George W. Wise carried the battle flag of the 19th South Carolina regiment into battles from middle Tennessee to Atlanta during the ugliest days of the Civil War.
It was shot out of his hands in Murfreesboro in 1863, and he probably dropped it when he lost his left arm in a battle at Shelbyville. But Pvt. Wise never really let go of that flag. When the war ended, Wise carried the tattered, bullet-riddled banner home.
And now it’s back in South Carolina.
The Confederate Relic Room museum in Columbia and the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans teamed up to bring the 19th South Carolina regiment battle flag to the state after discovering it in a Tennessee museum.
It becomes one of the most important flags in the Confederate Relic Room’s collection.
“It’s real significant simply because it’s an unusual flag with the diamond box on the center star, and because the provenance is so strong on this,” said Allen Roberson, director of the Relic Room. “We’re pretty sure bullets went through this flag, and the granddaughter said there is blood on it.”
As rare as Confederate flags are, ones with battle damage are even more scarce. And finding one from South Carolina? It’s been nearly two decades since the museum took in a flag of this import.
The story of how the flag was returned to South Carolina from Tennessee is nearly as remarkable as its history. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have been funding conservation of many Relic Room flags simply because they are not even stable enough to display — work that has won both organizations preservation awards from the S.C. Federation of Museums.
At the same time, the group has been searching for South Carolina flags to return home.
They found the 19th South Carolina flag in the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, along with a 1955 newspaper article that gave them the leverage they needed to buy back the flag.
In that story, Mrs. Fred Randall — Wise’s granddaughter — details how the flag was shot out of Wise’s hand at Murfreesboro, and how he lost his left arm below the elbow at Shelbyville.
He told his grandchildren that his arm was buried on the banks of the Duck River.
Randall doesn’t say how Wise carried the flag home, but that was not uncommon — many soldiers saved flags. It was her final quote, however, that gave the SCV and the Relic Room an in: “Mrs. Randall plans to present the flag to the Confederate museum in South Carolina.”
But that never happened. Instead the flag fell into the hands of a doctor, who gave it to the Children’s Museum, where it wasn’t exactly a natural fit. And there it sat for more than 50 years.
“This flag is an integral part of Manigault’s Brigade,” said Randy Burbage, past commander of the South Carolina Division of the SCV. “It has a strong connection to South Carolina history.”
The 19th South Carolina fought under Charleston native Arthur Middleton Manigault’s brigade. Originally established late in 1861, the 19th — along with the 10th South Carolina — arrived in Tennessee too late to fight in the battle at Shiloh, but they were in the middle of every other major engagement in that part of the country.
The 19th and 10th took heavy casualties during the fighting, so much so that they had to be combined for a year, but somehow Wise managed to survive. Even missing an arm, he kept fighting until the end of the war.
The flag he carried into battle will be conserved, probably at a cost of somewhere between $7,000 and $15,000. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have paid for the conservation of eight flags in the Relic Room collection so far, and put up half the $50,000 purchase price for the 19th South Carolina flag. The other half came from revenue generated by the Relic Room through ticket sales, gift shop sales and licensing fees — in other words, not tax dollars.
Roberson said the flag is one of the most important in the Relic Room’s collection of 200 flags, 100 of them Civil War-related.
“It’s not just the flag,” Roberson said, “it’s saving South Carolina’s history.”
Reach Brian Hicks at (843) 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.