If you ever were the last kid left on the playground when your classmates were picking teams for a recess game, then you will identify with Charles Edmondston Whilden. Born in Charleston in 1824, his family wasn’t wealthy but the Whildens were still among the social elite by virtue of ancestry. The family helped settle the area in the late 1600s, and Whilden’s grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War with Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion. This pedigree seemed to predict a trajectory for Whilden’s life that would include some measure of fame if not fortune. I learned about Charles Whilden by reading Gordon C. Rhea’s “Carrying the Flag”.
A surviving series of Whilden’s letters reveal that he was educated and had a quick mind, conversant in history and politics. He set out to make his mark on the world, but his attempts to find a wife and a career that would sustain him failed repeatedly. He passed the bar exam and pursued a law career, but this endeavor was a victim of economic decline. Some friends moved to Detroit to speculate in recently discovered iron ore deposits, so Whilden moved north to try his hand at that, but this too proved unfruitful. He took a job as a clerk at the United States Commissary Office in Detroit, but unable to make ends meet, he fell into debt. An opportunity arose to serve as personal secretary to the Chief of the Commissary Department of New Mexico. This job came with an element of adventure – seeing the American West, meeting Comanche chief Shaved Head and seeing vast herds of bison. But women were scarce in New Mexico and Whilden became homesick. After a failed attempt at farming in there, he returned to South Carolina as the nation was on the verge of Civil War.
Whilden was afflicted with epilepsy and he returned home in poor health, wracked by seizures. When war broke out, he was eager to fight and volunteered for service, but his frequent seizures resulted in a quick discharge. He would simply go enlist in another regiment only to see the pattern repeat itself. The war’s toll on the resources of the Confederacy eventually worked to Whilden’s advantage. In January 1864, at age 39, he was allowed to enlist as a private in the 1st South Carolina infantry to help meet the army’s critical need for troops. He was the oldest of 28 privates in his company, only nine of which had seen action. Over half of the men in his company would be killed, wounded or captured during the first week of fighting Grant’s forces in his spring campaign.
In early May 1864, the Union and Confederate forces faced one another in battle at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. The Confederate lines were arrayed in a formation that included a feature the troops called the Mule Shoe, known in military terms as a salient – a particularly difficult formation to defend. Yet Lee and his advisors were reluctant to relinquish this position because the Mule Shoe ran along high ground. When Union forces attacked the Mule Shoe, Charles and his fellow South Carolinians were thrown into the fray at a point on the west side of the Mule Shoe called the Bloody Angle that saw the longest sustained, intense fighting of the Civil War. Men were engaged in hand-to-hand, close quarters combat for up to 20 hours that not even darkness abated.
The deaths of several previous flag-bearers in Whilden’s unit left him in possession of the colors, an honor and duty he was eager to fulfill. Rhea writes: “For soldiers, especially those fighting far from home, the banners held deep emotional meaning, serving as tangible reminders of their communities and families. Attachments to these pieces of cloth were fierce, and men treated their flags with reverence. Soldiers who bore the banners never let them touch the ground, even in battle. No greater disgrace could befall a regiment than permitting the enemy to capture its colors.” Every soldier was at risk, but the flag-bearer more so, because the enemy made special efforts to kill color bearers.
Whilden’s unit was ordered forward to the Bloody Angle. Comrade-in-arms James Armstrong was concerned about his friend’s condition: “Feeble in health and totally unfitted for active service. In fact, he was stumbling at every step.” The flag-bearer was the soul and spirit of the regiment. If Whilden faltered, so might the unit. So at Armstrong’s insistence, Whilden gave him the flag to bear through several hundred yards of forest to reach the earthworks where the outcome of the battle was hanging in the balance. To repel the latest Union assault on the Bloody Angle, the officer in command ordered Whilden’s unit forward, falling dead the instant the order left his lips. It was a tipping point and Whilden, who understood the gravity of the situation, grabbed the flag from Armstrong, scaled an embankment, and began waving the flag from side-to-side. The effect was galvanizing.
As bullets flew, one broke off the top of the flagstaff, leaving the banner fluttering precariously from the bottom corner. Whilden ripped the flag from its staff, wrapped it around his body and continued forward. A wave of Confederates bore Whilden along and they slammed into Union troops. The South went on to win the fight to take the Bloody Angle. At that critical moment when leadership was needed to inspire others and create momentum, it came from a soldier with the frailest body but the strongest heart.
We should wonder who the Charles Whildens are in our organizations, if they even made it past the interviewing process. His life reminds us that courage and leadership are not functions of a title, a reserved parking space, corner office, leather briefcase or expensive suit. It is more likely that our Charles Whildens are not in the leadership development program and we’re probably not seeking their input for the strategic plan. The Charles Whildens in our organizations are the people about whom others say, “how did he get here?” but whose worth is proven during times of crisis. We should hope that the HR department didn’t send a “reject” letter to all the Charles Whildens who tried to join our ranks, but let at least one or two slip through.
Whilden survived the war, but never received accolades, recognition or a medal for his act of bravery that turned the tide of a battle. This is often the fate of the losing side in war. Sadly, on September 26, 1866 – a rainy day in Charleston – as Whilden was walking in the city, he suffered a seizure, fell facedown into a puddle and drowned.