Most visitors to Gettysburg are unaware of the curious connection between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and one of the many Union soldiers killed during the fighting around the small Pennsylvania town. The story begins on the first day of the battle – July 1st, 1863. The 150th Pennsylvania Infantry, a regiment known for the deer “bucktails” worn in their hats, had fought all day against Confederate troops advancing on Gettysburg along the Chambersburg Pike. By late afternoon the 150th was forced to withdraw through town, along with the rest of the Union First Corps, to the safety of Cemetery Hill beyond. According to most accounts, Corporal Joseph Gutelius carried the flag during the withdrawal, which soon turned into a confusing rout in the maze like streets and alleys of Gettysburg. Elements of the 150th Pennsylvania attempted to hold the Confederates at bay, but to no avail. In one of the firefights that punctuated the retreat, Joseph Gutelius was killed, most likely by members from the 14th North Carolina of Ramseur’s brigade. The flag once carried by Gutelius fell in rebel hands. Confederate Lieutenant Frank M. Harney “with his sharpshooters encountered the 150th Pennsylvania Regt. and took from them their flag with his own hands, in which encounter he was mortally wounded.” As a dying wish, Harney requested the flag should be “presented in his name to the President.” Seven weeks later, Davis wrote North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance:
“The wish of the dying hero has been complied with. The flag is in my possession, and will be treasured by me as an honorable memento of the valor and patriotism and devotion which the soldiers of North Carolina have displayed on many hard fought fields… Such deeds illustrate a people’s history, justify a people’s pride, and sustain a country’s hope.”
The story does not end there. During the evacuation of Richmond two years later, in the midst of all that chaos, the Davis family packed the flag away in their personal baggage. Davis proved true to his word, and treasured the memento.
The flag of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry traveled with the Presidential party through North Carolina and the last Confederate cabinet meeting. The flag then followed Davis through South Carolina and into Georgia, still tucked away in a valise. On May 10, Union forces captured Davis and his entourage near Irwinville, Georgia. The blue cavalrymen subsequently ransacked the wagons and, lo and behold, the flag came into their possession.
The flag eventually wove it’s way into the custody of the War Department. In the post-war years, many important Pennsylvanians, including former Secretary of War Simon Cameron, urged the return of the flag to the state. In 1869, the United States government agreed and the flag came home to Harrisburg. A flag that took a journey from Gettysburg to the White House of the Confederacy, to Georgia, and finally, back to Pennsylvania now resides less than fifty miles from the grave of its original bearer.
Ranger Matt Atkinson