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“Irreconcilables in Petticoats”
On September 28, 1861, at Camp Lyons near Detroit, the First Michigan Cavalry regiment received a heavily-fringed blue silk flag—a standard—with the federal coat of arms. It was accepted by Colonel Thornton Brodhead. The flag bearer, Thomas Shepard, noted that Brodhead ordered the flag hung from the window of the Court House near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The women of that Southern town made it a target. When it was taken down, five bullet holes showed the feelings of the “irreconcilables in petticoats.”
On August 30, 1862, the regiment was engaged at Second Bull Run. A Confederate officer fired two rounds at Thornton Brodhead. The bullets pierced Brohead’s lungs and exited his back. Brodhead was removed to a hospital, where he died – after terrible suffering – on September 2.
Brodhead had been an editor of the Detroit Free Press. When his body was returned to Detroit, thousands of mourners passed by his coffin for two days. His funeral, on September 10, was attended by a marching band, the mayor, the city council, many judges, the Detroit Hussars and the mounted Fourth Cavalry. So famous was “The Dying Hero of Manassas” that a song was written about him and advertised in the Free Press:
“Attention! First Michigan Cavalry,—Form en masse—charge! not upon the enemy, but upon the music store of J. Henry Whittemore, where can be found that noble song in memory of your late gallant leader entitled “The Old Flag Will Triumph Yet.”
The Regiment’s Greatest Moment
In June 1863, the First Michigan Cavalry was assigned to a new brigade of four Michigan cavalry regiments (the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan Cavalry). This was the only army brigade created completely from a single state. It would be commanded by the dashing “boy general,” George A. Custer.
The First Michigan Cavalry’s greatest moment occurred on July 3, 1863, near Gettysburg. The regiment was ordered to charge the rebel cavalry. Historians have described their charge as one of the most desperate as well as most brilliant of the war. It saved Battery M of the Second Regular Artillery from capture, turning what had appeared to be a defeat at Gettysburg into a victory.
“…The Tattered Standard of Our Regiment…”
The feelings of the men for their flag were well expressed by Lt. Henry Beach, upon sending home a standard of the regiment in 1864:
“Gentlemen, I have the honor to forward to you the tattered standard of our regiment. Where, when and how well we have defended it, we will let the history of the war tell. It has waved over many a ****** field, and been pierced by canister and rifle shot. Yet we trust we have never forsaken or dishonored it. Sirs, we venerate, we almost worship it, and confiding it to your care we humbly pray you will preserve it as long as the Peninsular State has a name and a place in the nation; and whenever, *** sparing our lives to return, any of us shall behold, we will bow to its familiar device, while we weep for our brave comrades who have fallen beneath it.”
“Tale of The Old Flag” by Lawrence Sheppard. Dearborn Historian Volume 18, Number 4 (Autumn, 1978)
Letter of Thornton Brodhead to his wife, August 31, 1862.
“Interesting Relic.” Detroit Free Press, June 6, 1864
(View images of Michigan Civil War battle flags on Seeking Michigan.)
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