After graduating from the University of Michigan, he became a lawyer and the owner of his father’s brickyard. Before leaving home, he discussed with his mother the possibility of never returning, and so he wrote a last will and testament to make certain she would inherit his possessions. Because of the respect he enjoyed from his men, he was promoted rapidly to colonel.
The regimental flag, most often referred to as “the colors,” was steadfastly protected because it was an icon in motion, representing the fighting men and boys from the same community. It was the beginning point behind which all soldiers would rally; it was the mid-point around which all forces would collide; it was the end-point in which all hopes of victory would endure. The flag was home, consecrated in battle, and it had to be defended to the death.
The colors were so frequently shot to pieces that they had to be replaced. The flag was usually kept clean, and if it ever touched the ground, it was considered bad luck. Jeffords “pledged himself in decisive terms to be its special defender and guardian.” In the next few minutes, the Stars and Stripes would also be in serious jeopardy. His vow was about to be tested.
Jeffords was in a hail of gunfire in a wheat field on July 2. His unit was suddenly faced with a charging enemy that easily outnumbered his own. The fighting quickly became hand-to-hand in what was called a “whirlpool of death.” In the confusion of the fight, the flag dropped to the ground. Jeffords and two other officers saw the flag and dashed to retrieve it. At the very same time a Confederate grabbed the flag. With both sides screaming and cursing, a battle for the flag itself began. It was a breath-taking moment. The Confederate was killed. Union hearts sank, but only for an instant. Jeffords finally took possession of the flag. After being shot in the leg, one observer remarked later that while Jeffords lay on the ground not willing “to yield the prize, the rebels rushed forward and literally pinned the gallant Jeffords to the earth with bayonets.” One bayonet thrust mortally wounded him, but not before the Confederate was shot to death for his deed.
When he was carried from the field, Jeffords’s last words reflected the same last thoughts of family when soldiers knew they were near the point of death: “mother, mother, mother!”
Use symbols to motivate.
Jeffords shows us that a symbol can elicit powerful emotions, motivating us to act magnificently in a difficult situation. We covet symbols because they inspire. They influence us to think powerful thoughts that lead to powerful actions. For most Americans the Stars and Stripes provides a sense of identity, a feeling of belonging, a motivating expression of that for which we stand, and a stirring reminder of the price our forefathers paid for the freedoms we enjoy. Our national flag goes beyond its intellectual meaning and reaches into our hearts. Therein resides its power, its ability to harness our thoughts and feelings for noble ends. Like nearly everyone on both sides of the fight, Jeffords had a profound emotional investment in his flag, which was an influential symbol that led him to give to his country what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”
Copyright 2013 Paul Lloyd Hemphill
Gettysburg Lessons ad Gettysburg Leadership