Again, thanks much for your wonderful feedback, and congratulations on your successful career and life. Jim.
  5. As I was growing up, the stern portrait of William Worth George and his framed memoirs, loomed large in my sense of family heritage. He seems to me to be a man of his time and place who did his duty, as he understood it. The saga of his experiences--combat, imprisonment, coming home--capture a compelling chapter in our country's history. I'm grateful for the artifacts that preserve his memory. Thanks for keeping the narrative alive.
    • JK James George
      Thanks Juliet. Yes, that charcoal portrait was stern indeed! Thanks much for your comments and for being my daughter. Dad

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