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He Died For A Flag?


When I first began studying the Civil War, I was intrigued by the use of flags in battle and the fervent love and affection afforded to the respective flags on both sides of the conflict. A regiment usually received a national flag (national colors) and a state flag (regimental colors). The flags were typically made by local women: the mothers, wives, and sweethearts of the men who were headed off to war. The colors were normally presented to each regiment with great ceremony as it mustered into service.


The flag was the standard around which the unit would rally to fight. Consequently, it was also an inviting target for the enemy. Loss of the regiment's colors in battle was considered a disgrace, but to capture the enemy's colors brought great glory and honor. Carrying the colors in battle was considered quite an honor. Though such duty meant certain death there was never a shortage of volunteers.


Civil War history includes heroic feats of bravery as men sought to preserve their unit colors and honor. One such event took place in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. There, in the heat of battle on July 2nd, 1863, the 4th Michigan was cut to pieces and their colors were lost in hand-to-hand combat. In the ensuing melee, the 4th's commander, twenty-six year old Colonel Harrison Jeffords, lunged to retrieve the colors and was pierced with a mortal bayonet wound. He died the next day.


When I first read that story, I thought, "For a flag? He died to save a piece of cloth that could easily be replaced?" It was not a disrespectful thought but more of a practical one. A flag can be replaced but not a man, especially a high-caliber officer. As I pondered such sacrifice, I came to understand what that flag represented to those men. It represented all the ideals and principles that our country was founded upon, all that it had ever achieved, and the hopes and dreams of generations to come. I came to have a new appreciation of our flag and the sacrifice of those who defended her.


Still, such love for the flag appeared to be old-fashioned sentimentality that I thought had died with the last Civil War veterans. In the backwash of the 1960's our culture grew to disdain the flag and paid little attention or respect to it. We lost our focus as a nation. We turned our backs on the God whose blessings had enriched us. We scorned our forefathers who had died to secure our liberties.


But then came September 11, 2001. And what lasting images are burned in our minds from that horrific day? Who can forget the New York firemen hoisting the flag at the World Trade Center and another group of firemen unfurling another flag over the side of the Pentagon in Washington? If you watched the opening ceremony to the Olympic games on February 8th, you couldn't help but be moved by the reverent respect paid to the tattered flag salvaged from the World Trade Center. There, for a moment in time, the modern world watched and paid tribute to that flag and all that it has come to represent. 


That says it all. I guess such sentiments aren't old-fashioned anymore and are alive and well within this great land. Too bad it took the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist disasters to make us appreciate our flag all the more and to cry out to God. So here's to you, Colonel Jeffords, and the other men who died for the flag and our freedoms. May you rest in the comfort that your efforts were not in vain or lost on this generation. Thank you for your brave example.


Steve Braun 

February 9, 2002




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