150 Years Later, Two States Are Still Fighting Over the Battle of Gettysburg

Virginia wants a captured Confederate flag back. Minnesota's governor says "it would be a sacrilege to return it to them."

National Journal

Next week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but it appears, somehow, there is still some bad blood between a pair of Northern and Southern states.

Here's the controversy: The Minnesota Historical Society has a Confederate flag in its possession, captured from a Virginia regiment during the last day of the battle. For the sake of the anniversary, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell asked Minnesota to loan it to them (McDonnell is the governor who had declared April 2010 "Confederate History Month" at the behest of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but then apologized for not mentioning slavery in the proclamation.) Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton's response to the request was simple: No way.

As he told a crowd of reporters and Civil War reenactors earlier this week:

The governor of Virginia earlier this year requested that the flag be loaned, quote, unquote, to Virginia to commemorate--it doesn't quite strike me as something they would want to commemorate, but we declined that invitation.

It was taken in a battle at the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans. And I think it would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It was something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor of men who gave their lives and risked their lives to obtain it. And, as far as I'm concerned, it's a closed subject.

Why the Resistance? The Abridged Story of the Virginia Flag

Marshall Sherman, 1823-1896
(via findagrave.com) The Minnesota 1st Volunteer Infantry Regiment captured the flag on July 3, 1863, the last day of the battle. On July 2, the Minnesota 1st had suffered massive losses after being ordered to conduct a diversionary strike on the Confederates while the Union collected reinforcements. At the end of the day, only 47 out of more than 250 Minnesotan men were still alive. One of those remaining was Pvt. Marshall Sherman (pictured right; he actually sat out the battle).

The next day, Sherman along with the remaining members of the Minnesota 1st were in the the center of the Union lines when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered an assault. "Pickett's Charge," as it is called, is considered the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

It was a brutal, chaotic scene. "We just rushed in like wild beasts," one Minnesotan fighter recalled. "Men swore and cursed and struggled and fought, grappled in hand-to-hand fight, threw stones, clubbed their muskets, kicked, yelled, and hurrahed." The charge failed, leading to the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Amid the firefight, Sherman eyed a Virginian "shouting like mad," according to a Roanoke Times recollection. He was barefoot, the legend goes, as he charged the Virginian with his bayonet. Jabbing at the enemy, Sherman said, "Throw down that flag or I'll run you through." He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his effort.

That's one reason the flag is so important to the state: The blood it took to get it and the valor bestowed upon Sherman for capturing it confer a historical pride. The flag remains "one of the true treasures of the Minnesota Historical Society," as the society says on its website.

Over the years, there have been many calls for Confederate flags to be returned to their home states. President Cleveland issued even an executive order in 1887 to return the colors of a few Confederate units in an act of good will. Many scoffed at that, including former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who, according to the Roanoke Times, said that banners belong to the captors, by "all known military precedents." Cleveland eventually rescinded the order.

In 2000, Chris Caveness, a Roanoke resident, spearheaded a federal lawsuit to get the flag back in Virginia based on a 1905 act of Congress allowing for the return of Confederate flags in possession of the War Department. From the Roanoke Times:

Caveness ... enlisted his own big gun in the form of former Virginia Attorney General Anthony Troy. Helped by a cadre of Richmond Law School students, Troy wrote his own 45-page legal opinion with exhibits, arguing "federal property cannot be abandoned or disposed without Congressional assent." Since Congress never gave the flag away, Troy concluded, Minnesota is illegally in possession of it.

The litigation did not result in action. And the skirmish over the flag continues, 150 years later.

For those interested in reading more about the fight over the flag, visit the Minnesota Historical Society.

H/T Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory