For about 25
years, a small bronze eagle sat on the library shelf at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield outside Atlanta. It was a bit of a curiosity. The bird’s
feet were missing, one wing was broken and the other was turned inward. It was
affixed, oddly, to a trophy stand.
|The bronze eagle finial now on exhibit at Pickett's Mill (Georgia DNR)|
and volunteers thought the weathered finial – an ornament placed on the top of
a flag – might be a reproduction. But they couldn’t find a donation
slip to help explain the story.
Now, after a
finial expert weighed in and a park staff member began extensive research,
officials and experts are saying this eagle isn’t a fake. Rather, they say, it
earned its current condition while under fire at the Battle of Pickett’s Mill on May 27, 1864, when attacking Union regiments poured into a ravine and were pulverized by Confederate artillery and rifles.
The Federal finial
will be formally unveiled to the public Saturday during the anniversary
commemoration of the battle in Paulding County, Ga. Afterward, a wreath-laying ceremony will
take place in the ravine where the flag topper was found in November 1963, just
a few days before the JFK assassination. (See coverage here of Saturday's event)
“Next to the
original cannon that sits in the museum, (the finial) is one of the rarest
artifacts that could be found from any Civil War battlefield,” says John
Hoomes, curator preservationist and interpretive ranger at Pickett’s Mill. “Especially
the eagle finials. They are the rarest.”
Pickett’s Mill is one of the best-preserved Civil War sites in the country, with its famous
ravine and remains of artillery emplacements and earthworks.
|A portion of the ravine where the finial was found at Pickett's Mill (Georgia DNR)|
his research on the finial over the past year has been like solving a mystery.
“I was a skeptic. I didn’t think it was the real thing.”
dedication and battle anniversary fittingly fall on the Memorial Day weekend.
“People actually fought and died there for an
idea, no matter which side the dreamer was on,” says finial expert Del Thomasson. “The eagle tells a story with every crease, bend, break, that
someone held it high and was willing to give their life for that dream and
It was an honorable and dangerous job
begins 159 years ago as Confederate troops parried Maj. Gen. William T.
Sherman’s army as he marched on Atlanta. Sherman learned some tough lessons when he tried to flank and push
back his foe at Pickett’s Mill as he moved on Atlanta.
Troops under Union Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard clashed with those
of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, fighting at extremely close quarters. The
Federals – most Midwestern regiments -- charged down ravines and uphill against
the Confederates. At least 700 of the men in blue died and the advance on
Atlanta was delayed a week. The Union suffered about 1,600 total casualties in
the slaughter, compared to the South's 500.
Each regiment had two sets of colors, one the U.S. flag and
the other a regimental flag. These banners were sacred -- a point of pride and
a means of leading and rallying men amid the chaos of combat. The enemy always
shot at color bearers and tried to seize flags. The Pickett's Mill finial is believed to have been put on an American flag.
“Carrying the colors into battle was an honor and privilege, as well as
a dangerous job. Those that carried the colors needed to be courageous,”
according to a page on Connecticut history. “The flags also symbolized national
and regional pride for the soldiers as they went into battle.” (Sketch at left a quartermaster color bearer by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)
the Picket the location of the finial discovery in the 1960s lines up with the
movement of a brigade led by Col. William H. Gibson. Among the five regiments were
the 49th Ohio and the 32nd Indiana.
memoirs, Confederate Pvt. William J. Oliphant, who served in Granbury’s Texas brigade,
recalled the charge of an Indiana unit. It’s quite possible it was the 32nd.
Oliphant said the attackers almost reached their lines before being forced
“The color bearer
of the regiment fell with his colors, instantly another siezed [sic] the flag
and held it aloft only to fall dead. Again and again it was raised until six
brave men yielded up their lives in trying to keep it flying. The sixth man
fell with the flag in front of our company and only about ten or twelve feet
from us. There it lay a prize within our grasp. I could have reached it with a
single bound but thought as it was already ours, I would wait until their line
had been completely driven back before picking it up. When the Indiana regiment
broke and fell back for the last time, leaving their flag on the ground at our
feet, one of the brave fellows turned, and seeing it was being left behind,
threw down his gun, came back and picked it up. He straightened himself to his
full height, gritted his teeth and flapped his flag in our faces. Instantly a
half dozen rifles were leveled on him and in another moment he too would have
fallen riddled with bullets, but just then one of our boys cried out
"don't shoot him, he's too brave." We lowered our rifles and gave him
a cheer as he carried his flag safely away.”
Hoomes says he believes the finial in the park’s collection was on the flag of either the 32nd Indiana or 49th Ohio. “Of all the units, they had the
|Postwar illustration of Pickett's Mill by famed artist Alfred Waud |
Josh Headlee, curator and historic preservation
specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, prepared the
finial for the exhibit. The accompanying interpretive text does not specify a
regiment because of uncertainty.
“It was found
in the area of the regiments in question and there is a high probability that
it is from one of those regiments, but as you surely well know, during those
heated battles projectiles, dirt, and debris were flying all over the place and
it’s not inconceivable that it landed there after being blown there from
further down the line,” Headlee says. “So I’d say that we are better than 90%
sure, but not enough to (definitively) pin it to a particular regiment.”
'We found a bunch of stuff'
grew up near Pickett’s Mill and lives in New Hope, site of another clash during
the Atlanta Campaign. Carter and a cousin, Hubert Rackley, often searched
for Civil War relics in the area.
He told the
Picket he was 9 years old when he and Rackley, both descendants of the Malachiah
Pickett family, went to the ravine in November 1963 with a minesweeper. They
had permission to be there, Hoomes says.
|Finial in 2022 when it was on a trophy stand (Del Thomasson and Georgia DNR)|
important to note that this was private property at the time, about 10 years
before the state began acquiring land for the park and later prohibited such
activity. Federal and state park officials always remind visitors to not
disturb cultural resources on public land; they can face charges.)
“We found a bunch of stuff that day,” says Carter. “That
eagle was the main one. We found it in a creek near where the rocks were.” The artifact was lying on its side, about six inches down, he said. The feathers were caked with dirt.
Maj. Gen. William B. Hazen, who led a large brigade at
Pickett’s Mill, took shelter behind a large rock about 50 yards away. Noted
veteran and author Ambrose Bierce (right) was with Hazen and later wrote a caustic account of
the futile Federal attack entitled “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.”
Carter and Dennis Deal, a collector friend, believe the
finial to be authentic and the same one found in 1963. Deal, also of New Hope,
said Rackley showed him the artifact years ago. “I knew he found it and I (saw)
it in his collection.”
Deal – who was not present at the discovery of the finial -- says
he is in awe of the courage of the trapped Union soldiers and flag bearers at
Pickett’s Mill. “It was really bad for the Yankees.”
Last year, Deal and Carter traveled to the ravine with park
officials to discuss the finial and its location.
A book weight or perhaps a trophy
expert Thomasson of Ringgold, Ga., was at a relic show in early 2022 when a
volunteer at Pickett’s Mill came up and mentioned the finial sitting on the
shelf. The volunteer, a member of the Friends of Picket’s Mill Battlefield,
apparently believed the item was a reproduction and later sent photos.
reached out to an eagle finials expert, relic collectors and, eventually, park
who has a similar eagle in his collection, told them he believed the Pickett’s
Mill item to be authentic.
“I thought it
was a trophy or some kind of memorial. I did not know what it was. My boss at
the time said it was like a book weight,” Hoomes says. Before it was remounted for the exhibit, the eagle was on a stand saying it was from the battle. The top line read "Federal Flag Staff Eagle."
the author of “Flagstaff Finials Toppers & Ferrules of the American Civil
War,” paid a visit to Paulding County in March 2022. He visited the ravine and
officials compared the Pickett’s Mill bird to a similar one in his collection.
the Pickett’s Mill eagle to be authentic. He says it likely belonged to an Ohio
regiment, but it’s possible an Indiana unit carried it.
at accounts and hearing from Carter, Hoomes believes the finial to be
battle-damaged and was carried during the second attack wave -- men under
Gibson, not Hazen.
|The position of Gibson's brigade (center) as it moved to attack (Georgia DNR)|
of the attack: “Our brave color-bearers were now all in the forefront of battle
in the open, for the enemy had cleared a space in front of his breastworks.
They held the colors erect, shook out their glories, waved them forward and
back to keep them spread, for there was no wind. From where I stood, at the
right of the line -- we had “halted and formed,” indeed -- I could see six of
our flags at one time. Occasionally one would go down, only to be instantly
lifted by other hands.”
him to the site and there was a metal stake and orange ribbon nearby, Hoomes
says. Someone, not an archaeologist, marked the site, the ranger says. If an
archaeologist did not record the find, it does raise a question of provenance.
convinced that it is real. I am convinced it is the one that Tommy and his (cousin)
The evidence of authenticity adds up, he says
For his part,
Thomasson contacted Kyle Wilson, an expert and collector of eagle finials.
|Some of the eagle finials in Wilson's collection (Courtesy of Kyle Wilson)|
Finials were made of higher quality material
early in the Civil War, and makers included Tiffany and Co. and Cairns &
Brother, both based in New York. Wilson, who lives in Lebanon, Illinois, told
the Picket he is not certain who made the Pickett’s Mill finial.
He says the artifact is made of bronze and has
remnants of gold gilding. The whole item, complete with mounting, would weigh
up to two pounds. It was a solid piece and strongly attached to the wooden
Wilson says the Pickett’s Mill wing could have
been intentionally folded by its bearer so that it would not snag on
overhanging tree branches, but he is not certain. The patina, evidence of
oxidation and wear indicate the finial is real and that it was in ground for
decades. “You can see wear where it was carried.”
And, he says, there are no known reproductions
of the eagles. The manufacturing process was complicated and some were in three
pieces, held together by soldering. A ball was attached to the feet and then
attached to a base on top of the flag pole.
|Typical components of an eagle finial (Courtesy of Kyle Wilson)|
“It probably got blown off the staff by canister or possibly
by a round ball,” he says. “I am 100 percent sure it was shot right off the
pole,” instead of breaking off when the color bearer fell or dropped it.
It’s possible the flag was from an Indiana regiment. But,
Wilson says, “If I was a gambling man, I would have to say it was Ohio. You see
a lot more in Ohio.”
Hoomes said he hoped a metallurgical analysis would have been conducted to see what kind of shot hit the finial and broke off the wing, but that was
'They bore witness'
There are varying accounts on how the finial came to be in the park
collection. Carter says he does not know, while Deal says he believes Rackley
donated it before his death in 1998. But Hoomes says Rackley obviously would
have known it was real, and he wonders how the idea of a reproduction came
about. Regardless, the mystery of the donation lingers.
The finial is displayed in a small case at the visitor center. A new
interpretive panel describes the importance of flags and decorative finials,
which came in a variety of shapes, including spades, spheres and globes.
|A finial in Del Thomasson's collection next to the Pickett's Mill eagle|
“The damage sustained as flagbearers carried
them into battle help tell the story of the difficulty and violence faced by
soldiers, like those at Pickett’s Mill. The
damage visible on the Civil War era eagle finial to your right provides clues
to the experience soldiers faced beneath it and the flag it once adorned,” part
of the text reads.
“What caused the bent wing of the eagle? Could
this finial have been with a flag flown in battle? Are the dents a clue? What
happened to the eagle’s legs, which once would have grasped a metal globe on
top of the flag staff?”
Park officials and others are excited about the display.
“What we thought was just a relatively mundane piece sitting on a shelf
in the library has turned out to be quite an important artifact for the site
there,” says the DNR’s Headlee. Hoomes says the finial symbolizes the Federal
army of the Civil War and the United States today.
And, says Wilson, the eagles stood for patriotism just as much as the flags
“They bore witness to the horrible things
and travesty that happened during the battle,” he says.
Saturday’s program at
Pickett’s Mill will include guided and unguided tours of various stations
within the battlefield. Visitors can experience a glimpse of both military and
civilian life that will include home skills and crafts, cannon firings,
musketry, military drills and camp life. The unveiling of the finial exhibit
will be around 10 a.m. ET. A food truck will be available. Site admission is $3
- $6. Click here for more information.