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RICHMOND, Va. – Among the swords, the wrenching letters home and the haunting photographs in the Museum of the Confederacy's new exhibit on Gettysburg, few artifacts embody the ferocious battle more than the eight battle flags recovered from the bloodied fields where Pickett's Charge was fought.
The men who carried them were first in the line of fire, and the flag was coveted by the enemy. If the color bearer fell, it was expected another soldier would pick it up. For the 7th Virginia Infantry alone, nine men were lost at Gettysburg holding the St. Andrew's Cross.
"Capturing the flag was a pretty big deal, or losing your flag was a bigger deal," said Robert Hancock, senior curator at the Richmond museum. "Color bearers made a nice target because they were bearing the big red flag. You did not want to let that flag go."
The flags, among more than 500 in the museum's extensive collection, are the centerpiece of "Gettysburg: They walked through blood," which just opened and runs through September to mark the 150th year since the Battle of Gettysburg. The exhibit focuses on Gen. George Pickett's Virginia Division and the doomed charge on Union Maj. George G. Meade's union positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863.
While the battle forever will be known as Pickett's Charge, it was ordered by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Pickett was one of three generals who led the assault under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, the charge's commander.
All eight battle flags are from Pickett's Division and the swords of his three brigade commanders — Gens. Lewis Armistead, James Kemper and Richard Garnett — are part of the exhibit.
The battle involved more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers who attempted to advance over fields for three quarters of a mile amid unrelenting fire from Union forces. More than half of the South's soldiers were killed or injured in a battle that forever bruised the psyche of the South.
The exhibit offers Civil War buffs plenty to see, including a large map detailing the battle, but Hancock said the show is also intended to humanize this chapter of history.
"We try to get the audience to connect a little bit more with the individuals and what happened to them later on," he said. "That's one reason we put the photographs in, so you can see a face, attach a face to an object."
There is a photo of Edward Estes, along with a letter addressed "Dear Sis." He wrote of the carnage: "God forbid that I should ever see another such bloody field." Of Pickett, the Pittsylvania County man wrote to his sister in Maryland, "When he came out and saw how few of us were left he wept like a child, & said he wished they of killed him too."
Soldier C. Robey's Bible took a bullet during the battle, and the hole through its pages is proof of his good fortune. He took two other shots, in his arm and leg, and survived.
A letter from a Union surgeon written to the family of a Confederate soldier said he had "suffered considerable pain, but wore it with fortitude and patience I have never seen equaled." He also told the soldier's family where he was buried.
The exhibit also features a photograph of Thomas Owens, who died nine days after the battle, a watercolor, revolvers and Armistead's book, which included casualty figures.
The museum, which is located next to the former Confederate White House in the city's medical district, prides itself on knowing the origin of its collections. Much of it is from family members, handed down through generations.
The flags followed a different path to the museum.
Any flag captured during the war was to be returned to the U.S. War Department. They were so coveted, Hancock said, a soldier who turned one in was up for a Congressional Medal of Honor and a furlough. In 1905, Congress decreed that all the flags be returned to the states. All the Virginia Flags went to the museum.
The flags, which are made of wool, will be framed for the exhibit. They are, Hancock said, "the biggest and most colorful objects of the show," which is fitting.
"During the battle, they were figuratively and literally the centerpiece there too," he said. "The flag was important as a rallying point."
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .
The Museum of the Confederacy: http://www.moc.org/