Most Civil War biographies of heroes are of generals or of other officers, but Gordon C. Rhea’s Carrying The Flag is about a lowly South Carolina private from Charleston, the birthplace of secession. Rhea tells the delightful personal story of Charles Whilden from his birth to his death.
Whilden was as unlikely a hero as the subtitle says. His life was pretty much a failure; he barely made ends meet at times. Just when he thought his economic life was on an upturn, disaster would strike. Rhea describes Charleston before the Civil War, a city where whites were outnumbered by blacks, mostly slaves. The few free blacks in Charleston lived with scant additional liberties; their movements were restricted just as much as the slaves’ were. The slave uprising many whites feared nearly came to pass when some blacks decided to take over the city, but a fellow conspirator betrayed them and let the authorities know about the plot. Many of the ringleaders - and many innocent bystanders - were tried, found guilty and hung. Charles Whilden lived those days.
Whilden’s family, who had kept his heroic deeds in their memory, gave Rhea access to Whilden’s writings and family stories. Admitted to the bar in South Carolina at the age of 21 in 1845, Whilden was unfortunately not too successful at lawyering as the economy in South Carolina declined. Deciding to try his luck in another place, he went to Detroit to improve his lot in life by working as a clerk for the U.S. Commissary Office. This job failed to improve his economic situation, though.
By the age of 30 in 1854, Whilden had not married, nor were his prospects good. In 1855, he found what he thought would be a great job at the commissary office in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory. Instead, he found the place too boring and the people there not to his liking. His attempted farming venture there failed as well. And all throughout Whilden’s travails, the United States was heading for war against itself over slavery and other issues.
After deciding that his life was not improving in Santa Fe, Whilden returned to South Carolina; he wanted to help his home state, which had seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, to defend itself against Northern aggression. Whilden attempted to join the Confederate Army but was deemed too sick – he had developed epilepsy on the trip from Santa Fe to Charleston - and too old. That his brothers were accepted into the Army depressed him even more. He tried many times to join the militia, which would accept him for awhile - until he had an epileptic seizure, then they would dismiss him. Whilden continued trying to join the Army, but the Confederacy was not yet desperate enough to accept him.
The North had a new commanding general in the person of U.S. Grant, unlike his predecessors who retreated when they should have continued moving forward. Grant and his subordinates, namely General Sherman, were making progress. Sherman controlled Atlanta and was moving toward the Atlantic, planning to march on the Carolinas. The Confederacy needed more troops now. They were starting to get desperate and began accepting men too young, too old, even some who were too sick. Thus Charles Whilden was finally accepted into the Confederate Army at age 39 into the First South Carolina Regiment on February 6, 1864. He and his fellow enlistees were sent to Virginia, where the rest of the regiment was part of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Charles Whilden was selected to be the flag bearer of his regiment - a very high honor, but also an extremely dangerous position. In the midst of battles, troops could not always hear their officers’ commands; they followed wherever the flag bearer led them. Union troops did the same and usually tried their hardest to kill or at least wound Confederate flag bearers. To confuse the enemy, a good tactic was to shoot the flag bearer or even take the flag away from them. Whilden’s stint with the First South Carolina occurred during its involvement in the Wilderness Campaign, which included the Spotsylvania Court House battle. This is where he proved himself the unlikely hero.
Rhea includes two maps in the front of the book. He provides a list of sources used for each chapter that served as background for Whilden’s story, and there is an index. This is not a dry, academic book.
Gordon C. Rhea is the author of Cold Harbor (2002), Glory Enough For All (2001), To the North Anna River (2000), Battle for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern (1997), Wilderness and Spotsylvania (1995), and Battle of the Wilderness (1994).