Location: Sacramento, California

I am a retired lawyer and administrative law judge, aged but active, with a variety of interests.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Captain Sims Carries a Flag of Truce

My great-grandfather, Edwin O. R. Sims, a private in the 18th Mississippi Infantry, received a mortal wound at the Battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861. His younger brother, Captain Robert Moorman Sims, CSA, a graduate of The Citadel, survived the war and became Secretary of State of South Carolina. During the war he served on the staff of General A. P. Hill and, when Hill fell in 1865, on the staff of General James Longstreet (probably as a supernumerary). Captain Sims carried a flag of truce (not the only one) in the lead-up to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. This is his account of that episode. (It is easy to infer a low regard for General Custer and his intelligence, and perhaps a recognition of Custer's bloody-mindedness.)

The account has been copied from A Civil War Treasury, B. A. Botkin, Ed., Promontory Press, 1993, originally published by Random House, 1960. It is excerpted from a letter addressed by Captain Sims to a Union officer some years after the end of the war, apparently in response to a request for a description of the circumstances of the incident he describes. I have put a misplaced paragraph in its proper sequence (publisher’s error).
Upon frequent applications from General Gordon to General Longstreet for reinforcements, he (Longstreet) sent me to say to General Gordon that General Lee had ridden down the road to meet General Grant and that if he thought proper he could send a message to General Sheridan, who was in command in his front, asking him for a suspension of hostilities until General Lee could be heard from. I found General Gordon without a staff officer near him, and he begged me to take the flag, which I did.

The flag was a new and clean white crash towel, one of a lot for which I had paid $20 or $40 apiece in Richmond a few days before we left there. I rode alone up a lane (I believe there was only a fence on my right intact), passing by the pickets or sharpshooters of Gary’s (Confederate) Cavalry Brigade stationed along the fence, enclosing the lane on my right as I passed. A wood was in front of me occupied by Federals, unmounted cavalry, I think. I did not exhibit the flag until near your line, consequently was fired upon until I got to or very near your people. I went at full gallop. I met a party of soldiers….and near them, two or three officers. One was Lieutenant Colonel Whitaker, now in Washington, and the other a major.

I said to them: "Where is your commanding officer, General Sheridan? I have a message for him."

They replied: "He is not near here, but General Custer is, and you had better see him."

"Can you take me to him?"


They mounted and we rode up the road that I came but a short distance, when we struck Custer’s division of cavalry, passing at full gallop along a road crossing our road and going to my left. We galloped down this road to the head of the column, where we met General Custer.

He asked: "Who are you, and what do you wish?"

I replied: "I am of General Longstreet’s staff, but am the bearer of a message from General Gordon to General Sheridan, asking for a suspension of hostilities until General Lee can be heard from, who has gone down the road to meet General Grant to have a conference."

General Custer replied: "We will listen to no terms but that of unconditional surrender. We are behind your army now and it is at our mercy."

I replied: "You will allow me to carry this message back?"

He said: "Yes."

Do you wish to send an officer with me?"

Hesitating a little, he said: "Yes," and directed the two officers who came with me, Lieutenant Colonel Whitaker and the major, whose name I don’t know, to go with me.

We rode back to Gordon in almost a straight line. Somewhere on the route a Major Brown, of General Gordon’s (Confederate) staff, joined me, I think after I had left Custer.

On our way back to Gordon two incidents occurred. Colonel Whitaker asked me if I would give him the towel to preserve that I had used as a flag. I replied: "I will see you in hell first; it is sufficiently humiliating to have had to carry it and exhibit it, and I shall not let you preserve it as a monument of our defeat." I was naturally irritated and provoked at our prospective defeat, and Colonel Whitaker at once apologized, saying he appreciated my feelings and did not intend to offend. Passing some artillery crossing a small stream, he asked me to stop this artillery, saying "If we are to have a suspension of hostilities, everything should remain in statu quo."

I replied: "In the first place, I have no authority to stop this artillery; and, secondly, if I had, I should not do so, because General Custer distinctly stated that we were to have no suspension of hostilities until and unconditional surrender was asked for. I presume this means continuing the fight. I am sure General Longstreet will construe it so."

When I reached General Gordon he asked me to go in another direction, almost opposite to the one I had been, and take the flag to stop the firing. I replied that I could not do so, as I must go to General Longstreet; besides some of his (Gordon’s) staff were now with him. He directed Major Brown to go. Major Brown came to me and asked me to loan him the towel. I took him off to a private place and told him I would let him have the towel on condition that he would not let the Federal officer get possession of it and that I would call in the afternoon for it. He took the towel, and in going into your lines (so he reported to me that afternoon) Colonel Whitaker asked for the towel to display to keep his own people from firing on him, and, as soon as he got into the lines, he mixed up with the others and disappeared with the towel. (I learned a few years ago that Mrs. General Custer has the towel.)

Just after I left Custer he had come in sight of our lines. He halted his troops and, taking a handkerchief from his orderly, displayed it as a flag and rode into our lines. He was surrounded by some of our people and was being handled a little roughly when an old classmate of his recognized him and rescued him.

When I reached General Longstreet, after leaving General Gordon, I found him and General Custer talking together at a short distance from the position occupied by the staff. Custer said he would proceed to attack at once and Longstreet replied: "As soon as you please," but Custer did not attack.
R. M. Sims


Anonymous Anonymous said...

General James Longstreet (my g-g-g-uncle) wrote his memoirs in 1896; on page 539 is his description of Capt. Sims and his truce message, and of Gen. Custer's messages (the account differs from your account).
Steven M. Sims

January 13, 2015 at 5:40 AM  

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