|Last update 18 May 2011
At least three "Battle Flags" flew in advance of the 37th Alabama Regiment. Only one, the third, is known to have survived the war.
Today, that flag is conserved in the Ralph Brown Draughon Library on the campus of Auburn University in the care of the Special Collections & Archives Department of the Auburn University Libraries. This is a proper home for the flag as both the regiment and the university share common threads of early leadership.
In 1857, William F. Slaton, (biography page) founded the Young Men's Preparatory Academy at Oak Bowery, Ala. By 1859, Slaton's school was incorporated into the East Alabama Male College, itself a foundational component of the land-grant college that is now known as Auburn University.
Slaton was not only a high-ranking officer of the regiment, but somehow came into possession of the flag and preserved it – only sparingly letting it out of his control. It is intriguing that he ultimately ended up with the flag since he was nowhere near it when the unit was finally surrendered in April 1865 at Greensboro, N.C. At the time of surrender, Slaton was already confined as a prisoner in an Officer's POW camp located on Johnson's Island (in Lake Erie off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio).
Another prominent legacy links the regiment and the university. The East Alabama Male College was shuttered during the war, principally because its student body as well as its faculty were off fighting the war. It reopened in 1866, and James F. Dowdell, (biography page) the regiment's founding colonel, became the college's second president, serving until 1870. He died a year later.
Like Slaton, Dowdell's name appears on the final pre-war roster of the East Alabama Male College in 1860 as a member of the faculty.
A history of the regiment's "flag" was first told in The Story of A Flag by Bessie Thomas Love, a member of the Admiral Semmes Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at Auburn, Ala. Mrs. Love's manuscript also resides in the Auburn archives. Although written well after the war, she was apparently closely connected to key players in the regiment's history, and had undoubtedly heard many of the elements that were later committed to paper from first- or second-hand accounts.
The fact that three flags existed, yet Love's story relates each element as having happened to a single flag, may cast some doubt over her story's accuracy, but perhaps her work should be viewed as a collected patchwork of real events – in which the principal role (the flag) was played by different actors on the various stages described. The names, places, events and sequences she wrote about are otherwise historically accurate.
Mrs. Love's story begins, "In the breeze of memory flies the Oak Bowery Flag ..." and according to her:
"... Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas Dowdell, a cousin of Colonel Dowdell, and an Aunt of the writer, offered to make a flag for the Regiment. ... She had on hand some woolen material, merino and cashmere, which she had bought to make clothes for her children. Believing that the 37th would leave Auburn the next day, she sat up all night making the Regimental Flag ... The Flag was completed by dawn. ... She privately presented the flag to Colonel Dowdell, who in turn presented it to the Regiment that afternoon. ..." But, we're getting ahead of the story; again, according to Mrs. Love:
FLAG FACT: The surviving flag is not made in the manner described above, but was instead manufactured in the style and pattern of flags produced at Mobile, Ala., by Jackson and Sarah Belknap and is a so-called "Army of Tennessee" or "Mobile-type" flag.
The flag's dimensions measure 44-inches at the "hoist" (the vertical height closest to the pole) by 51-inches "fly" (the horizontal length). General Joseph E. Johnston began the practice of issuing these standardized flags in his Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana after the fall of Vicksburg.
"... Following the battle of Corinth (Oct. 1862), the 37th went into winter quarters. While in camp at Granada, Mississippi, President Jefferson Davis and General J.C. Johnson came to review the Army. For the parade, all the regiments had fresh, new flags and uniforms, except the 37th Alabama who used their old, scarred battle flag, torn by shells and bullets, with the names of the battles in which it had been engaged printed on the flag. Riding down the lines, President Davis stopped his horse before the scarred battle flag of the 37th, saluted it, grasped the hand of his old friend Colonel Dowdell and said 'your old battle scarred flag shows where you and your boys have been'. Whereupon the President was cheered with a mighty Rebel yell by the 37th. The following day, when President Davis and General Johnson were to take their leave, all the troops were again assembled. They were all carrying their old battle flags, but no further compliments were given. ..." (read: "Grenada" and "J.E. Johnston") Following the siege of Vicksburg (July 1863), Mrs. Love tells us of the flag:
FLAG FACT: The surviving (third) flag bears "battle honors" (names of the battle sites) made from cut-out lettering that are, in fact, sewn to it. Of interest, Mrs. Love uses the word "printed" describing the battle honors in her story. Flags in the western theater are documented to have been the first to add battle honors early in the war (1861-62). These early honors were almost always painted or printed on (sometimes very ornately done).
Since this flag apparently no longer exists, and as no contemporary description of its style has been found, an artist's conception of what the original (Elizabeth Dowdell "Oak Bowery") regimental flag might have looked like appears at right; although, it easily may have been of an entirely different style.
As it was crafted in 1862, the vision represented here is based on a Confederate first national flag pattern (as was the Flag of Company E of the 37th Alabama). In this illustration, the artist shows painted-on battle honors. Engagements at three of the locations recorded on the existing flag, "Iuka," "Corinth" and "Hatchie Bridge" had occurred prior to the regiment's documented relocation to the Grenada, Miss., area in the winter of 1862. A fourth honor, for "Vicksburg," was earned in the spring-summer of 1863 and appears on the surviving flag.
"... To prevent the indignity of the capture of the flag of the 37th, Colonel Dowdell had instructed his body servant, Chance, that if surrender came he was to take the flag, fold it under his saddle blanket on his mule so it would not be noticed and so ride out with it. This Chance did, and thus the Flag was saved ... Chance was made a prisoner with the Regiment, but kept the Flag hidden. ..." In the Battle of Missionary Ridge (Nov. 1863), Mrs. Love continues her story:
FLAG FACT: No flag attributed to the 37th Alabama is identified among the captured colors in Union hands after Vicksburg. However, it is assumed by authorities that the capitulation of Vicksburg marked the end of the first regimental flag's active field service (either from its capture, destruction or retirement). If it were indeed retired, it would be ironic that it ended its service alongside Colonel Dowdell who was also retired by a medical review board due to his continued state of poor health after Vicksburg.
A circumstantial bit of information supports Love's story; it is noted in the Inventory Records of the Probate Court of Chambers County, Ala., 1834-1866, (Vol. 6, pg 92), the name of a slave owned by James Dowdell on 3 April 1856 appears to be recorded as "Chancy."
In late 1863, historians believe that a second flag was introduced to the regiment at its parole camp at Demopolis, Ala. (during Oct-Nov 1863). This new flag would have been in the "Hardee" pattern: a relatively simple, blue block bordered in white with a white vertical oval in its center, often bearing the unit's designation inside the oval (it may have looked somewhat like the artist's rendering at left). An excellent, surviving original example of this style flag is one issued to the 38th Alabama in the collection of the Alabama State Archives.
"... Mr. Jack Summers ... had the Flag staff shot from his hands. He seized the colors again and waving them aloft, continued in the charge. He was wounded, captured and sent to Rock Island prison, where he remained 14 months ..." Following the war, Mrs. Love instructs us:
FLAG FACT: The service record of Pvt. John ("Jack") Summers, Co. G, (photo at right) in the National Archives supports this claim. He, indeed, served as regimental flag bearer and was both wounded and captured during the fight of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tenn., on 25 Nov. 1863. As a POW, he was interred at Rock Island Barracks, Rock Island, Ill., until the war ended, roughly 14 months later.
It is suspected that the regiment's (second) Hardee-pattern flag was captured at Chattanooga. More than 200 members of the regiment and its parent brigade (Moore's Brigade) are documented to have been taken prisoner at Lookout Mountain, or along with Pvt. Summers, the next day on Missionary Ridge.
Some evidence exists to support speculations that if the flag were not captured, it was replaced by the surviving third or "Mobile" (aka "Army of Tennessee") pattern flag sometime prior to the regiment's arrival at Dalton, Ga.
Noticeably absent from the existing (third) flag are battle honors for "Lookout Mountain" or "Mission Ridge" (as Missionary Ridge was more typically called at the time). This fact supports a time line for the flag's manufacture and presentation. Since "Vicksburg" (July 1863) is the latest honor actually on it, this suggests the flag may have already been in the works by late 1863 (prior to Lookout Mountain), but not yet in the field with the regiment.
Practically a twin to the surviving flag of the 37th, one made by Belknap at Mobile for the 40th Alabama was presented to that regiment (40th) at Dalton, Ga., in May of 1864. This particular flag bears honors only as recent as "Deer Creek" and "Vicksburg" (April and July 1863, respectively) which suggests a considerable lag time between the order and delivery of a flag.
Using documents from Johnston's headquarters and the Mobile manufacturers, historians believe the (third) flag of the 37th was likely presented to the regiment prior to May 1864 when the regiment was encamped at Dalton, Ga.
Another flag, this one of the 38th Alabama, is also a very similar Mobile-type, yet it does carry a "Lookout Mountain" honor – along with one for "Rocky Face Mountain" (Feb 1864). This particular flag was captured on 15 May 1864 at Resaca, Ga., a mere three months after its latest stated honor.
"... After the surrender (April 1865), the tattered flag was furled ... and remained in the possession of Maj. Slaton ... in Atlanta until his death."
FLAG FACT: The (third) regimental flag in the Auburn University Archives was donated to the special collection in 1961 by John M. Slaton Jr. of Atlanta, Ga., a grandson of Major William F. Slaton. Undoubtedly, this is the flag mentioned in a 1902 newspaper article from The Weekly Enterprise (Enterprise, Ala.) by T.J. Carlisle, a former officer:
"The members of this Company who are living and were present at our meeting at Lafayette in August in 1885 ... will recall the scene that followed when Jack Summers and Walt Harman unfurled our old Battle Flag to the immense crowd that thronged around. How some shouted — some cried — some called out — 'Pass it this way, I want to lay my hands on it one more time.'
Though dumb and without speech that old battle flag aroused the patriotic emotions of that large crowd more than the eloquence of mortal tongues. Some poor mothers whose sons had fallen beneath its folds would clasp it while tears of bitter anguish would stream down their eyes, yet deep down in their hearts there dwelt a soothing consciousness that my boy died for his country."
Time Line of the Regimental Battle Flags
Drawing conclusions from these stories, supporting facts and expert opinions, a presumptive time line for the various regimental battle flags follows:
The (first) "Oak Bowery" Flag:
May 1862 – Elizabeth Thomas Dowdell sews the original "Oak Bowery" flag The (second) "Hardee Pattern" Flag:
Sept 1862 – The flag is carried in the Battle of Iuka
Oct 1862 – The flag is in action again at Corinth and the Hatchie Bridge
Late Oct 1862 – The "old, scarred battle flag, torn by shells and bullets" with battle honors printed upon it is displayed on the parade grounds at Grenada, Miss. in front of Confederate President Jefferson Davis
Dec 1862 - Jan 1863 – The flag is carried in actions at Chickasaw Bayou and Snyder's Bluff
Apr 1863 – The flag is at Fort Pemberton and encampments along the Sunflower River
May - July 1863 – The hand-made flag is in service during the siege of Vicksburg through the surrender, following which it is either:
(a) captured and lost, (b) hidden, and/or (c) retired from service in favor of a government-issue flag
Oct - Nov 1863 – The new "Hardee Pattern" flag is presented to the reorganized and recently exchanged regiment at Demopolis, Ala The (third) "Mobile" Flag:
Nov 1863 – The flag is atop Lookout Mountain by early November and in the Battle of Lookout Mountain (Nov. 24) and is likely captured along with its bearer the next day at Missionary Ridge (Nov. 25)
Dec 1863 - May 1864 – The new "Mobile-type" (Army of Tennessee) flag is presented to the regiment.
May 1864 – The third flag is carried into the Battles of Resaca, Adairsville, New Hope Church, and endures a furious cannonade during the Battle of Pickett's Mill
June 1864 – The Battles of Mt. Zion Church, Kennesaw Mountain
July 1864 – The Battle of Peachtree Creek; the flag leads an attack at the Battle of Atlanta that results in the death of 40 of its men; the Battle of Ezra Church
Aug 1864 – The Battle of Utoy Creek; the regiment is relieved from the line bound for Spanish Fort on Mobile Bay
Aug 1864 - Jan 1865 – The flag remains at Spanish Fort with the regiment on garrison duty
Jan 1865 – The flag leads the regiment to Augusta, Ga., to rejoin the Army of Tennessee and crosses into South Carolina
March 1865 – The Battle of Bentonville; the flag leads its regiment in the "last grand charge of the Army of Tennessee"
April 26, 1865 – Johnston surrenders. The Battle Flag is furled.
1865 - 1885 – The flag comes into the possession of William F. Slaton (one source intimates he purchased it from a former comrade-in-arms)
1885 – Slaton allows the flag to be displayed at a reunion at Lafayette, Ala. (source suggests he refused other entreaties to display it at later such gatherings)
1885 - 1916 – The flag remains in Slaton's personal possession until his death (source states it remained in his office safe and was only taken out sparingly)
1916 - 1961 – The flag is in the hands of Slaton's heirs
1961 – The flag is donated to Auburn University by Slaton's family
1961 - 2005 – The flag is displayed in the Auburn University Libraries Special Collection
2005 – The flag undergoes conservation in South Carolina and is returned to Auburn where it remains
The Flag's Future
Following months of extensive conservation work by textile experts, the (third) Regimental Flag returned to the Auburn University Library Archives in 2005. Private funds provided by interested parties, including descendants of members of the regiment (many of whom have also corresponded and contributed to the content of this site) were matched, in part, by Auburn and paid for the professional conservation and careful preservation of the flag.
Photos below courtesy of Mary Norman, who in an email of 5 Oct. 2005, stated:
I just came from the Auburn Archives and the Flag is now home and restored. The flag will be displayed in the Special Collections Room at the Auburn Archives. Due to light, it will not be open at all times, but covered. Anyone wishing to see it, all they have to do is ask. Thank you to you and all the 37th descendants who made this restoration and homecoming possible.
Admiral Semmes Chapter, 57
Alabama Division, UDC
Detail of the flag after conservation work was completed:
Photos courtesy of Mary Norman
The Flag of Company E of the 37th Alabama Infantry resides in the collection of the Alabama State Archives and History at Montgomery, Ala., but unfortunately very little is known about it. The flag is modeled after the Confederacy's first national flag although it varies in some details from that inspiration by its use of 13 hand-painted, six-pointed stars arranged in rows (the original national flag bore a circular configuration of five-pointed stars). Most historians agree that Company flags were typically more ceremonial in nature and did not see wide use in combat.
According to the archives:
"No documentation concerning the manufacture or presentation of this flag has been found. The flag was preserved by J. W. Skipper, son of Captain Jacob L. Skipper, Co. E, 37th Alabama Infantry. It was presented to the Alabama Department of Archives and History on March 28, 1911 by Mrs. Silas Tyson, widow of J. W. Skipper."
The "E-Bay Flag"
In 2004, this mysterious flag appeared for sale on the popular online auction site E-Bay.
Word spread quickly and experts from both Auburn University and the Alabama State Archives were consulted as the bidding escalated (in excess of $1,500). Some nonacademics initially thought the flag resembled the description of the regiment's "first" flag as described by Bessie Thomas Love, the one hand-sewn from "woolen material, merino and cashmere."
The seller stated he'd purchased the flag from an Alabama resident at a "show in Friendship, Indiana." He stated that he believed the other man had acquired it in an estate sale, but offered no authentication or guarantee of its origins.
The experts concluded that the flag was not an authentic period battle flag, but possibly a "reunion" flag or a personal "memento" flag that had been made at some point after the war.
The flag's purchaser and its current whereabouts are unknown as of this posting.
If you encounter an offer to purchase an "authentic" Confederate flag, be sure to consult an expert before doing so. Fakes (some very good fakes, in fact) and other reproduction flags are readily available, and those who would profit by selling them don't always tell the whole truth. Buyer beware. But, don't despair: there are many experts who are willing to offer their opinions, and will do so for free because they don't want counterfeit flags on the market at all. One such site that is very helpful and stocked with Civil War flag experts is located here: Civil War History Sites, Flags Message Board.
In 2007, Mr. Buddy Bryan, a descendant of William Wright Bryan of Co. K, commissioned a specialty flag manufacturer to create a limited edition of reproduction flags using nylon material (example at left). Mr. Bryan recreated flags that were graphically similar to the original using modern silk-screening techniques and fabric by referencing a number of available photographs of the original.
Other reproduction flags are also known to have been made by other individual descendants, including the East Family who have contributed numerous photos to the Burials section of this site. The Easts have taken their reproduction flag with them on trips to local cemeteries while working to locate and document regimental grave sites (photo at right, the grave of Elisha Wood of Co. B, in the Wadley City Cemetery, Wadley, Randolph County, Alabama, courtesy of Charles R. East and family).
Although the opinions and conclusions expressed in this file are solely those of the editor, special thanks is expressed for the outstanding cooperation of the following individuals who also provided additional information and expert insight:
Joyce Hicks and Dwayne Cox of the Special Collections & Archives Department of the Auburn University Libraries, and Bob Bradley of the Alabama State Archives
37th Alabama Regiment of Volunteer Infantry CSA
2300 Cottondale Lane Little Rock, AR 72202
© Copyright 2007 C.C. (Chip) Culpepper