By Mark Bushnell Jimmy Wright had what seems like an easy decision to make. The Ryegate native was far from home and had become separated from his Union cavalry regiment as it rode through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in October 1864. Seeing that Wright was isolated, unarmed and carrying his regiment’s American flag, a Confederate soldier rode up, leveled a carbine at him and demanded the colors – a sort of “your flag or your life” proposition. Wright picked the flag. To the Rebel’s shock, Wright speared him with the flagstaff. Stunned and almost unhorsed by the blow, the Confederate wheeled around and rode off. Wright had saved his life and what was even more valuable to his 1st Vermont Calvary Regiment, the flag. Today, it’s hard to grasp how easy that selfless decision probably was for Wright. During the Civil War, people fought and died for flags. We may say soldiers and sailors still do that now, but we mean it more figuratively; we mean they are defending what the flag represents. People of Wright’s era considered the flag a truly sacred symbol. These strips of silk stood for many things, including pride in one’s country and one’s state. To the bearers, the flags were a sign of honor and courage. Regimental and company commanders selected their own color bearers, who usually marched unarmed at the center of the regimental line. The flags also had a practical importance – this is where the courage part comes in. The regimental colors, flying as they did from long staffs, were crucial for tactical reasons. In the heat of battle, with gun smoke choking the air, the flags were one important way for troops to see where they should be. Officers trained their men to remain near the colors so together they could fire massive volleys at the enemy. In case of a brief retreat, the flag marked the spot where men were supposed to regroup. It was the literal rallying point, as in “rally ’round the flag.” As a critical communication tool, the flags, or actually the flag bearers, became a prime target for enemy fire. Even if they were surrounded by the color guard (the eight or so soldiers assigned to protect them), color bearers often had short careers. The flags still have their defenders today. A group of historians and Civil War re-enactors is working to protect the 68 battle flags on display and in storage at the State House. “These flags are wonderful symbols of the sacrifices these people made toward defending their freedoms,” says Don Wickman, librarian and archivist for the Woodstock Historical Society and an expert on the state’s battle flags. Wickman’s view of flags has been colored by his research, during which he has found bullet holes and bloodstains on the tattered fabric. “I’m not trying to be a super patriot,” he says, “but we take too much for granted, and these men weren’t taking it for granted.” After the Civil War, Vermont’s battle flags were brought to the State House, decommissioned in a ceremony and then put on display. Vermonters loved them to pieces. Souvenir collectors, probably members of the public and legislators alike, snipped off bits. No Vermont battle flags had fallen into the hands of enemies (a claim no other state can make), but now swatches of them were falling into the pockets of friends. In 1871, the Legislature had them protected behind glass in the vestibule outside the House Chamber, which later became known as the Hall of Flags. There they stood largely untouched for more than a century. Recently, David Schutz, who as curator of state buildings oversees the collection, has begun a project to preserve the flags. A $40,000 state appropriation and $13,000 raised by the 18th Vermont, a current-day fundraising organization, has helped start what will be a long, expensive task. The flags would be worth preserving for their beauty, even if no stories and symbolism were attached to them. Inspect them on a sunny day and you will see sections of gold leaf catch the light, making some seem almost new. But others are decidedly worn, not just by age, but by war. You know they have been somewhere you’d never want to be. Take, for example, the national and regimental flags of the Eighth Vermont Regiment that were at the battle of Cedar Creek, Va., in 1864, 10 days after Jimmy Wright made his decision. In a ferocious melee, five Vermonters were killed or wounded defending the flags. One of the injured men was quoted as saying as he fell: “Boys, leave me! Take care of yourselves and the flag!” The story of Cedar Creek is part of the script John Sargent of Morristown is writing for a Farmer’s Night presentation about the flags on March 26. (The free event, which will include period music, starts at 7:30 p.m. in the House Chamber.) Sargent is close to the flag subject. Growing up, he heard that his great-grandfather had carried a flag in the Civil War, and was unimpressed. “What’s that?” he remembers thinking. “He wasn’t even involved in the shooting.” He didn’t think much of it, even when he was playing capture the flag with friends. Only later did he learn what Sgt. Jackson Sargent had done. It wasn’t a story Jackson Sargent enjoyed telling. He’d only told it to his grandson – John Sargent’s father – because the boy wouldn’t stop asking about it. The war held hard memories for Jackson Sargent, who had lost his best friend from Stowe in the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. But in April 1865, at the moment of the Union victory at Petersburg, Va., in the war’s last week, Sargent was carrying the state colors for the Fifth Vermont Regiment. He and another man were the first to enter a Confederate fort even as Rebel cannons still fired. Behind them rushed 14,000 Union troops, charging to overrun the position. He planted the flag on the parapet and later refused suggestions he let someone else hold the flag so he could have his injured shoulder treated. Like other brave color bearers, he earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor. Mark Bushnell’s column on Vermont history is a regular feature in the Vermont Sunday Magazine.

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