THE SUNDERED BANNER
From Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War by Christopher K. Coleman
The raising of a new flag over the White House has always been an important ceremony, the flag being a symbol of the nation as a whole. In times of war, it takes on added significance.
During the spring of 1861, the war of words between North and South had rapidly escalated into a shooting war. Fort Sumter had fallen to the Rebels at the end of April, and in May first blood had been shed-that of the dashing Colonel Ellsworth of the Zouaves - in a raid on Alexandria, Virginia.
In sympathy with South Carolina, other Southern states were also declaring their independence-nine all told-and beginning to form a confederation. If prospects were fading for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Lincoln's administration was still hopeful that the rebellion could be quelled with only minimal loss of life and the Union preserved intact. It is against this background, that the incident of June 29, 1861, must be viewed.
A dazzling array of officials were gathered that day on the south portico of the White House. Clusters of generals and their aides, members of the cabinet, and a gaggle of gossiping females, resplendent in hoopskirts and blossoming bonnets, were all gathered to watch the tall, spare form of the President raise the new flag over the nations capitol. The moment came for the flag to be raised, and the marine band began to play the national anthem. Everyone stood, the officers saluting, the civilians taking off their hats. But when the president pulled on the cord, it stuck.
Lincoln pulled harder on the rope, but still the flag refused to budge.
One does not split rails for a living without developing some power in one's arms, and old Abe finally gave the line a good strong tug. Suddenly, the upper corner of the flag tore off and hung down in front of him. An audible gasp of horror and surprise arose from those gathered around the president. This sinister omen needed no interpretation.
For a moment, everyone was stunned. Then, with great presence of mind, a young staff officer quickstepped over to the ladies, held out his hands, and hissed, "Pins! Pins!" His pleas did not go unheeded. Mrs. Lincoln and the other women contributed several small barbs, taking them from various hiding places on their persons.
In short order, the Union officer pinned the wayward constellation of stars back together with those stars of the Union blue that had not separated from the flag, and the sundered banner was made whole again. The president raised the flag without further incident.
Down below, the crowd on the lawn, gathered to watch the ceremony, was unaware of the brief but frantic scene around the flagpole. The band had continued to play, and the public was only aware of a slight delay in the ceremony. To the senior administration officials who witnessed the event, however, it was a rather serious matter. Judge Taft, in charge of the Patent Office at the time, warned his teenage daughter not to breathe a word of what she had witnessed. "It will be suppressed," he declared. And so it was. For many years, this supposedly minor incident remained a dark secret, hidden from the world, and known but to a few.
One observer of the flag-raising, a reporter for a local paper, was ignorant of the malign omen, yet even from a distance he noticed that a strange look came over Lincoln's face. He described the president as having "abstract and serious eyes which seemed withdrawn into an inner sanctuary." General Banks, also present, was likewise "much disturbed."
Was it mere chance, a random accident with no further meaning? At this distance in time, the cynic might easily argue that point. Today, for example, the order of the stars in the Union field of the flag represents their order of admission to the Union. From that perspective, the sundering of the nine would have had no significance. But this ordering of the stars is of modern origin; prior to 1912, there was no such rule. Moreover, the men who witnessed the incident were by no means a superstitious lot. They were hard-headed politicians and pragmatic military men.
Yet, all there immediately saw the symbolism inherent in the random accident. Lincoln, attempting to raise the flag on high, had inadvertently torn the Union apart; and now it was only re-joined through direct military intervention.
For some seventy years word of the incident was indeed suppressed, and all the men and women who witnessed it, save one, took the secret with them to their graves.
Coincidence or uncanny omen? It all depends on your point of view.