In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Union College library director Sabrina Riley recounts her attempts to discover the authenticity of a flag reputedly flown at the Gettysburg Address.
In 1985, alumna Muriel Fleming O’Connor gave the Union College Library Heritage Room a 34-star United States flag that—according to her family history—was one of several decorating the platform where Lincoln stood to deliver the famed Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. However, various family accounts present significant differences in the Flemmings’1wartime experiences and the subsequent history of this flag.
I started researching this mystery in 2008, starting with photographs. Unfortunately, the three known photographs of the event only show the large group of people present and do not provide enough detail to be of any help. So next, I turned to the family. If they were not living in Gettysburg in 1863, then the story becomes highly improbable. Genealogical sources turned up surprising facts.
Finding the Family
The family patriarch, Andrew W. Flemming, Sr. moved with his family from Baltimore, Md., to Gettysburg, Pa., in 1850. Prior to this move, it is not clear how he made a living, but we do know he incurred a lifelong disability from an injury suffered while serving as a seaman in 1839 during the Second Seminole War in Florida.
The Flemmings were never wealthy. According to John K. Mahon, enlisted servicemen in the 1830s were not well paid.2 The 1860 census does not list an occupation for Flemming, but newspapers reveal that he cobbled together a living from several sources including his own auctioneering business and work for the Adams County Court. He was also actively involved in the Gettysburg community.
At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg Flemming, his wife Julia, daughter Dora, and four sons, James, Solomon, Andrew, Jr., and Joseph were living on Breckinridge Street. On June 30, Dora, a teenager, joined other young ladies in singing to cheer on the Union soldiers as they marched through town. The group of young ladies included Dora’s cousin, Alice Powers, who would later publish an account of her experiences during the battle.
A portion of the Flemming family tradition claims that Dora helped nurse the wounded following the battle. Although no documentation has been found to verify that Dora helped care for the wounded, this record of her return to town the day after the battle puts her in the right place at the right time. There were certainly other teenage girls who did help, including Alice Powers and her sisters,3 but no more has been discovered of the Flemming family’s actual involvement with the battle, its aftermath, or the dedication of the National Cemetery.
Dora Flemming became a schoolteacher, ultimately became the executor of her father’s will and guardian of her nephew William Frederick Flemming. In her old age she relocated to Nebraska where she lived near her nephews Ray and William. It is presumed she inherited the flag and then gave it to Ray, who had been born in the family home in Gettysburg.
The earliest record of the flag is found in the March 7, 1938, issue of the Sargent, Neb., Leader. In this article, the flag is said to have been borrowed by one of Ray’s sisters for temporary display in Des Moines, Iowa, and to have been recently returned to him. In February 1963, the story of the flag and the Flemming family are again told for the Denver Post. Both articles make the claim that the flag was used as decoration on November 19, 1863. However, the Denver Post article includes many additional details, none of which are supported by the historical record. For example, O’Connor claimed her great-grandfather had served as master of ceremonies. It is well documented that Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s chief marshal and a personal friend, was master of ceremonies for the cemetery dedication.
David Wills, a Gettysburg leader and lawyer who directed the creation of the National Cemetery and the dedication ceremonies, wrote a detailed report of all activities associated with the cemetery for the Pennsylvania State Legislature. Nowhere in this comprehensive document does the name of Andrew W. Flemming or any other member of his family appear.
Clues on the Flag
So with the historical record providing no credible evidence as to the authenticity of the flag or credibility of the Flemming family tradition, we turn to the flag itself. Studying the object for internal evidence can be another valuable source of information.
As already noted, our flag has 34 stars. The 34-star United States flag was official from July 4, 1861 until July 3, 1863 and was the flag used during the battle. West Virginia’s admission to the union on June 20, 1863 required that a 35th star be added to the flag on July 4, 1863. While it is entirely possible less wealthy citizens might retain and continue to use an obsolete flag, we do know that at least three new 35-star flags were created specifically for the dedication of the cemetery. One was flown in the Gettysburg town center, one on Little Round Top, and one on the flag pole on stage visible in the photographs of the occasion.
Our flag is large, approximately 3 feet x 5 feet, but would not have been flown outside for very long. The stripes, field of blue, and stars are stamped or screen printed on one side of a single lightweight piece of cloth. The cloth is either cotton or linen. When viewed horizontally, the left edge is attached to a moderately thin rope. These characteristics indicate that this flag is a parade flag; one intended for temporary display during an event and then disposed. Similar to the flags we fly today, in the 1860s a flag intended to be flown from a pole was sewn and embroidered from durable materials and used metal grommets.
Even more intriguing are the stars on the flag’s field of blue. Prior to the early 1900s, there were few standards for the United States flag. Size, arrangement of the stars, even the number of stripes were subject to the artistic taste of the flag maker. Standards for the display and use of the flag were also lacking. The stars on our flag look odd when viewed horizontally. Turned vertically, the visual effect is much more pleasing, although to the modern eye this feels backwards because it moves the field of blue to the upper right-hand rather than left-hand corner. Our flag was meant to be hung vertically.
So what’s the truth? We may never know. While the historical evidence conflicts with the Flemming family tradition, their involvement with Gettysburg community life and internal evidence provided by the flag itself suggest that it could have special significance. We can be fairly certain it is authentic to the time period and that it belonged to the family.
Georg, Kathleen R. Summary of Damage Claims from the Battle of Gettysburg for Adams County, PA. Taken From Record Group 2, Records of the Department of the Auditor General, Records Relating to Civil War Border Claims, Damage Claims Applications Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA. 9 Microform Rolls Comprising All State Claims for Adams County are on Deposti at the Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA. Pennsylvania State Archives.
Mahon, John K. History of the Second Seminole, 1835-1842. Revised edition. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1985.
1 While Muriel Fleming O’Connor spelled her maiden name with a single m, earlier generations spelled their name with the double m.
2 John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole, 1835-1842, Revised edition (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1985), 119.
3 Kathleen R. Georg, Summary of Damage Claims from the Battle of Gettysburg for Adams County, PA, 1985, Pennsylvania State Archives, 31.