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Leonard Lanier: Journey of Confederate battle flag begins in Craven County

By Leonard Lanier

The Daily Advance

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Although the Museum of the Albemarle’s Civil War Sesquicentennial exhibit will remain on display until 2015, the same artifacts will not remain up for that entire time. Every 12 months the curatorial staff rotates new objects into the existing displays. A new artifact just went on display this month, the Whitford Flag.

Sometimes referenced as the “Stars & Bars,” this early confederate flag measures 72 inches by 38 inches. The flag’s field contains the following inscription: “FORT THOMPSON, CAPT. J.N. WHITFORD, Commanding.” Exactly how the flag ended up at the museum is a story in itself.

J.N. Whitford stands for John Nathaniel Whitford. Born in Craven County, Whitford came from a powerful local family. His father served as a General Assemblyman.

John N. Whitford worked as a local merchant in New Bern. When the war broke out, Governor Henry Toole Clark quickly commissioned Whitford as an army captain.

Using his local connections, Whitford raised a company of artillery—Company I, First North Carolina Artillery. Union troops on the Outer Banks posed a threat to New Bern, so Whitford’s men remained in their hometown. They began work on a series of fortifications to protect the port from attack. Whitford’s battery manned a section of this line known as Fort Thompson.

Details about the flag remain murky. Its maker remains unknown, although the flag looks similar to other Craven County regimental standards made by the ladies of New Bern. The date of the flag is also a mystery, although Whitford probably received the flag during the winter of 1861-1862 after his troops manned the completed Fort Thompson.

The fort’s, and Whitford’s, baptism of fire occurred on March 14, 1862. Union troops under Gen. Ambrose Burnside attacked the New Bern fortifications and routed Confederate forces. While Whitford’s men held out longer than other rebel troops, the captain ordered his men to destroy their cannon and retreat.

With regard to the company’s flag, a Union officer later gave the following description of its capture:

“After the sharp engagement of four hours, the 25th (Massachusetts Infantry) were ordered to charge and a portion of Capt. (Thomas) O’Neil’s command led the charge, himself seizing the flag of the enemy and taking it from its place bore it in triumph, pursuing the rebels, taking many prisoners and these rebel standards in their pursuit, the standard of the Texas rangers, the flag of the 33d North Carolina regiment, another color of a North Carolina regiment, and the flag of Fort Thompson.”

Despite the defeat, Whitford and his men soldiered onward. Without cannons, his battery became a battalion of partisan rangers.

The company fought at the Battles of Plymouth and Bentonville. After the war he returned to New Bern and operated a hardware store. Whitford died in 1890.

Whitford’s Flag came to rest in the hometown of the 25th Massachusetts Infantry: Worcester, Mass. Along with two other flags, the town’s Grand Army of the Republic agreed to lend the Whitford Flag to the museum in honor of all the men that fought in the Civil War.

Leonard Lanier is a collection specialist for Museum of the Albemarle.