History is where you find it, and in the case of a Civil War cross currently in residence at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center, history was found at the flea market. The badge, in the shape of a Greek cross, belongs to private collector Luther Jones ’74 MAEd ’82 of WCU’s School of Stage and Screen. Jones discovered the badge last summer at Uncle Bill’s Flea Market in Jackson County, and offered to loan it to the museum.
Before putting the badge on display, MHC Director Scott Philyaw ’83 and Curator Pam Meister worked to find out as much as they could. The mysterious part was not what the medal is – it’s a Union Army of the Potomac corps badge – or who it belonged to (Capt. George S. Orr), but how the medal came to be in Jackson County.
Philyaw and Meister learned quite a lot about Capt. Orr and his distinctive badge, and the story will soon come to life as a graphic novel being produced by the center with original artwork by Lee Budahl, retired art faculty member at WCU.
In March 1863, Union Gen. Joseph Hooker decided that all corps in his army should have distinctive badges to help distinguish between soldiers from different units on the battlefield. The First Corp used a ball; the Second, a trefoil; the Third, a diamond, and so on. The Sixth’s badge was to be in the shape of a Greek cross. Each of the three divisions within each corps had its own color: red for the first; white, second; and blue, third. Many officers chose to wear metal badges in the shape of the corps badge on their hats or uniform coats.
The cross is 1-3/4 inches by 1-3/4 inches, and its main body is silver. The center has been cut out with a half-inch hole into which have been mounted the numerals “77” in gold. Below are engraved in block letters “REG N.Y.S.V.” (Regiment New York State Volunteers). Above the hole is engraved, in a fine script, “Capt. Geo. S. Orr.” The entire cross is delicately engraved in a combination of geometric and floral patterns. The 77th New York State Volunteers were a part of the Second Division of the Sixth Corp of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment participated in many bloody battles throughout the Civil War, including Williamsburg, Mechanicsville, Seven Pines, Malvern Hill, Harrison’s Landing, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Petersburg. As Orr was not promoted from first lieutenant to captain until April 3, 1863, the cross must have been manufactured after that date.
Here’s what Meister has learned about the badge’s owner, Capt. Orr: Orr enlisted at age 24 on Sept. 26, 1861, as a first lieutenant at Gansevoort, N.Y. On Nov. 23, 1861, he was commissioned a lieutenant in G Company of the 77th N.Y. Infantry, and he was promoted to captain on April 3, 1863. He was wounded and lost an arm at the Battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864, and was mustered out of the army at Saratoga, N.Y., on Dec. 13, 1864.
So how did the badge arrive in North Carolina? The historians have a theory. During the summer of 1864, Gen. Robert E. Lee dispatched Gen. Jubal Early with 17,000 men to march through the Shenandoah Valley in hopes of capturing Washington, D.C., which was lightly defended. The plan almost worked, but Early stopped overnight to rest his men, allowing reinforcements – including Orr’s 77th Regiment – to arrive. Early’s forces were repulsed on the outskirts of Washington. They retreated, with Union forces in pursuit, precipitating a series of battles that culminated at Cedar Creek.
There, Union troops were able to regroup and, aided by reinforcements, mounted a counterattack that scattered the numerically inferior Confederate forces and sent them in retreat, but not before the camp of the VI Corps had been pillaged. “The ground was littered with ragged, lousy tatters of gray Rebel blouses and breeches, where they had just peeled themselves of their old duds to put on our spick-span artillery dress uniforms that we had left in our valises,” writes Union cannoneer Augustus Buell.
Two Confederate companies at Cedar Creek that day were composed of members of Thomas Legion, which was raised in the mountains of North Carolina and included many soldiers from Jackson County. The commander of these companies at Cedar Creek was Lt. Col. James R. Love of Jackson County, and these were the troops that overran the camp of the VI Corp and had the opportunity to riffle the “valises” (or baggage) of the Union officers, including that of Orr. Meister and Jones believe this is where Orr’s cross began its journey to Jackson County.
Reprinted in edited form with permission of The Sylva Herald.