Carry the colors aloft and wave them high

Carry the colors aloft and wave them high

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A group of unidentified Massachusetts Union soldiers pose for a photo. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history, in a regularly appearing series called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

Of the Vineyard men who gave the last full measure of devotion to the Union cause during the Civil War, at least two lost their lives carrying their regimental colors. The colors, or battle flag, were important both practically and for the morale of the unit. In the confusion of battle the colors showed soldiers where their regiments were. The flag was well-guarded because it was a target of the enemy, and so was the soldier carrying it. To be selected to carry the colors during battle was a dangerous honor.

“Good bye boys, I am done for.”

Little is known of Peleg Davenport of Tisbury except that, at age 25, he was one of the first men from the Vineyard to go off to fight in the war. He joined the army in August 1861 along with a group of 30 men from Nantucket and four more from the Vineyard. In December the next year Peleg found himself with the 20th Massachusetts Regiment, Army of the Potomac, at the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Union casualties at Fredericksburg were staggering.

On January 9, 1863 the people of Martha’s Vineyard learned the story of Peleg’s final day from a letter printed in the newspaper:

DEATH OF A TISBURY SOLDIER…

Camp on the Rappahannock,

Dec 27, 1862

Mrs. Margaret Davenport:

Your letter containing the request in reference to Capt. P. W. Davenport is before me, and sorry I am to have this painful task devolve on me, but my own feelings in such a case would be to know the truth at once and on them I act. Your son was a soldier in every respect; well drilled, obliging, and always ready to do his duty. He was loved by his comrades and respected by his officers, who recognizing his soldier-like abilities and bearing while in front of the foe, placed in his charge our “colors,” and well and nobly did he defend his trust — carrying his colors aloft and waving them high over his head, encouraging his comrades to keep firm and remember their duty to their country and God. While advancing on the enemy’s works he met his death like a brave man; and his name should be inscribed in the hearts of his townsmen as a hero, who generously devoted his life to his country’s weal… I well remember his remark when he was detailed to take charge of the colors…he said “Good bye boys, I am done for.” I am certain that he was aware of his approaching end — but he carried his colors as though proud of his charge and not fearing death — although warned of it. Our colors have been carried now by three different men and all have been struck down. They seem fated, but no “Grey Back” has profaned them by his touch — nor, God helping, will. Capt. Davenport was shot in the head.

…If you can ever use my services for your advantage, you would do me a great favor to call for them.

Yours truly,

J.W. Summerhayes

Ser’jt Company I, 20th Mass. Reg.

“The rebs have managed to pin me again”

Edgartown soldier Elisha Smith left the island in the same group as Peleg Davenport. Wounded for the first time at Antietam in September 1862, he recovered and returned to service. On July 3, 1863, he was shot through the leg during the battle of Gettysburg. Though Elisha must have been suffering, he was still able to write a letter to his father:

Near Gattisburg, Penna July the 8th

Dear Father,

Thought I would write you a few lines to let you know that the rebs have managed to pin me again. I have rather a worse wound this time than I had before I think. I was struck … below the knee. I think it must have been with a minny ball that passed through my leg. We had two days hard fighting. The rebbels attacked us both days. The first day they were repulsed with heavy losses on their side. The second they were whiped and persued by our troops. Our Collor bares was wounded in the first of the fight, a I had to take, (or at least I did take the Collors, and was carrying them when I was wounded. The Rebbels was just beginning to brake.)

As I do not feel like writing much I will make this letter short as I can. I am in no regular hospital now. When I get to one I will write and tell you where to direct your letters…

Elisha was admitted to Baltimore’s Camden Hospital on July 11 and two days later he was dead of tetanus, which he contracted from his wound. Elisha’s last letter is in the collection of the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s new exhibit, We Are Marching Along: Martha’s Vineyard and the Civil War, tells the stories of life on the Island and of Vineyarders who served during this tumultuous time in American history.

On July 21, John Hough will give a talk at the museum about “Elisha Smith, Looking for the Vineyarder Who Died at Gettysburg.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is on School Street in Edgartown. It is open Monday through Saturday. For more information go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441.