Once upon a time, you’ll see an unforgettable flag in a history museum. It might be in tatters from fierce fights; it might be preserved in pristine condition. Maybe it’s a story about the flag or the unit that will intrigue you. Or maybe it’s something on the flag it’s self.
Flags illustrate ideas. One particular flag of the American Civil War – carried by Company E of the 4th Virginia Cavalry – is unforgettable to me for it’s unique design and Virginian message of defending beloved families.
Flags: Illustrating An Idea
The last two weeks, we’ve mentioned the importance of flags for communicating on a battlefield and how soldiers often created unique images on their regimental flags to make a statement. Today, we’ll continue last weeks generalized topic – the images on flags illustrated an idea important to the men marching/fighting under that banner.
In the figures, colors, or shapes on a flag, the designers are making a visible image of an idea. They might be using an object for symbolism. For example, putting an image of the 1775 “Minutemen” on a banner might suggest that those soldiers were standing up against tyranny, defending freedom, or unwilling to give (or a host of other ideas.) Sometimes the images or scenes were inspired by history or had heraldic influences. (We’ll talk about heraldry and flags next week.)
Throughout history, text has often been included on regiment (and sometimes national) flags to make sure viewers understand the correct message. This is particularly true during the Civil War era.
Daughters To Defend
I’ll never forget one flag displayed in the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia (formerly known as Museum of the Confederacy). It was a white banner with a centered image of a young, beautiful Native American girl. The text on the flag reads: Guard of the Daughters of Powhatan.
Okay, before discussing the symbolism of this flag, let’s just clarify: this is mostly likely not what Pocahontas looked like. There is definitely more 19th influence in this image than particular attention to historical accuracy. 😉 Having said that, let’s interpret this flag in 1861 context…
This flag nods politely to Virginia’s earliest English settlement (Jamestown) and the story of Pocahontas, who supposedly saved Captain John Smith’s life, eventually embraced the Christian faith, married John Rolfe, and moved to England. Pocahontas was originally of the Powhatan Tribe. One particular feature of interest on the flag is the added detail of her cross necklace – whoever designed this flag knew the legend/account.
However, this flag is not merely a history lesson to carry to the battlefield. There is a lot of symbolism on the banner. Pocahontas is giving a face to several ideas that were important to Virginian soldiers during the Civil War. First, as a Powhatan native, she is representing the county which the company was from (see next section). The cross necklace is an acknowledgement of faith in God and Christianity. Pocahontas’s image and the text indirectly reveal a Virginian motivation for fighting: defense of family.
4th Virginia Cavalry, Company E
The 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiment was officially organized in September 1861, but its companies had been in existence for a while as local militia units. Prior the outbreak of war in April 1861, Virginians had exercised their constitutional right to form militia units which had been doing “military training” for months. Each little town or the county usually had some type of militia.
In Powhatan County, Virginia, (a little west of Richmond) the Powhatan Guards were formed as a cavalry militia. This unit was the first “company” of cavalry to volunteer after Virginia’s secession; they served as guards for General Beauregard at the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) in July.
Eventually, it was decided to organize the cavalry militias into a regimen, and the 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiment was formed. This unit would gain distinction as the “Black Horse Cavalry”, serving the duration of the war under Generals Stuart and Early. The regiment fought or was present on the battlefield for almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia and was briefly detached in 1864 to serve in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. (Note: Cavalry had a unique and sometimes-hard-to-define role on Civil War battlefields; they tended to do scouting and guard duty, not always involved in what we think of as the “battlefield fight.”) Two regiment members were present for the surrender at Appomattox.
The flag carried by Company E of the 4th Virginia Cavalry combined important elements of state history and the ideal of defending families from invaders into the visual image on their flag. Pocahontas (an original daughter of Virginia) symbolized both the state and defense ideals.
This unique flag – now preserved in a museum – is a beautiful reminder of history before and during the Civil War and the traditional values of defending/protecting daughters, mothers, and sisters from harm.
P.S. What element of the this flag is most interesting to you? Any details or symbolisms stand out to you?
2 thoughts on ““Guard of the Daughters” – The Flag of the Powhatan Guards (Co. E, 4th Virginia Cavalry)”
Sarah: If you didn’t see the article by Honor Sachs, assistant professor of history at Univ of Colorado, Boulder, in the Outlook section of the 10/21/18 issue of the Washington Post you might want to take a look. It provides an interesting link between myths of Pocahontas and white supremacy.
Thanks for the reading tip.