Ancestral Flag: A “Guidon” my Family History


lance - US Army Heritage Education Center

Housed at the US Army Heritage Education Center (located in Carlisle, PA), this image shows one of the actual lances carried by 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry troops.

Years ago, I embarked on a project to document most (if not all) the members of my family’s ancestry who served in the United States armed forces. Researching genealogy can be quite a daunting task when pursuing such a specific theme within confines of a family history. The difficulty in that task is compounded when the there is little or no documentation available to begin with.

I began my research with the names that I knew on my list – my father, grandfather (only one served), uncles, grand uncles and so on. Merely working backwards two generations, I accounted for six veterans (five with combat experience). The third generation up is where I began to experience challenges (some parts of the family emigrated from Canada or the United Kingdom which adds another complexity layer to the research effort), but was able to persevere, discovering several more U.S. service members.

It was at the fourth generation (removed from me) that I discovered one veteran in particular that had really captured my attention. My 3-times great-grandfather was a veteran of the American Civil War (ACW). I took several notes of his vital information and continued searching. I found that two of his grandfathers and at least one great-grandfather were veterans of the Revolutionary War. With this information, I established a stopping point and began to focus on ferreting out as much data as I could find. I decided to hone in on the Civil War veteran and began exhausting all of the online resources.

After receiving two packets of information following a National Archives request (and several weeks of waiting) I began to piece together what my ancestor did during his time in service. Like thousands of young men across the Union, my great, great, great-grandfather, Jarius Heilig, volunteered (September, 1861) to serve alongside his (Reading, PA) neighbors and relatives, enlisting into the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (70th Pennsylvania Volunteers) – a unit formed by Colonel Richard Henry Rush (son of Richard Rush who was President Madison’s Attorney General and grandson of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence), classmate and friend of General George McClellan.

One interesting fact about the 6th Penna is that their primary weapon. the lance (rather than the standard U.S. cavalry-issued carbine rifle), was suggested by McClellan, harkening to the once-feared European dragoons and cavalry units. The weapon is described as:

“The Austrian pattern was adopted. It was nine feet long, with an eleven inch, three edged blade; the staff was Norway fir, about one and a quarter inches in diameter, with ferrule and counterpoise at the heel, and a scarlet swallow-tailed pennon, the whole weighing nearly five pounds.”

Rush's Lancers - 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry

“I” Company of the famed Rush’s Lancers as captured by Matthew Brady.

Though injured (by a horse-kick, of all things) at the end of 1862, Heilig had seen his share of combat serving entirely with “F” company until his February 1863 discharge (due to disability), with action in the following battles and skirmishes:

  • Skirmish, Garlick’s Landing, Pamunkey River, VA (June 13, 1862)

  • Seven Days Battles, VA (June 25-July 1, 1862)

  • Battles, Gaines Mill, Cold Harbor, Chickahominy, VA (June 27, 1862)

  • Battle, Glendale, Frazier’s Farm, Charles City Crossroads, New Market Crossroads, Willis Church, VA (June 30, 1862)

  • Battle, Malvern Hill, Crew’s Farm, VA (July 1, 1862)

  • Skirmishes, Falls Church, VA (Sept. 2-4, 1862)

  • Skirmish, South Mountain, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)

  • Skirmish, Jefferson, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)

  • Action, Sharpsburg, Shepherdstown, and Blackford’s Ford (Boteler’s Ford) and Williamsport, MD (Sept. 19, 1862)

  • Actions, Bloomfield and Upperville, VA (Nov. 2-3, 1862)

Research resources are quite abundant for this unit (which I am still pouring through) and it has been the subject of a handful of books that were the product of painstakingly thorough historical investigation.

What does this have to do with militaria collecting, you might be asking? Part of my quest in producing a historical narrative of my familial military service is to provide visual and tangible references. To illustrate history, words are only part of the equation in connecting the audience to the story. To see, smell and touch a piece of history provides an invaluable accompaniment to the narrative.

I have given considerable thought to my approach in gathering items to assemble a group of artifacts as a “re-creation” of things my great-grandfather might have kept over the years. Visual appeal, authenticity, believability and cost were all factors guiding me as I purchase various pieces for the collection. My goal with the group is to arrange it into an aesthetically pleasing display that I can then hang on my home office wall (along with the displays I have already created).

Collecting artifacts from the American Civil War is not a task that can easily be easily accomplished on a shoestring budget (such as my own). Seemingly everything is expensive from weapons (rifles, pistols and edged weapons) down to ordinary uniform buttons seen on literally millions of soldiers’ uniforms. The high prices and the popularity of the Civil War’s historical popularity (which is maintained by pop-culture with films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) can have detrimental effects on the market as unscrupulous counterfeiters work tirelessly to cash in.

Adding to my challenge is the fact that there were far fewer cavalry soldiers who served during the war. Even more challenging is that my ancestor served with a state volunteer cavalry regiment, many of which had extremely unusual uniform appointments and accouterments  requiring even more research and discernment as to what my 3x-great grandfather would have been outfitted with.

These factors (combined with my own lack of experience) limited my focus to keep the pursuit as simplistic and affordable as possible while focusing on the more common ACW pieces for the display.

Since I embarked on this mission, I have acquired several pieces – a mixture of genuine and reproduction (recommended by a collector colleague) – that will display nicely together. From hat devices to corporal’s stripes (repro) to veteran’s group medals (GAR – Grand Army of the Republic – an ACW vets’ organization my ancestor was a lifelong member of).  In addition, I’ve collected some small arms projectiles (from weapons Heilig would have carried) excavated from battlefields where my great-grandfather fought.

Guidon - 6th Penna Cavalry

Nicely framed vintage American Civil War guidon of the 6th Penna Calvary (source: eBay image).

I am constantly on the lookout for pieces that would display well or that might be interesting additions to my militaria collection that could be directly tied to my ancestor’s unit. When a cavalry guidon flag (directly connected to the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry) was listed at online auction, my heart raced as I eagerly poured over the photos of the tattered and worn swallow-tailed cloth.

6th Pennsylvania Guidon Major Battles and Engagements

As was the custom of the Civil War, the major battles and engagements in which the unit participated were printed directly onto the stripes on the fly of the flag (source: eBay image).

Lost in the detailed images of the flag, I was amazed to see the faded relic nicely preserved in a frame behind glass. Bearing marks of the unit and the major battles printed directly on the red and white stripes, this flag appeared to be a true relic of the past. The the “I” designator in the blue canton (encircled by the white stars of the states) indicated that this was the guidon from I company (my great-grandfather served in company “F”). Everything about this flag excited me…until I read the description. The flag was a recreation of the original (which is permanently preserved and displayed at the Pennsylvania state house), right down to the synthesized aging (at least the seller was being honest about the piece).

6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Guidon Unit ID

Aside from the tell-tale swallow-tail design of the flag, the printed unit name indicates that this flag was from a cavalry regiment – specifically, the 6th Pennsylvania (source: eBay image).

6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Guidon - I company Canton

The letter “I” in the center of the blue canton represents the associated company within the 6th Pennsylvania that used this guidon (source: eBay image).

Had the price of the auction been realistic, (the starting bid was $1,000), I would have been interested in pursuing it as a realistic accompaniment to the display I am assembling.

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Posted on April 1, 2013, in Civil War, Guidons and Pennants and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Good Afternoon. I came across your blog when performing Google search using the keywords “Civil War; Flag: Gettysburg; 6th Pennsylvania”. My purpose for the search was to determine the history of a framed guidon that I just purchased at a local estate auction. As it turns out, I now own the flag pictured in your blog – not a flag ‘like’ the one pictured, THE one pictured as determined by the incidental blemish located on the frame as can be seen in your first image of the flag. My purpose in contacting you is to find out any more information as to the source of your images. I did an ebay closed auction search and was able to find anything further (even though I previewed close to 3000 images of Civil War flags). Any help or direction that I could ascertain would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, very much.

    • Buddy,

      The guidon was listed at auction in late March 2013. It was described as an aged reproduction. Having seen genuine guideons from the ACW, I can attest (based upon my experiences) that it is as it was presented. However, that is not to suggest that it isn’t a good example of a well-made recreation…it is quite nice!

      Beyond that, I can’t give you any history on the flag or anything about the person who listed it. I usually grab the entire listing and a screen shot, but I think it was lost when my old computer died. I might have the listing on a thumb drive and I will certainly look for it.

      What specifically are you looking for?

  2. correction to above: …NOT able…

  3. You’ve done an excellent job in your Civil War research. – Robert H. “Robby” Rush, ancestor of Col. Richard H. Rush, the founder and 1st Commander of the Union’s 70th Pennsylvania Regiment, 6th Calvary, “Rush’s Lancers”

    • Robby,

      It is good to meet a fellow descendant of the Lancers as well as a direct one from Col. Rush. My ancestry includes two Lancers, one being a Corporal in “F” company and the other being LT. George G. Meade Jr.

      Does your family still possess any artifacts from Col. Rush?

    • Correction: I was incorrect in my ancestral information and upon further research I have learned that our family tree did not truly involve the Rush family of Dr. Benjamin Rush nor Col. Richard H. Rush of “Lancer’s” fame as was passed down from relatives after all. My apologies on my familial genealogy. Sometimes our relatives get it wrong. I am actually descended from noted Confederate States of America soldiers in Texas.

      • Ah…Robby. It may be disappointing to uncover truth that disconnects you from family lore. However, it is still exciting to see who truly was up that branch of the tree. Which Confederate soldiers of note do you descend from?

  4. I am the direct descendants of Confederate Pvt. Alexander Boren and Pvt. Isham Boren, both in the 16th Texas Cavalry, Company I, Fitzhugh Regiment, the “Brush Battalion”. Alexander was my GGG Grandfather, survived the War & lived to be 92-years old. Isham was my GGG Grand Uncle and was killed in battle with Yankee troops at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana in 1863. By the way, my name is Robby not Bobby. Just an FYI. 😉

    • Robby (my apologies on getting your name incorrect),

      It is an interesting turn of events in your family history research though it still shows that you are descended from a cavalryman (as you had previously thought with the Rush connection). What is fascinating is how our culture has suddenly decided to demonize a side in the Civil War – an action that is a matter of the short-sighted convenience of modern contexts, devoid of 19th century American life experiences. The Civil War was a terrible event in our nation’s history and yet, regardless of the side, her sons fought according to the conscience of their family legacy, neighbors and fellow citizens and what was directly impacting their lives at that time. Any American can and should be proud of their ancestor despite which side that person stood on.

      Our nation did re-unify and began the long process of healing in 1865. It is amazing that today, we seem to have lost sight of what it means to be One Nation Under God.

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