This is a story of an extraordinary old man, an American flag, who served under one of our most famous Generals, George Armstrong Custer.
Thomas Henry Sheppard born in Bristol England in April 4, 1823 came to Michigan in the mid 1800's with five children. Living in the thumb, a town called Marlette in Sanilac County, he had a small farm, raising beans and corn. Great-Great Grandfather always followed the course of the war, and now they were calling for additional volunteers. The family, now of eight children didn't want to see him go. This man now 39 years of age enlisted for three years, yet most men at that time were half his age.
The war could not be averted. On August 21, 1861 Thomas Henry Sheppard boarded a train with a small leather bag, and a Union flag with 34 stars on it, made by the women of Marlette area. Departing with tears, wishes and waving flags, the train headed for Detroit, then Hamtramck to Camp Lyon. It would be here that 1,150 men would be placed under the command of Colonel Thornton Brodhead. The would be soldiers waved good byes to the crowd, as sadness filled the hearts of boys with life-long ties that had to fight old friends.
It is an inherent human trait to exhibit an interest in researching and tracking decedents. This momentous event would have a serious impact on the nation as well as families. Thomas Henry Sheppard advanced quickly from Private to Sergeant. From Company L 1st Brigade, 1st Michigan Calvary to Company E as Color Sergeant of First Michigan. Color Bearers are non combatant, he was responsible for keeping the Flag aloft while regiments were moving. His job was to scout during "down time". The Calvary was to be the eyes and ears of the troops. If men had met their opposites, they did it with courtesy. Sheppard rode ahead of his regiment holding the precious flag behind the General's. When faced with a soldier that Great-Great Grandfather must have known, he turned his head to avoid looking into the barrel, the bullet skimmed his check and braised his mustache.
It was in 1862 Sheppard was ordered to hang the flag in the window of the courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia. This is where it would receive its first five bullet holes. They watched their comrades falling under fire. The men fought up and down valleys, and open fields, moving state to state, from Winchester at Middleton, Strasburg and Harrisonburg. Sergeant Sheppard was cut down by Stuart's Calvary, where he received a wound by a saber to the right shoulder and foot.
Michigan had 14,855 graves filled when the war was done.
The fields felt tremors as the Earth was now being filled with ghastly heaps of falling men. Cries and pain summoned the air. Gettysburg would be the last days of war for Great-Great Grandfather. Captured on July 3, 1863 Color Sergeant Sheppard tore the flag from it's standard, and concealed it under his clothing. After more then 67 skirmishes and engagements this flag was one of his reasons to survive.
So began his long period of 505 days in captivity. First taken to Libby, then to Belle Isle at Richmond, Virginia, from there he would be among the first to go to Andersonville Prison. The amazement in the eyes of those captured when the gates opened, were those to be known as fear. The newly stockade enclosures were made of hewn logs, and sunk into the ground five feet deep. Here he would undergo his most harrowing experiences. Over 30,000 were imprisoned with little to no shelter from rain or cold, with food consisting of maggots in bean soup. Great-Great Grandfather barely managed to stay alive, but never gave up the flag. He wore the old flag wrapped around his body. When they tried to escape through a tunnel they were captured and returned. He at one time even buried the flag in the sand to keep it hidden.
On March 27, 1865 at the age of now 42 years old, Sheppard received an Honorable discharge, still in his possession was the old flag with 72 bullet holes and 505 days of prison. After returning home, in 1866 he helped build then manage a hotel called "The Northern" at the South East corner of what now is called Main and Marlette road. After several years he returned to farm life.
Now a quarter century later, Thomas Henry Sheppard, along with his old flag and comrades would return to Gettysburg. Before leaving on June 12, 1889 Wednesday, Sheppard stepped into the office of The Free Press to tell his story of how "He Kept The Colors" (By L.E. Johnson)
Great-Great Grandfather's last big celebration came May 30, 1897 when he was asked to address a gathering at Imlay City's Cemetery, while his son Bruce carried the old flag. Thomas Henry Sheppard and the old flag had witnessed the Civil War and so much more. Sheppard possessed a genial, companiable disposition. On March 5, 1901 at the age of 79 years Thomas Henry Sheppard was called to rest.
His devotion to his country and family would inspire his descendants for many generations to come. The old flag has since been tenderly passed on through the family for safe keeping. The battle fields of Gettysburg covered 25 square miles, it now flourishes with soybeans and corn. As I stood there looking across to what had been the bloodiest of times, I was without words. It would be fate that any man return home.
In the East Calvary Field where my Great-Great Grandfather fought, now stands a towering monument over 25 feet high, for Michigan's 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan Calvary. As the sun had peaked above it I saw the shadow reflect on the ground of a proud soldier that once was. With the gratitude of my son Vincent's research, through Civil War records, a book that was written "He Kept The Colors", and a trip to Gettysburg, this is what inspired me to write. Andersonville Prison is a place where the hearts and tars are brought together by both sides of the Civil War to never be forgotten.
As far as the OLD Flag...she proudly now hangs in the Dearborn Historical Museum, in the Commandants Quarters of Dearbornville, Detroit, Michigan.