The Young Color Sergeant The second state colors of the 143rd Pennsylvania, issued in 1865. Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, http://cpc.state.pa.us.
Benjamin H. Crippin (also spelled Crippen in some records) was 21 years old when he made the fateful decision to enlist and fight for the Union. A native of Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania and an engineer by trade, the young Crippin enrolled as a private in the 143rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a regiment comprised of men from the northeast Pennsylvania counties of Luzerne, Susquehanna, Wyoming, and Lycoming. He enlisted on August 15, 1862 at Hyde Park, Pennsylvania, a community that has been incorporated into modern-day Scranton. Pledging to serve a term of three years, Crippin was officially mustered into the Union Army at Wilkes-Barre on September 6, 1862. The regiment itself entered into service at that same city on October 18, 1862, with Colonel Edmund L. Dana as its commander. The Pennsylvania men left their home state for Washington, D.C. shortly thereafter, on November 7. Crippin and his comrades had no way of knowing just how soon they would be returning to fight on their native soil.
From November 1862 to January of 1863, Crippin and the 143rd were stationed in the defenses of the Union capital, missing the Federal disaster at Fredericksburg. The need for reinforcements in the Army of the Potomac led to the regiment joining the Second Brigade, Third Division of the First Army Corps at Falmouth, Virginia. The regiment joined the 149th and 150th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiments in that outfit under the command of Colonel Roy Stone, the colonel of the 149th and the brigade’s senior officer in that position. As a later addition to the brigade, the 149th and 150th held unfavorable views of the new regiment, views that the men of the 143rd would work hard to dispel both in their fighting performances and their later memories after the war’s end.
Crippin and the First Corps saw relatively little action during the Union’s spring operations at Chancellorsville, leaving them as relatively green troops when the armies turned north and headed for Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Crippin and his comrades settled in for a challenging march. Thomas Chamberlin of the 150th Pennsylvania remembered the trek as “one of the most torturous…on record. The heat of the sun was withering. Not a breath of air stirred the leaves; the dust rose like a white cloud…not a drop of water was to be had.” Under these strenuous conditions, Crippin crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and found himself back in his native Pennsylvania.
During his brief time in the army, Ben Crippin apparently adjusted well to the challenges of military life. Crippin received a promotion shortly after his enlistment, rising to the rank of corporal by the end of October, 1862. On April 30, 1863, Crippin received an even more coveted position. He was promoted once again, this time to the rank of sergeant, and assigned to the regimental color guard. As a color sergeant, he had the honor of carrying the flag of the United States in battle. Unfortunately, this position was simultaneously prized and highly dangerous. Since amidst the smoke and noise of battle it could be nearly impossible for officers to convey commands vocally, a bright and towering flag became a crucial means for directing the men of a regiment. Generally, where the flag went, the men, as well as the enemy’s fire, would follow. Crippin surely knew of these risks, but carrying the flag was too great of an honor to pass up. Thus, as the Army of the Potomac and the 143rd Pennsylvania moved north, Crippin would have marched at its head, holding high the Stars & Stripes.
As the Union and Confederate armies converged on Gettysburg, Crippin and the 143rd stood in position near the front of the Federal force. On June 30, 1863, Union General John Buford’s cavalry division occupied the town of Gettysburg, and sent a message to the commander of the nearest infantry, Major General John Reynolds of the First Corps. That evening, Reynolds made the fateful decision to bring his men to Gettysburg the next day. Early on the morning of July 1, 1863, the First Corps began its march to the small Pennsylvania town. With Stone’s Brigade and the 143rd Pennsylvania in the column, Color Sergeant Ben Crippin was now on his way his first battle on the fields of the Edward McPherson farm, west of Gettysburg.
Holding the Line An 1896 depiction of Crippin's last stand. New York Public Library.
The Face of a Regiment The 143rd Pennsylvania Regimental Association at the monument that bears Crippin's likeness. Library of Congress via joshualawerencechamberlain.com.
As the Union position west of Gettysburg collapsed on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, the men of the 143rd Pennsylvania were forced to retreat without being certain as to the fate of their young color bearer. His whereabouts remained unknown for months, as he was reported as “missing in action” at the end of August. By October, however, the men of the regiment came to accept that Benjamin Crippin was no more.
Indeed, Crippin had died of his wounds received while carrying the flag on that fateful afternoon. As his body would have lain behind the Confederate lines for three days, none of his personal effects were recovered. Left exposed to the July heat, a deluge of rain on the 4th, and looters and scavengers alike, Ben Crippin’s body was never identified and recovered by his comrades. His remains likely rest today beneath an “unknown” marker in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. In all, the 143rd Pennsylvania entered the field at Gettysburg with 465 men. 21 were killed, 141 wounded, and 91 captured or missing for a total loss of 253 men, over half of the regiment’s strength. The 143rd was certainly forged in the fire and death that rained down over the fields of Gettysburg on those first three days in July, 1863.
After the war, the story of Benjamin Crippin’s death took on a new significance. The story of his final moments transformed into legend based on an account that appeared in the battle’s aftermath. The published diary of the famed British observer of the battle, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle, related an intriguing anecdote of a Union color bearer on July 1, whom the men of the 143rd Pennsylvania believed to be their own. Fremantle wrote:
[General Hill] pointed out a railway cutting, in which [the Yankees] had made a good stand; also, a field in the centre of which he had seen a man plant the regimental colour, round which the regiment had fought for some time with much obstinacy, and when at last it was obliged to retreat, the colour-bearer retired last of all, turning round every now and then to shake his fist at the advancing rebels. General Hill said he felt quite sorry when he saw this gallant Yankee meet his doom.
Other Union regiments responded, believing that this account referred to men from their unit. Survivors of the 150th Pennsylvania claimed that Fremantle was actually writing about their color bearer, Color Sgt. Samuel L. Peiffer. Private Avery Harris of the 143rd, though, wrote back in defense of Crippin. Harris stated:
Crippen with the colors was loth to yield, and the Regiment . . . rallied upon him, and when he was forced to retire, he first shook his fist at the enemy, and defied them to take his colors, but brave boy as he was he goes down wrapped in the fold of his colors, and all but two of the Color guard were down, and one of the Survivors wounded, when Owen Phillips the guard from our company picks up both Flags, but nothing but the trumpets last call will raise brave young Crippen.
The general consensus came to be that Crippin was indeed the heroic young man of whom Fremantle spoke. The Gettysburg battlefield commission on monuments agreed, granting the 143rd credence to memorialize their fallen color bearer.
When it came time for the survivors of the 143rd Pennsylvania to erect their monument on the Gettysburg battlefield, honoring the memory of the gallant Crippin in its design seemed like a natural choice. Since he had given his life so nobly to protect the regimental colors, the monument’s design simply had to feature the American flag prominently. The veterans contracted the Smith Granite Company of Westerly, Rhode Island with the task of creating a tribute in stone to their slain comrade. Upon its completion, the monument was placed in the southwest corner of the intersection of the Chambersburg Pike and Reynolds Avenue, close to where Crippin was believed to have fallen. The men of the 143rd returned to Gettysburg and dedicated the memorial on September 11, 1889. The monument included a feature that made it rather unique among its peers on the battlefield; a life-size bas-relief of Ben Crippin, holding the flag with one hand and shaking his fist with the other. The sculpture cost nearly two-thirds of the monument’s $1500 price, but the 143rd’s survivors saw it as a fair amount to pay to literally set the young color bearer in stone. Thus, to this day, Ben Crippin still stands at the Gettysburg battlefield, frozen in youth and perpetually defying the advance of those long-gone enemy masses.
Dougherty, James J. Stone’s Brigade and the Fight for the McPherson Farm: Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863. Conshohocken, PA: Da Capo, 2001.
Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion Compiled and Arranged from Official Records of the Federal and Confederate Armies. Des Moines, Iowa; Dyer Pub. Co., 1908.
Fremantle, Arthur James Lyon. “Campaign in Pennsylvania.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, September 1863.
Hawthorne, Frederick W. Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments as Told by Battlefield Guides. Hanover, PA: Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides, 1988.
Military, Compiled Service Records. Civil War. Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1890–1912. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg – The First Day. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2001.
Narrative and map by Ryan Bilger, Gettysburg College.