MUSEUM OF THE ALBEMARLE
Standard-bearers not exempt from enemy fire
By Jessimer Willets
Sunday, June 18, 2017
To bear a standard, or to fly a flag has been an essential practice for mankind throughout our history. An army/legion, organization or political group proclaimed their unity and loyalty to their cause by identifying with a distinctive ensign. In ancient Rome legions of soldiers were led out of camp and into battle by the brave few bearers of large wooden poles topped with golden eagles and red and gold flags announcing Rome’s power to onlookers and enemy troops. Flag bearing has remained a priority in identification and honor that is practiced the world over today from large governing bodies to individual households.
Soldier standard-bearers were not immune to the violence of battle during wartimes and consequently paid the ultimate sacrifice with their life. These sacrifices can be seen across both Northern and Southern states during the many battles of the Civil War. In one such battle, the Battle of Roanoke Island on Feb. 9, 1862, a Confederate soldier by the name of William Crawford Dawson witnessed this sacrifice.
Dawson was enlisted with the 17th Regiment, Company L, known as the State Guards of Pasquotank. While his Regiment fought to defend Roanoke Island against Union Naval troops, Dawson witnessed one of the State Guards’ standard-bearers fall in enemy fire. Unwilling to see the honor of his Regiment’s flag be trampled and torn on the battlefield, he instinctively collected the flag, folded it as small as he could and tucked it into his uniform jacket lining. On the eve of February 9, after fighting Union Army and Naval troops for three days, the Confederate commander Colonel H.M. Shaw surrendered Roanoke Island along with 2,500 of his soldiers and around 30 guns to Union Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside.
At the wake of this surrender, William Dawson was taken prisoner and sent to a Union prison in Currituck and after some time he was liberated in Elizabeth City. During the War, prior to his incarceration, Dawson had a sweetheart named Nannie White, whom he wrote to often. Their relationship continued through the war via words of love and encouragement exchanged as often as life would allow. Dawson was able to transfer the fallen flag to Nannie’s possession in an effort to hide and therefore preserve the fallen Confederate Regiment’s honored ensign. Nannie hid this precious artifact in her bed until after the end of the Civil War. This very flag remains in the Dawson Family estate, though the stars were separated from the flag and dispersed among individuals. Nonetheless, the honor and pride that once flew high, leading the State Guards of Pasquotank to battle against Union Naval power at Roanoke Island hold true for the Dawson family.
Each year on June 14, America celebrates Flag Day in remembrance of the resolve of the Second Continental Congress’ adoption of the flag of the United States on June 14, 1777. Our founding fathers sought to unify and proclaim our nation under one “standard,” one flag and symbol to say America. As we look around in our daily lives, flags stand tall and proud, waving high in the spirit of identity and honor. Let us remember the many brave standard-bearers who are entrusted with the ensigns that we hold so dear.
Source: Berry, Marjorie Ann. Legendary locals of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Charleston, SC: Legendary Locals, 2014. Print.
Jessimer Willets is a summer intern at Museum of the Albemarle