[A 9-inch by 6-inch replica of the Confederate national flag (not the battle flag), with two horizontal red bars and a white bar in between. The blue square is in the upper left corner should have included a circle of either seven or 11 stars. Provided by Michael Nighan]
On a wall of the Penelope Barker House Welcome Center in Edenton, North Carolina hangs a small, faded Confederate flag. Hand-sewn during the Civil War by a young lady of the town, it’s not an unusual item to see on display in one of the eleven states that made up the Confederacy. What is unusual is that it took 157 years, and a round trip of over a thousand miles, for the flag to wind up on that wall. Because this particular “Stars and Bars” flag has been hidden away, not in some sultry Carolina home, but in the snows and cold of Upstate New York, in a trunk in my mother’s family attic. A trophy of war “captured” by my great-grandfather, Ira Nelson Deyo.By all accounts, Ira was a feisty little guy, an inch or two shorter than average. Born in 1844 and raised in Naples — a town settled by his mother’s New England Yankee family — in 1861 he heeded Abraham Lincoln’s call for soldiers to fight for the Union, enlisting in the 85th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment just weeks after his 17th birthday. By 1862 he’d fought in several battles in Virginia, been promoted to corporal, and been shipped off to North Carolina when his regiment was made part of an amphibious invasion of that state. Winding up on garrison duty at the dilapidated, turpentine-soaked village of Plymouth on the piney shores of Albemarle Sound, Ira and his comrades were pretty much ignored by a Confederate army that had bigger problems to deal with. As a result, he had little to do but complain about the food, wash his socks, walk guard duty and take part in the occasional foraging expedition into the hinterlands of North Carolina.
In the fall of 1863, on one of these expeditions across Albemarle Sound, Ira marched into the small town of Edenton where he came into possession of a Confederate flag. I’d like to say that he captured it in a fierce battle, amongst shot and shell. But the truth is that the small flag, just 9 X 6 inches, was more of a souvenir, an unfinished sewing project acquired from a young lady in Edenton. Ira later mailed the flag to his mother, commenting that it was, “made by the hands of a secesh lady” who, “forgot to put the stars on”.Ira’s army career remained pacific for a few more months, until everything went to hell in April 1864. Aided by the Confederate ironclad warship, the CSS Albemarle (first cousin to the CSS Virginia, the ship incorrectly known to every high school student as the Merrimac) the Confederate army launched a surprise attack against Plymouth, forcing the garrison to surrender on April 20. Ira, along with over 2,500 other federal troops branded the “Plymouth Pilgrims” by their captors, was marched south to captivity, eventually ending up in the infamous rebel prison at Andersonville. After almost a year in Andersonville and other Confederate prisons at Florence (South Carolina) and Salisbury (North Carolina), Ira was finally paroled in March 1865 as part of a POW exchange. Returning home to Naples, weighing less than 80 pounds and unrecognized by parents who thought he was dead, Ira nevertheless recovered, started a vineyard, prospered, married, and raised five children by himself after his wife’s early death. Moving to Honeoye, he purchased a half mile of lake front property, built a house with a tower containing a flag pole and four fake cannon (I told you he was feisty), raised a herd of purebred cattle, opened a hardware store, and went into local politics as a rock-ribbed Republican, dying in 1917 after a full and eventful life.
Over the years, Ira made several trips back south to visit Plymouth and the sites of his captivity. At Andersonville, with the help of several locals, he tore down the gate post of the main entrance, a post he had carved into a set of five canes. Back home he wrote letters for the newspapers detailing his trips and, like all good Nineteenth Century Republican politicians, he gave more than a few speeches about the war. But in all his writings and all his speeches there’s not a single word about the Edenton flag.
Had he forgotten about it? It seems unlikely. But I have to wonder why he never wrote about it. Or why none of his children apparently knew about it. In any event, for decades it lay undisturbed at the bottom of a trunk full of old clothes and assorted bits and pieces.¹ Ira’s sister kept the trunk until the 1970s when, after she handed it over to my mother, we were surprised to find a box containing a small Confederate flag made of silk and fringed in yellowing thread. We had no idea what it was until a small piece of paper fell out, upon which Ira had long-ago written,
“This small flag I took – with the permission of a young lady – from a house in Edenton N.C.”Mom gave me the flag and I packed it away for another few decades. Finally, a couple of years ago, looking over the flag, it suddenly struck me that it was long past time to send the flag back to where it belonged. Contacting the Edenton Historical Commission I presented them with both the flag and the mystery of the unknown “young lady.” ²
Now, following two years of bureaucratic inertia and Covid-related delays, Ira’s flag is on display for residents and tourists alike at the town’s welcome center.
SEE “Small flag comes back home” Jonathan Tobias, 4/18/21, The Daily Advance (Elizabeth City, North Carolina)
So 157 years after the small flag left Edenton, it’s finally made its way home. A symbol of what I like to believe was a civilized, if brief, encounter in the middle of America’s most terrible war between my great-grandfather, the Union soldier, and the unknown young “secesh lady.” I hope they’re both happy that it’s back.
¹ In retrospect, one possible reason for Ira’s disinclination to write or talk about his Confederate flag may have been in the interest of family harmony. After all, although three of his brothers also fought for the Union, his first cousin, Simeon Brunson Lyon, moved south and joined the Confederate army (!), returning home to Naples after the war. Were I Ira, the first time I ran into my cousin after my release from Andersonville, I would have knocked his block off. But perhaps tranquility between the Deyo and Lyon families was more important than well-deserved retribution or waving around his captured rebel flag. In any event, they both ended up buried in Rose Ridge Cemetery in Naples. [For more on Simeon Brunson Lyon, see A Small Flag at the Bottom of the Trunk and Confederate soldiers buried in Batavia, Pittsford and Spencerport POSTSCRIPT II]
² In a distantly-related episode, in 1887 President Cleveland proposed returning to the southern states, Confederate battle flags captured by federal troops. Opposition by Union veterans put a stop to the plan. In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt finally ordered the return of all such flags in the possession of the federal government. Over the following years, many northern states did the same. I followed suit in 2019.
ALSO ON THE CIVIL WAR