March 5, 1863 – On a cool Spring day, 17-year-old Alice Thompson left her house in the small community of Thompson’s Station, Tennessee for the short half a mile walk to visit her best friend, just like she had done countless times before. She had become so accustomed to soldiers watering their horses, loitering about, and even camping in her yard that she paid their turning heads, tipping hats and good morning bids no mind as she made her way down the long wagon path across her yard from the house to the pike.
Alice’s father, Elijah, was a successful doctor, and the family was held in high regard in the small community. The family had even been well-to-do enough to have donated the land for the town and train station less than ten years prior, and in their honor the town was renamed from Littlebury to “Thompson’s Station”.
On this day, Alice wore a white checkered dress with a pretty red shawl to soften the cool March air. The shawl had a beautiful gilted button to fasten the sides, decorated with a bird in flight and pretty flowers. It was her favorite, a birthday gift from her mother.
She made her way down her long driveway and crossed the pike, careful to avoid horses and wagons travelling to and fro. Unbeknownst to Alice, this was the exact moment at which Union infantry just north of the town under Colonel John Coburn commenced an attack on two regiments of Confederates stationed just to the south. At first Alice was confused. thinking the initial scattered gunshots were fireworks. Then she heard panicked yelling as the pike was cleared of all wagons and their occupants ran for cover in the nearby houses. Alice had just turned to run back home when an artillery shell exploded almost directly in the center of her front yard, followed by dozens of Federal soldiers emerging from the woods on the other side of her house. Someone grabbed her arm and ushered her hurriedly into the Banks home directly across the pike. And just before she made it inside, she glanced back to see the Confederates yelling and returning fire down the pike to the South.
Inside the house, the entire structure was rattled by a shell exploding close by, and someone screamed when a window shattered, probably from a bullet. Mrs. Banks quickly ushered everyone into the basement of the house, where it was crowded, but relatively safe.
The basement had narrow windows that provided a glimpse into the yard. Most of the occupants of the underground shelter huddled against the walls or curled up in the floor, but despite the risk of a stray bullet reaching the small window, young Alice couldn’t help but watch the action in both horror and excitement. Every time someone would pull her away from her view through the glass, she would make her way back to it.
The battle raged back and forth. Initially the Federals were repelled, but they came again with heavy action in the front yard right in front of her, and across the street in her own yard. Men were falling everywhere. At one point a cavalry soldier and his horse were directly hit with a shell right by the big cedar tree in her yard. It was horrible, like one moment he was there and the next moment he and his horse were gone.
For hours the battle raged. Just when Alice thought one side had routed the other, the tide would turn the other way and men would run across the yard in the opposite direction, pausing to fire and take cover here and there. Wounded men lay across the yard and some were brought into the house for attendance by a surgeon stationed upstairs.
The Confederates were driven back one final time across the yard and regrouped. Alice noticed that many of them were Arkansas boys. They looked angry, and Alice was sure they would drive off the Federals this time. As they prepared to charge, the color-bearer emerged from just outside of Alice’s view and raised the flag. What a beautiful sight, Alice thought. And just when the rebels started to yell for the charge, a shell exploded in their midst, and a hail of bullets struck the flag bearer and the flag hit the ground. Alice’s ears were ringing from the deafening sound of the explosion, and filled with emotion, and without a thought for safety, suddenly she bolted up the cellar stairs.
Outside in the heavy smoke, everything was in chaos. Alice could hear countless guns firing, bullets slicing through the air near her, screams of the wounded – a horse panicking. Sabers clashed somewhere nearby. She soon found and picked up the beautiful flag from the ground and raised it for the rebels to see. At first the soldiers that could see her – Union and Confederate – both just paused in amazement, their minds not registering what they were looking at. But Colonel Samuel Earle, whom Alice had seen shot down with the flag, though mortally wounded, actually forced himself to stand up. He then yelled what every Federal and Rebel there remembered as his last words:
“Boys! A woman has your flag!”
The Rebel troops yelled and word travelled like a wave quickly from soldier to soldier. Alice stood there waving the flag over her head, a 17 year old girl forever immortalized in that moment in time – unwavering even as a shell exploded right next to her, but leaving her unharmed. The Confederate troops rallied, and the Federal troops were driven back towards Franklin.
After the battle, Alice assisted a young Confederate surgeon, David Duggan, with attended to the wounded at the Banks house. They forged a strong bond and soon thereafter she married Duggan and they had two children. Tragically, Alice and the children died only six years after the battle. Cause of death is unknown, but could have very well been Yellow Fever, which struck the area during that time period. Alice only lived to be 23 years old, and is buried near the Thompson home, which is no longer standing. Her actions that day were recorded in the diaries of both Federal and Confederate soldiers, and was remembered fondly by both sides after the war.
Every relic we recover has a story to tell. Research is important to help determine the context of our finds. The Alice Thompson story is but one example of how these seemingly innocuous, inanimate objects are a kind of living history that should be treated with the utmost care and preservation. All relics were found on private property in area where story occurred with permission from property owners.
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Van Dorn Flag – Museum of the Confederacy