My Petersburg, Virginia A. P. Hill Camp, UCV Heritage:
"THESE MEN HAVE SEEN HARD SERVICE,
THE FIRST MICHIGAN SHARPSHOOTERS
IN THE CIVIL WAR"
-- Raymond J. Herek, printed by Wayne State University Press, Ch.16 p. 357-361
"A Captured Flag Goes Home"
"During the Spanish-American War, Northern and Southern regiments learned the rudiments of drill together. In one of the camps, the sons of the Sharpshooters learned that an outfit called the Petersburg Grays was drilling with them. As boys, these Michigan lads had heard of their fathers raising the Stars and Stripes over the Petersburg Courthouse. They had attended reunions with the old men and had heard some of the stories (at times many versions of the same one) until they had them memorized. They also knew about the old flag appropriated by their fathers from the Petersburg Courthouse during the last week of the war. Here, at last, was a link to the other side of the saga.
The flag of the Petersburg Grays-"not much more than a rag," commented Ed Buckbee who brought it back to Michigan as a war trophy-consisted of a blue field and not much else. Hardly anything of the thirteen red and white stripes existed. An inscription impressed with gold letters on the blue swatch read: Presented to the Petersburg L. I. Grays By the ladies of Petersburg, Va., Feb. 22, 1850. For a decade before the Civil War the Petersburg Grays had unfurled the flag and followed it in all of their parades and meetings. At the outbreak of the war, the unit marched to Norfolk where the Grays became Co B of the Twelfth Virginia Infantry. Incongruously, their banner flew on the march and in camp until the regiment received its true Confederate colors. The captain of the Grays sent the flag back to Petersburg, where one of the Sharpshooters in the color guard found it the morning of 3 April 1865.
As the spoils of war, the flag was given to Ed Buckbee, who took it back to Michigan. He presented it to state authorities who placed it in the state archives. After learning of their sons' meeting with the modern Petersburg Grays, the Sharpshooters decided to send their war trophy back to Virginia as a good will gesture.
George W. Stone, former drummer and the most active of the regiment involved in veterans affairs, worked to have a resolution passed in the Michigan legislature authorizing the return of the flag. Stone picked Buckbee and Henry J. Stephens, who had been captured the night of 17 June 1864 with Buckbee, to accompany him on the journey. Charles G. Conn, who had been captured at the Crater, was also chosen, but a series of crossed signals prevented his going. As the three old riflemen rode the train to Petersburg during the last days of August 1899, they must have ventured a few thoughts on their probable welcome to the Cockade City. The last time they seen the town, a war of attrition was grinding down the rebel army.
What the three Sharpshooters experienced on their second arrival eclipsed all reverie. As the train pulled into the Petersburg depot a delegation of prominent citizens, mostly ex-Confederates, headed by the mayor warmly greeted Stone, Buckbee, and Stephens. Shaking hands all around, the three Northerners found themselves escorted to a hotel, where every wish was granted. The next few days passed in a frenzied series of speeches, parades, and feasts, punctuated throughout with "the unbounded southern hospitality which was showered upon them." For their entire stay, the three men from Michigan were not left unattended for a minute. Henry J. Stephens reflected on his last stay in Petersburg to his hosts. On 17 June 1864, the survivors of the Thirty-fifth North Carolina Infantry escorted him into the city, "but he did not come in a carriage as he did today," he mused. He thought the courthouse had been turned around since his last sojourn, having seen it only once before being taken to a camp near the river that warm June night of 1864. On this occasion "he was most righteous glad to be here. This had been one of the most pleasant days of his life. He did not anticipate such a reception as he had had today."
On their first night the Sharpshooters presented the flag to its original owners. Local citizens jammed the hall to witness the ceremony. After 49 years only five of the charter members of the Petersburg Grays still survived, and just three could attend the meeting. One of those who did was a Dr. Claiborne, who had served under both the United States and Confederate flags. What the assemblage heard from him was an outpouring of patriotism. “I look upon it,” Dr. Claiborne said of the returned banner: as the ensign of a great, united nation, promising to all peoples liberty and happiness, and wherever it waves, from the dome of the capitol at home, or the storm rocked top mast abroad upon the sea, may it ever be the love and pride of the American heart…. But I say this, comrade, without one feeling of disloyalty to that other flag which we furled at Appomattox, but which we buried in our hearts, as we tore it from its standards, and which we loved more than we loved life. “When you go back north,” intoned one of the ex-Confederates, “tell the people there is no question of our loyalty to the old flag.”
All three Sharpshooters were genuinely moved by the sincere patriotic display from their old enemies. When the men of the A.P. Hill Camp learned that Buckbee had been a prisoner of war, they asked him to recall his stay in the sunny South. A raconteur of the best sort, Buckbee entertained his hosts with a humorous rendition of his incarceration and escapes from their hospitality. During their stay, the Sharpshooters toured the siege lines left from the old war. A committee of former Confederate officers accompanied them as guides. For two days both parties recalled the food, the insects, the heat, the incessant bombardments and their personal involvements in the fight for Petersburg. The old warriors explored remnants of the rebel forts and Union redoubts, “but none of these places was more interesting to me than the spot on which I stood the 17th of June, 1864, when I was taken prisoner,” reminisced Buckbee. All three men had stood in the exact location light years before, when the world was a less complicated but more terrifying place. Thirty-five years zipped by in a moment. A twenty-year-old, Adjutant Buckbee saw his world crumble about him as he surrendered the remnant of his regiment to the onrushing rebels. Henry Stephens of Company A was a bewildered 18-year-old who thought his life was over as he and his pards were hurriedly searched by the enemy soldiers before being hustled off to Petersburg and then to the dreaded Andersonville. Fifteen-year-old George W. Stone, having tossed aside his drum for a musket when the shooting started, was already in the rear guarding a batch of Southern prisoners when Buckbee and Stephens were being led off.
Peering through older and wiser eyes, the three comrades surveyed the scene of their youth. There was nothing here that they wished to relive. Nostalgia, tempered with truth, grabbed them for a moment; but all three knew what they had left behind. They had no desire to relive some mysterious past event or even to see their old friends. Their youth had been spent in those trenches, and that was the elusive willo’ the wisp they sought. They and their Confederate hosts had grown up fast, too fast. War was not for children. These middle-aged men poking about the relics of the past had pursued a great adventure, and they had survived it. They were pragmatic men now, and war made them so. They had revisited their old haunts. With that, they took their departure from Petersburg. They had relived a moment of their youth. Now they had to get on with the present.