During the United States’ long Civil War, no Confederate flag came within the shadow of the US Capitol, but on January 6, 2021, an insurrectionist carried one right through its halls.
In an attempt to stop Congress’ affirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s clear Electoral College victory in November’s elections, rioters stormed the Capitol lawn. President Donald Trump’s supporters forced their way inside, where lawmakers were diligently exacting democracy, and once the doors were secured, some supporters who had been locked out of the Capitol smashed windows and let themselves in.
Lawmakers, staff and journalists inside went into lockdown. Capitol Police drew their guns to defend the House chamber. Four people died.
One of the rioters – a goateed man with a widow’s peak – was dressed more for a trip to the bar than a revolution, but what stood out was the pole he carried, taller than himself, bearing a standard flown in the Confederate rebellion against the nation 160 years ago.
Reuters and Getty photographers captured images of the man in a tan vest and jeans trotting across the Minton tile floors of the Capitol – past the portraits of abolitionist Charles Sumner and slaveholder John Calhoun.
The man has not been identified. Where he went after the photographers snapped his photo is unknown. While there were dozens of arrests January 6, it’s unclear if the man is among them.
The capital’s defenses were ‘feebly manned’
While versions of the Confederate flag have appeared in legitimate exhibits in the country’s legislative headquarters, the closest any rebel carrying a Confederate flag ever came to the Capitol was about 6 miles, during the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11 and 12, 1864.
To be clear, the Beauregard battle flag – the red banner with the starred blue cross commonly shorthanded as “the Confederate flag” today – was not the official ensign of the 1861 uprising. The 13-star design was used by the Second Confederate Navy and other military factions before being included in various iterations of the so-called national flag.
The version of the flag paraded through the Capitol on January 6 wasn’t so directly associated with the Confederacy at-large until the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Dixiecrats recoiled at the notion of civil rights and racial equality. White supremacists later adopted it as one of their emblems of choice.
Yet it wasn’t until 2021 that an insurgent carried a flag of the rebellion into America’s “citadel of liberty,” to borrow the coinage of the incoming US President.
The Battle of Fort Stevens is the closest the Confederacy ever came to conquering Washington DC, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The South was battered, but on July 11, 1864, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early sat on his horse outside Fort Stevens, the Capitol dome in his view, and determined the city’s defenses were “feebly manned,” the magazine reported. He wasn’t wrong.
Early commanded the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, which fought under a square version of the Confederate battle flag commonly flown today.
His commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, was suffering a slow, bloody defeat, and attacking the Union capital might offer Lee some respite, or at least convince Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to divert some of his troops, who were hammering Lee’s forces, Smithsonian reported.
Grant’s troops return as Early’s men falter
Early ordered the commander of his leading division to begin the attack on the capital of the United States. The thousands of cavalry, artillerymen and infantrymen – armed with 40 cannons – began their assault.
Grant, who had re-deployed many of the reinforcements from Washington, taking them to battle in Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia, heard about Early’s charge and ordered 17,000 troops back to the capital, the magazine said. Commanders scrounged up walking wounded and clerks to take up rifles and join the sparsely trained reserves left to defend the city.
At one point, one of Early’s commanders found a gap in the defenses that could’ve provided an avenue to the federal navy yard and its ships, the US Treasury and warehouses of food, medicine and ammunition, but Early had a problem: After vanquishing Union forces in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Frederick, Maryland, in the hot, dry summer, his troops were exhausted, too tired to walk, according to Smithsonian.
“General Early rode along the loosening formations, telling staggering, sweating, dust-begrimed men that he would take them into Washington that day. They tried to raise the old Rebel Yell to show him they were willing, but it came out cracked and thin,” the magazine reported.
Before the men could muster their strength, some of Grant’s men made it back to the city and opened a counterassault. Early and his men regrouped the night of the 11th and before dawn, Early took his field glasses to survey the federal fortifications.
Rather than the sharp, new uniforms worn by the clerks and walking wounded, he now saw men in faded, war-worn sky blue, and “everywhere he saw fluttering battle flags,” Smithsonian said.
“I had, therefore, reluctantly to give up all hopes of capturing Washington, after I had arrived in sight of the dome of the Capitol,” Early wrote in his autobiography.
President Lincoln makes history
Whereas Trump on January 6 released a video to social media that required heavy fact-checking, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to the front lines, albeit after Early was resigned to defeat. Still, sharpshooters’ rifles cracked and cannons boomed. Lincoln “bounded up to the parapet.” Generals and other military leaders pleaded with him to take cover as bullets “thudded into the embankment,” Smithsonian Magazine said.
Legend has it one of those leaders was Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future US Supreme Court justice, who, not recognizing the lanky Lincoln as his commander in chief, barked at the President, “Get down, you damn fool!”
It marked the only time a sitting President of the United States ever came under fire in combat, according to the National Park Service.
Early ordered his men to stay in place, looking dangerous, and after darkness fell on the 12th, sometime after 10 p.m., he and his army absconded back to Virginia. And thus, no Confederate flag made it within 6 miles of the Capitol.
“Although he failed to capture the National Capital, the campaign apparently pleased him, as recounted by Major Henry Kyd Douglas,” said the park service, which maintains the partially restored Fort Stevens in the Brightwood neighborhood of northwest Washington.
“On the evening of July 12, 1864, after deciding to withdraw from Washington, General Early called his staff together and declared: ‘Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell!’”
Early was relieved of command in March 1865, and following the war, he fled to Mexico, then Cuba, then Canada, before returning – promise of amnesty in hand – to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he resumed his pre-war occupation as an attorney and helped in “crafting the narrative of the Lost Cause,” the park service said.