GETTYSBURG, SOUTH DAKOTA – William Epling must have been a quiet man.
In a town settled mostly by Union veterans who had come west, he was perhaps the only old soldier who had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Or as some Southerners snobbishly called it back in the day: “The Recent Unpleasantness.”
That sums up the way many here in Gettysburg seem to feel about the controversy that became sort of national news for a few days in mid-July over the shoulder patch on the uniforms of the city’s two police officers. It shows crossed flags, one a United States banner, one a Confederate battle flag.
Except this town is sort of the opposite of a Confederate town. It was settled by about 200 Union veterans of the Civil War, beginning about 20 years after the famed 1863 Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The signs on each end of town say “Where the Battle Wasn’t,” and population 1,352: the recent Census estimate is 1,177.
Only one Confederate veteran, Epling, is known to have settled here, for sure.
But attention sparked by a visitor this summer who found the police patch inappropriate after a murderous shooting in South Carolina led to calls to the impressive Dakota Sunset Museum in Gettysburg.
“We’ve had calls from the Huffington Post and the Associated Press,” said Corey Wannamaker, one of the historians who work at the museum.”
“Linda Wheeler of the Washington Post called and we sent her one of our history books,” said Kathleen Nagel, one of the museum’s historians.
“We’re all just dumbfounded at the controversy,” said Eileen Jost, who works at the museum. “We didn’t even know it was there. Most people didn’t even know that was on the patch. To me it’s old history, it doesn’t mean we’re against the United States.”
The story of William Epling illustrates how far this town is from being a hotbed of “The South Will Rise Again” flag-waving. The few ex-Confederates who came here seemed to feel the need to be quiet about it, Wannamaker said.
In 1993, Winifred Fawcett and Thelma Hepper published a local history of Civil War vets who settled in Potter County. The veterans named Gettysburg and other sites with Union-friendly names from the war, such as Lincoln and Appomattox townships. Epling gets mentioned not with the 180 Union vets given short biographies. But he’s at the tail end, in a sort of addendum titled: “Our One Confederate Boy in Grey.”
Epling and his wife, Elizabeth, homesteaded in Owatonna Township in 1887, said Wannamaker. It’s not known where he died or is buried or how long he stayed. Other online Civil War sources indicate he came from Virginia and served in three units fighting for the Confederacy.
He may not have stayed long in Gettysburg because the few Confederate veterans in the Dakota Territory weren’t very welcome, Wannamaker said. “They probably kept pretty quiet about it.”
A tale about Epling in the veterans’ history seems to prove it.
“Some funny happenings come to mind,” Charles T. Maines wrote later about a social session that must have happened in 1887 or 1888 in Gettysburg.
“I remember one day noticing Mr. Epling had lost a finger so I asked him how it happened and he said that he lost it at the Battle of Bull Run. I asked him how much pension he got. He said ‘None, I could not get a pension for the loss of a finger.’
“I knew more than I do now so I bet him the cigars for the crowd in the saloon that he could. I had to buy those cigars mighty quick when he said he had a grey coat on when he lost his finger.”
Nothing else is known by locals here about Epling, who seems to have remained quiet, and pensionless.
UNION VETS GOT SPECIAL LAND DEAL
What brought the Civil War veterans here was, in large part, a special deal forged about 1872 in Congress. It amended the 1862 Homestead Act which gave any settler 160 acres for a nominal filing fee of $10, if he or she “proved up” the land by farming it for five years. The veterans’ deal was, they could subtract the time they served in the War from the five years’ prove-up time. It meant a four-year veteran could take full ownership of his quarter-section of land after only a year; and perhaps sell it for a nice profit or use it to borrow money to buy more land.
If he was a veteran of the right side, the Union side, that is.
It was a sort of ‘Confederate veterans need not apply’ for the special veterans’ homestead exemption, according to Kurt Hackemer, history professor at the University of South Dakota, who specializes in the history of military veterans in the state. “They were not eligible.”
But a Confederate veteran such as Epling still could get the regular homestead deal any other settler could get if he swore allegiance to the United States. Just another reason to be quiet about being a Confederate, Hackemer said.
He’s tracked many of the veterans in recent research, amplifying what the state’s historical society has done earlier as he’s created his own database.
He says there were 5,700 Civil War veterans living in 1885 in the southern part of Dakota Territory – roughly what became the state of South Dakota in 1889 – which represented about 2.3 percent of the general population, according to Hackemer’s analysis of a special census that year.
(A few counties have no good numbers and about 120 veterans can’t be identified, Hackemer said.)
Of those 5,700 Civil War veterans, all were Union boys in the war except for 68 Confederates – only 1.2 percent of the total – Hackemer told the Capital Journal.
Many counties had more Civil War veterans than the 200 or more Potter County counted, but no community has the unique straight link to the history like Gettysburg.
The local historians in Gettysburg say about 25 of the Civil War veterans who settled the community fought at the Battle of Gettysburg, or were in – or had relatives in – units that fought there. About 50 are buried in Gettysburg.
Many more veterans poured into the Territory in the years after 1885, with the general rush, Hackemer said, but the number of Confederates probably remained low. And quiet, he said.
CONFEDERATES SEEN AS TRAITORS
Nearly all public events for veterans were done by the Grand Army of the Republic, founded in Dakota Territory in the early 1880s as a Civil War veterans group that didn’t have room for those who had worn gray uniforms, Hackemer said.
“They are still referring to Confederates as traitors,” he said of the speeches given at the time.
In April 1884, Thomas Free, first commander of the Dakota GAR, spoke at the Annual Encampment about the “inevitable death of veterans,” Hackemer said.
The speech gave cold comfort to any ex-Confederates within hearing.
“Until that summons comes, let us be of good cheer – with grateful hearts let us be thankful that we are spared, surrounded by our families and friends and living under the grandest and best government upon earth – proud and conscious of the fact that we helped save it from traitorous hands – and that the principles upon which the conflict was waged are based upon the immutable laws of right and sanctioned by the Christian world.”
Hackemer knows of one other Confederate veteran identified in state and federal documents as settling near Gettysburg in Potter County: Isaac Morse who served in the 28th Alabama Infantry. Nothing else is known about him, he said.
Maybe for good reason.
“That language is very strong in the 1880s. If I was a Confederate in the 1880s, I wouldn’t have said anything about it.”
Southside flag-waving wasn’t even conceivable.
“If you had gone to the GAR vets and said ‘we would like to put in a Confederate flag, they would have been just apoplectic,” Hackemer said. “It would have sent them over the edge.”
PATCH IS A NEW THING
The police patch only dates to 2009, when then-Police Chief Gayle Kludt found a South Carolina artist to design it, Eileen Jost said.
Some in town don’t appreciate it.
“I think it should be changed,” said Jasmine Manharth, as she served pastries at the bakery. She graduated from the high school two years ago. “Times have changed.”
She and her friends discuss it at times.
“I don’t have a big opinion on it. But this offends a lot of people.”
It seems like it’s a generational thing, too, with older people more content with the symbol’s use, than her generation, Manharth said.
“I think it’s blown way out of proportion,” said Kevin Baumberger. He and his wife, Lisa, have owned and run the True Value Hardware Store here for three decades. “I don’t associate looking at the patch with racism.”
“I wouldn’t have even been aware of the emblem, to tell you what was on there,” Lisa Baumberger said.
“I didn’t even know they had it on their uniforms until this controversy broke,” Kevin Baumberger said. “When I see the Confederate flag, I don’t think of anything.”
He compares it with controversies over sports team names and symbols, including North Dakota’s former Fighting Sioux logo and name, and the Washington Redskins nickname.
“Those don’t bother me. They’re things that really don’t matter,” Baumberger said.
CIVIL WAR INTEREST REVIVED RECENTLY
Bill Coppersmith graduated from high school here in Gettysburg in 1963, 100 years after the famous battle in its namesake Pennsylvania town.
“It was never mentioned,” he said. There was no big celebration or talk in class about the town’s own historical link to the Civil War.
“I didn’t even figure out why our mascot was ‘The Battlers.’ It never dawned on me.”
It wasn’t until the 125th anniversary in 1988 that the community had gotten interested, he said. Even his own hobby of re-enacting Civil War battles at the actual sites – “‘I’ve got uniforms from both sides, I can do Confederate or Union” – was sparked by outsiders.
“It was re-enactor units from Sioux Falls, Omaha, Rapid City and Pipestone (Minnesota) who started coming here in the 1980s,” Coppersmith said.
He’s Navy veteran who saw time in Vietnam during the war.
“I consider all the people who fought in the Civil War were Americans and they fought under their flag for their beliefs,” Coppersmith said. “Now, 150 years later, to say your flag is wrong and we are going to take it away . . . They could say the same thing about us.”
The highly regarded museum is only 25 years old and operates largely due to a big endowment from Coe Frankhauser, whose ancestor Solomon Frankhauser, was a leading Union veteran who settled Gettysburg. It recently received on loan a Confederate cannon used during the Battle of Gettysburg. But nearly all of its Civil War materials deal with Union veterans. And much of the museum deals with American Indian history and general pioneer days.
CIVIL WAR CONNECTIONS GROWING OLD
One of perhaps only two Gettysburg residents left still carrying the same name as a Civil War veteran ancestor is Roy Combellick, who works for a local electrical contracting company driving truck.
(Attorney Bob Houck is another with the same last name as his Civil War ancestor.)
William Combellick has one of the longest of the 181 biographies in the local history book and, of course, fought for the North. He was born near Council Hill, Illinois, just a year after his family immigrated from England. At 22, in October 1864, he enlisted in company A of the 39th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.
“Although offered a promotion in the Army, he refused because he preferred to remain in the ranks,” says the local history book. “On April 2, 1865, during a charge of Union troops at Fort Gregg near Petersburg, the officer in charge was severely wounded and he called William Combellick from the ranks to lead and command his company. Before the battle was over, William was wounded by a gunshot wound to his hip. He carried an ugly scar caused by that wound for the rest of his life.”
He married once, was widowed, married again and by early 1884 moved to Dakota Territory. He soon “learned of an old soldier’s colony in Potter County, at Appomattox (Township) some miles from Gettysburg. He headed south and when he arrived he was surprised to find one of his old commanders in charge, Gen. O.L. Mann.”
That helped his decision to settle near Gettysburg where he lived another 44 years.
Roy Combellick is no history buff, even of his own ancestor, he says. He has no strong feelings about the recent controversy.
But he is proud of his family’s tradition of military service.
Roy Combellick served in the Army 1965-1967, including a tour in Germany.
His father, Harold Combellick, served in the Army during World War II.
Roy Combellick knows how important it is to come home, as a veteran, to Gettysburg.
“I still remember, I flew into Pierre at December 1967. At the airport, a guy from Lebanon (South Dakota) was there to pick his grandson up. And he gave me a ride home to Gettysburg. Nobody knew I was getting out (of the Army) until I walked in the door,” he said, blinking a little at the emotions that are still part of his memory.
GETTYSBURG FIRM ON KEEPING ITS PATCH OF HISTORY
“It’s starting to die down,” said Bill Wuttke, the quiet and mild-mannered mayor, about the controversy while he worked a busy lunch hour last week at a local café.
Many have contacted the city with support, some even sending checks or other donations. The city council will meet next week to talk about it all again.
“Two weeks ago, if you asked citizens of Gettysburg what was on the police badge, they wouldn’t have known,” Wuttke said. “It has nothing to do with racism.”
What it is about is unity and honoring the legacy of those who founded Gettysburg, he said.
In a statement on the city’s Facebook page, Wuttke and Police Chief Bill Wainman said:
“The city of Gettysburg’s police patch has the American flag and the Confederate flag overlapping, which was meant to symbolize unification, and a cannon to represent the battle that the city of Gettysburg is named after. The patch has no racist intentions; it is meant to be another way that we, as a city, represent our heritage. Without the war, and without the battle of Gettysburg, we would not be the same city that we are. The Chief of Police Bill Wainman, the Mayor Bill Wuttke and the city council have no intentions of changing the police patch.”