IT WAS EARLY 1865—THE FINAL DAYS OF THE CIVIL WAR. UNION FORCES WERE PUMMELING FORT ANDERSON, A CONFEDERATE PORT ON THE CAPE FEAR RIVER IN COASTAL NORTH CAROLINA. WHEN CONFEDERATE TROOPS WERE OVERWHELMED BY SUPERIOR FORCES AND BEGAN RETREATING, A CONFEDERATE FLAG FELL OFF THE BACK OF A SUPPLY WAGON AS THEY ABANDONED FORT ANDERSON. LITTLE DID ANYONE KNOW THAT THIS SEEMINGLY INSIGNIFICANT FLAG LEFT BEHIND IN THE HEAT OF RETREAT WOULD ALTER THE COURSE OF AMERICAN HISTORY.
By Michael Raab
THE FLAG WAS FOUND BY A UNION SOLDIER OF THE 140TH INDIANA VOLUNTEER INFANTRY AND TURNED OVER TO HIS COMMANDER, COLONEL THOMAS J. BRADY, WHO TRANSPORTED IT TO WASHINGTON D.C. THE TROOPS HAD PLANNED TO PRESENT THE FALLEN FLAG TO OLIVER MORTON, THE GOVERNOR OF INDIANA, ON THE STEPS OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL—IN A COSMIC TWIST OF FATE, JOHN WILKES BOOTH WAS STAYING IN THE NATIONAL HOTEL AT THE VERY SAME TIME. FOR OVER A YEAR, BOOTH HAD BEEN WORKING ON PLANS TO KIDNAP LINCOLN, SPIRIT HIM TO RICHMOND, AND USE HIM AS RANSOM IN A TRADE FOR CAPTURED CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS.
Booth, an actor who occasionally performed at the Ford Theater and picked up his mail there, ran into theatre owner John Ford on the morning of March 17, 1865 and learned Lincoln would be appearing that afternoon at the Campbell General Hospital to visit wounded soldiers. It seemed to be the perfect opportunity for Booth and his group to kidnap the President, the plan being to subdue the driver of Lincoln’s carriage, have co-conspirator John Surratt take control and race for the city limits. Lincoln, however, bypassed the hospital visit at the last minute and instead went to the downtown presentation of the Confederate flag to Governor Morton. Booth arrived at the National Hotel to find Lincoln giving a speech to the assembled crowd. For the first time, Lincoln publicly expressed his support for black suffrage. Booth, a white supremacist and Confederate activist, was so incensed by the speech he vowed “that is the last speech he will make.” His plans for kidnapping Lincoln had turned into plans for assassination.
On April 9, 1865, the Civil War officially ended when Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Five days later, lifted by the news of the war being over, President Lincoln and the First Lady took a carriage ride to the Washington Navy Yard and visited with officers and sailors aboard the U.S.S.Montauk. Later they planned to attend Fords Theater for an evening viewing of the British play, “Our American Cousin.” It was at this show that John Wilkes Booth pulled out a Derringer pistol and shot Lincoln.
Another twist of fate still lay in store for the Fort Anderson flag.
In 1865 it was taken to the Indiana State Museum and remained there for nearly a century until it was released in 1962 to a private collector. Later, in 1995, Civil War historian author and local Cape Fear resident Chris Fonvielle came across the flag at a relics show in Richmond, Virginia. “It was the authentic Fort Anderson flag” he recalls. “I had randomly come across the historical grail that would become the centerpiece of our museum.” Fonvielle, a professor at UNCW, said the asking price at that time was $15,000. Purchase money was not available, and the flag fell into the hands of another private buyer.
In 2004 the Fort Anderson flag came back onto the market, this time via a collector through The Horse Soldier, a Civil War themed antique shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The price had now been escalated to $40,000, but it wasn’t going to slip away a second time…
A group called the Friends of Brunswick Town came together and set out to raise necessary funds. From businesses to school children, civic groups to individuals, the donations came pouring in. Through an agreement with the seller, the Friends had until mid-summer to raise the funds. On June 27, 2005, the Friends of Brunswick Town finally purchased the flag and turned it over to North Carolina Historic Sites to be placed in the Fort Anderson/Brunswick Town Museum in Winnabow. After a journey of 140 years, the Fort Anderson flag—the same flag that killed Lincoln—is back home where it belongs.
Michael Raab is a musician, photographer, author and documentarian. The 7+ minute video of “The Flag That Killed Lincoln” can be seen below.