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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: The Colour Bearer

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Colour Bearer



This story comes from the book, Valor In Gray, about the recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honour. FYI, no such recognition was afforded any of these men in their lifetimes. Marse Robert himself felt that no such special recognition was proper as he felt all the Confederate soldiers were heroes. Still, in 1977, the Sons of Confederate Veterans formally posthumously bestowed its first Medal of Honour, that upon Sam Davis, a 21 year old Tennessee boy hanged as a spy because he would not betray his friends when offered his life in exchange.

This is a long read but worth reading to stir Southern pride, knowing that we, as Southern Americans, are descended from such uncompromising patriotic stock.

Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.


There was simply no question about what he had to do. Virginia was leaving the Union to join her sister states in the South. A new country was forming, the Confederate States of America...and if a second American revolution was necessary to insure its existence, he was ready to fight.

His mother was not so sure. They were new to Giles County. Earning a living in these rugged mountains where the New River knifed through the Appalachians differed sharply from the life they had known in the prosperous tobacco economy of Pittsylvania County. Without a husband now, she relied heavily on her son to help make ends meet. Times were difficult enough. This talk of war frightened her.
Word had it that anyone interested in joining the Virginia Volunteers should see Capt. James Harvey French, commander of the local Pearisburg Home Guards. A number of fellows from Giles and Monroe counties were already in Pearisburg, eager to enlist. With luck, they might even have enough recruits to form an artillery company!

He arrived at the Giles County Court House early on enlistment day, Monday, 13 May 1861. From the anxious young men who presented themselves, Capt. French easily filled the roster for his company. Despite a chance to join the artillery; the young man from southside Virginia signed on with Capt. French and the infantry.

Although officially members of the "Giles Volunteers," he and his comrades proudly nicknamed themselves the "Mountain Boomers." Each day they wondered when they would start for "the seat of war." It seemed everyone was anxious to get in on the fight before it was over. But as they would soon find out, there were new realities and "other things" to deal with first.

Personal freedoms all but disappeared. Military life demanded strict and prompt obedience to all instructions from superior officers. Discipline for those who tarried was swift and certain.

Capt. William W. McComas, who would command the soon-to-be-formed artillery company, drilled them daily in the manual of arms. Time and again McComas had them dress their ragged line, march in step, and cheer..."huzzah" as he called it. As one member of the company remembered, "we never did learn uniformity in the 'huzzah,' but gradually drifted into that wild 'rebel yell,' as it was called which so often sent a thrill of horror into the Yankee ranks.

Yet only when he and his fellow soldiers were sufficiently schooled in the art of war, would they be off to "the seat of war." And everyone had an opinion on where that would be.

In the meantime, "soldiering" in the mountains of western Virginia had some decided advantages. Everyone, he realized, was interested in soldiers; the curious- be they wide-eyed boys, ardent old veterans from another war, or coquettish young ladies-often stopped to watch the company drill. Being the center of attention certainly had its advantages. Whole communities sent invitations for end-off dinners. When the good folks living at the head of Wolf Creek offered, he company forthwith marched west from Pearisburg and "partook of a bountiful repast," returning to barracks filled, jolly, and much satisfied.

Even camp life had its merry times. Pranks and practical jokes-limited only by a soldier's gall and ingenuity-kept everyone on their toes. An informal company choir offered nightly renditions of a number of patriotic airs including me Bonnie Blue Flag and Dixie. Yet everyone agreed that the latter, "had more music in it than all (the) others put together."

As the young man adjusted to the rigors, restrictions, and yes, meager rewards of a soldier's life, his mother concerned herself with the day he would march away from the mountains for the war. She no doubt knew-as did so many mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and girlfriends of that time-that it was useless to try and keep her boy from going to Virginia's defense. She must put her faith in Providence. Yet before he parted, a special event would impress both mother and son with the gravity of what was happening all across the South.

In a ceremony almost as old as war itself, the company assembled to receive its colors from the community: A selected young lady from the county, in this case Miss Mary Woodram, presented Joseph Edward Bane with the standard, lovingly and painstakingly sewn by the ladies of Giles County. This was the banner they would follow into battle. Each soldier hoped himself worthy of the trust bequeathed by their community. Never must they be found wanting in courage. Never must they disgrace or abandon their colors!

The pupils of the Pearisburg Academy then asked that company chaplain Jacob Frazier come forward to receive a Bible, presented ''as an expression of our confidence in their Christian faith and patriotism." Suddenly the friendly frolic and springtime pleasures of soldiering acquired a serious air. Despite the pomp and eloquent talk, many could see that war was coming; some of the young men standing at attention this day might never be coming back.

Chaplain Frazier graciously accepted the Bible on behalf of the "Mountain Boomers," promising that from the testament's "precious promises I will bring balm for the suffering."

"If the Pale Horse and his Rider should overtake any of us in a distant land," he continued, "we will rest in hope of the glorious appearing of Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, and with whom we shall be gathered into that land which no foe invades, and where friends are parted no more."

The mother took these words as comfort. In this hour of uncertainty, she must trust in the Lord. His will be done.

But to the fresh recruits about to leave for the front, such comments, once nervously considered, were best shelved beyond immediate contemplation. Instead the "Mountain Boomers" stood sharply at attention, beaming in pride and expectation, no doubt their eyes fixed on the bright, waving colors of the company flag...the banner that would guide them forward to victory!

They had been in the army a year, and now, although designated Company D, 7th Virginia Infantry, the "Mountain Boomers" had seen their fair share of campaigning. But marching and sleeping in the rain and mud of tidewater Virginia held little glamour for them. This Saturday's night trek across a dozen miles of bottomless muck that called itself a road would probably take all night. With any luck-and perhaps a break in the weather-they would be in Williamsburg by morning.

Filing through the old colonial capital in the brisk, gray Sabbath dawn, the 7th Virginia-one of four regiments in Brig. Gen. A. P. Hill's brigade-finally halted for rest on the grounds of the Eastern Hospital for the Insane. Other commands arrived, setting up camp in the muddy fields west of town. That evening, sometime well after midnight, the skies opened with a steady downpour. Already made miserable by mud and fatigue, soldiers now added rain to their discomforts.

But these physical inconveniences were of little consequence compared to the aggressive enemy threat that hovered on the Confederate rear. Cavalry clashes had resounded throughout the day; couriers told of brisk skirmishing with the rear guard. And outbursts of distant musketry-getting closer and closer-hinted that something more serious was coming.

Monday, 5 May, opened drearily. The driving rains continued, soaking and chilling everyone and everything. But the sounds of gunfire continued, sharper...and louder. The suspense ended at 8:30 that morning, when orders arrived instructing Hill's brigade to reverse its march and reinforce Confederate forces dug in at Fort Magruder, a strong earthwork a mile east of Williamsburg.

An hour earlier, Union forces had swept from the rain-soaked woods east of this fortification and overrun the Confederate skirmish line, capturing several outlying redoubts near Fort Magruder. Increased numbers of Federals lurked nearby threatening both flanks of the Confederate position. If this enemy advance was not checked, the Confederate forces could be routed piecemeal!

Col. James Kemper ordered the men of his 7th Virginia Infantry to strike camp and start for the sound of the guns. The respective companies were instructed to form on acting color bearer Tapley Mays, a private from Company D. A scrappy, hell-bent-for-leather type, Mays had eagerly accepted the temporary post of regimental standard bearer. To him, there was no more honored position in the regiment!

As the 7th Virginia slopped through the soupy streets of Williamsburg just west of the College of William and Mary, an old woman came out on her porch. "With clasped hands and eyes lifted heavenward," one member of Company 0 remembered, the well-meaning matron uttered "for us, in simple, pathetic tones, a prayer to God for the protection of our lives in the coming conflict."

Once beyond the College and the eastern limits of the town, the regiment started across an open field to the right, confidently piling their knapsacks and bedrolls along the road. Enemy shells screamed overhead, exploding with unnerving suddenness. Hill's other three regiments-the 1st, 11th, and 17th Virginia regiments-likewise prepared for battle. It was ten o'clock.

Leading his brigade by columns into a deep open hollow of ground to the right of Fort Magruder, Gen. Hill waited for further instructions from Maj. Gen. James Longstreet. The men in the ranks detested this "monotonous standing in line of battle...a thing that always tries the patience of a soldier," one of them later recalled. But "the enemy's long range guns and superior artillery" had the Confederates at a decided disadvantage. By noon, realizing that he could no longer wait for the enemy to attack, Longstreet issued new orders: "Seize the first opportunity to attack the most assailable position of the enemy."

They were going in!

Plunging into the dense, dripping woods in their front, A. P. Hill's Confederates formed and extended their battle line as officers called, "By the right flank into line." Despite their best efforts, men skidded and sprawled on the slippery forest floor. Bent branches whacked faces and flung water into eyes. Confusion abounded, but a quick glance to their colors kept the men together and in reasonable order.

Tapley Mays remained in the center of the 7th's position, keeping his flag in front, high and clear. The woods were misty from the rain and still clouded by lingering gunsmoke. But strangely enough, the firing had stopped; were the Federals expecting their attack?

Suddenly, through a small gap in the trees, men in blue uniforms passed into view. The enemy? Col. Kemper raised his field glasses, then lowered them, unsure. What did Gen. Hill think?

Powell Hill's reply was immediate and certain. "Yes, they are Yankees; give it to them!"

Booming his voice so that all could hear, Kemper stormed, "Now, boys, I want you to give it to those blue-coated fellows: ready, aim, fire."

“A sheet of flame burst forth from the line with a deafening roar," remembered veteran of the 11th Virginia. Reloading as quickly as possible, the brigade delivered another volley as Gen. Hill, waving a pistol above his head, called upon hem to charge. They responded with a rush and a cheer.

Tapley Mays led the 7th into the woods, scrambling ahead of the other regiments that had formed on the left and right flanks. Quickly he bounded across a fence and moved down a slight slope, just ahead of the tramping crush of hundreds of boots and shoes. Above his head, bullets hissed and popped, cutting wigs and brush, a dire warning that a determined enemy stood unseen before hem, contesting their advance. Already a number of wounded provided the early proof.

But Mays led deeper into the soaked forest, waving his flag furiously as the 7th fought and drove a dangerous enemy largely unseen. Minie balls whined from all points on the compass. Gunsmoke obscured the battle front and the incessant roar of the musketry nearly drowned out shouted commands. Try as they might in this chaotic, disoriented tangle of brush where death could come at any second, the men kept the flag in sight for guidance.. .and hope.

On the right, the 11th Virginia was corning up in support.. Somewhere off to the left, the 17th Virginia was moving through the woods, heavily engaged. But the forefront of the attack, the 7th Virginia pushed ahead, leveling their muskets again and again against a determined foe they rarely could see.

As the most visible member of the 7th's regimental formation, flag bearer Mays became an obvious, desirable target. Cutting down the standard carrier, every line officer knew, robbed a regiment of its momentum, its direction. Kill the enemy flag bearer, went the conventional wisdom, and the enemy's assault could easily wither.

Thus the very act of making himself as conspicuous as possible to his comrades, to maintain the cohesion of their attack, also made Tapley Mays one of the prime targets on the battlefield. But no Federal bullet could touch him. Again and again, his muddy hands felt sharp tugs on the flagstaff, and twice, inexplicably he thought, it was jerked rudely from his grasp. But each time, he seized the standard and returned it to the front of the regiment where all friends might see it, take heart, and know that the center was firm, preserved, and advancing.

Confederate forces gained a badly needed victory at Williamsburg that day. At the height of the fighting, a cry suddenly swept down the gray battle line: "They are running!" Pushing hard to capitalize on their hard-won advantage, Hill's Virginians routed the Federals in their front. One veteran likened it to "a lot of boys hunting rabbits in the thickets."

James Kemper was rightly proud of his men, and spoke highly of them to Gen. A. P. Hill. But incredible rumors circulating about the regimental color bearer, Pvt. Tapley Mays, demanded his personal investigation.

The regimental commander summoned Mays and examined the colors. Carefully, incredulously he counted 27 bullet holes in the banner and several splintered gouges in the staff. Twice he learned, the flag had been shot from Pvt. Mays' grasp. And most incredible of all, this brave soldier had not sustained a scratch!

Col. Kemper promoted Tapley Mays to regimental Color Sergeant at once, to date from the Battle of Williamsburg. Gen. A. P. Hill, in his official report, praised Mays' battlefield valor. Such men he knew, who willingly carried the flag into the very jaws of death, could inspire whole brigades. This young man, one of the "Mountain Boomers" from Giles County, was that rare breed of soldier.

And indeed, three weeks later when the 7th went forward into the fight at Seven Pines outside the Confederate capital, Sgt. Mays bore the flag into the thickest of the fight, again coming away unscathed. Four weeks later, on 30 June 1862, during the height of the fighting at Frayser's Farm, the 7th Virginia rushed headlong across an open field 400 yards wide. In their front stood an entire Federal battery supported by a phalanx of blue infantry.

Badly winded, scattered by their rush through the woods, and far in front of the vital support of sister regiments, the 7th, with Sgt. Mays prominently in front, charged impetuously across the open field toward the waiting enemy. There was "no hanging back nor turning to right or left; no other thought but to push ahead," remembered one participant. All the way across that deadly space, the regiment "met a shower of shot, shell, and canister, and a storm of leaden bullets. The men never once faltered, but rushed like a torrent upon the battery, routing :he infantry; and Sergeant T. E Mays, the ensign, planted the colors of our regiment on the enemy's guns."

Although wounded in this inspired albeit reckless charge, Tapley Mays again drew the official notice of Brig. Gen. James Kemper, now his brigade commander. And the men of the 7th Virginia agreed.

But daring death on so many fields was more than fate would allow. Desperate to hold back the legions of blue infantry that threatened to overrun their position it Turner's Gap on Maryland's South Mountain the following September, Mays kept his banner flying at the forefront of the skirmish line, yelling encouragement and leading cheers among the boulders and fallen timber northeast of the National Road. The battle raged "until darkness fell, the enemy making repeated but unsuccessful efforts to dislodge our men," wrote a member of the 7th.

That night, only seventeen officers and men remained of the decimated Mountain Boomers." A half century later, when Judge David E. Johnston wrote his war memoirs, the memory of Tapley Mays again burned bright.

""Mays was serving in the capacity of ensign of the regiment, and died at the front, where danger was met and glory won, with that flag which he had so gallantly; proudly and defiantly borne aloft on many victorious fields. Brave and undaunted, he ever led where duty called, sharing the hardships and privations of camp life, the march and dangers of battle, without a murmur, and dying with his flag unfurled and its staff clenched in his hands. May the memory of Tapley P. Mays rest in peace.""

Guy D. French, Justice of the Peace for Giles County; quietly handed the quill to the sad, poor woman who had come to his office. Nearby, Capt. James Harvey French, a kinsman, and A. J. Hollman watched respectfully as she took the pen and scratched an "X" after her middle initial.

Unable to read or write, Peggy B. Mays was here on this bleak February day to claim what was rightfully due to her late son, Sgt. Tapley P. Mays, Company D, 7th Virginia Infantry; mortally wounded at South Mountain, Maryland. With a sorrowful expression, she confirmed that her son had "left no wife, child, or father.

The shocking news of Tapley's death had dulled with the passing months, but there was still a great emptiness, a pathetic sadness in her life. The fact that Capt. French was with her now, made this moment a bit easier. But the respect shown for the memory of her boy meant much too. Singled out by Gen. A. P. Hill and Gen. James Kemper for his battlefield bravery, perhaps her son would not be forgotten, lost among the thousands of dead in this horrible war. Perhaps that was what she feared most.

More than a century later, Col. Joseph Mitchell, author of The Badge of Gallantry: Recollections of Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor Winners (New York, 1968), wrote that "Tapley P. Mays is a perfect example of the kind of soldier the Confederate Medal of Honor was established to honor."

Thus for extraordinary, unselfish valor, and battlefield courage as regimental ensign of the 7th Virginia Infantry, Color Sergeant Tapley P. Mays was posthumously awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor. The memory of his unflinching valor and the heroic sacrifice of his life for the cause in which he believed will never be forgotten.


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