Few students of the American civil war know the name Tapley Mays. Born in Virginia’s Pittsylvania County, he moved across state at an early age with his widowed mother to Giles County, joining the Giles Volunteers in the spring of 1861. These “Mountain Boomers” as they were better known, would soon become Company D, 7th Virginia Infantry, CSA. And Private Mays, a scrappy, hell-bent-for-leather type, volunteered as color bearer.
One hundred fifty years ago, right now, the Mountain Boomers–part of Brig. Gen. A. P. Hill’s brigade–were pulling back, marching and sleeping in the rain and mud near Yorktown, confronting the ever-increasing Union forces under Gen. George McClellan.
Monday, 5 May, opened drearily for the retreating Confederates. Days of driving rains had soaked and chilled everyone and everything. But it was the sudden gunfire that grabbed all attentions. And soon orders arrived, instructing Hill’s brigade to reinforce Southern forces dug in at Fort Magruder, a strong earthwork a mile east of Williamsburg.
Col. James Kemper ordered the men of his 7th Virginia to strike camp and start for the sound of the guns. The respective companies formed on color bearer Mays. As the 7th Virginia slopped through the soupy streets of Williamsburg just west of the College of William and Mary, an old woman came out on her porch. “With clasped hands and eyes lifted heavenward,” one member of Company O remembered, the well-meaning matron uttered “for us, in simple, pathetic tones, a prayer to God for the protection of our lives in the coming conflict.”
Once beyond the College and the eastern limits of the town, the regiment started across an open field to the right, confidently piling their knapsacks and bedrolls along the road. Enemy shells screamed overhead, exploding with unnerving suddenness. Hill’s other three regiments–the 1st, 11th, and 17th Virginia regiments–likewise prepared for battle. It was ten o’clock.
Leading his brigade by columns into a deep, open hollow of ground to the right of Fort Magruder, Gen. Hill waited for further instructions from Maj. Gen. James Longstreet. The men in the ranks detested this “monotonous standing in line of battle…a thing that always tries the patience of a soldier,” one of them later recalled. But “the enemy’s long range guns and superior artillery” had the Confederates at a decided disadvantage. By noon, realizing that he could no longer wait for the enemy to attack, Longstreet issued new orders: “Seize the first opportunity to attack the most assailable position of the enemy.”
Plunging into the dense, dripping woods in their front, A. P. Hill’s Confederates formed and extended their battle line as officers called, “By the right flank into line.” Despite their best efforts, men skidded and sprawled on the slippery forest floor. Bent branches whacked faces and flung water into eyes. Confusion abounded, but a quick glance to their colors kept the men together and in reasonable order.
Tapley Mays remained in the center of the 7th’s position, keeping his flag in front, high and clear. The misty woods were clouded by lingering gunsmoke. But strangely enough, the firing had stopped; were the Federals expecting their attack?
Suddenly, through a small gap in the trees, men in blue uniforms passed into view. Col. Kemper raised his field glasses, then lowered them, unsure. What did Gen. Hill think?
Powell Hill’s reply was immediate and certain. “Yes, they are Yankees; give it to them!” Booming his voice so that all could hear, Kemper stormed, “Now, boys, I want you to give it to those blue-coated fellows: ready, aim, fire.”
“A sheet of flame burst forth from the line with a deafening roar,” remembered a veteran of the 11th Virginia. Reloading as quickly as possible, the brigade delivered another volley as Gen. Hill, waving a pistol above his head, called upon them to charge. They responded with a rush and a cheer.
Tapley Mays led the 7th into the woods, scrambling ahead of the other regiments that had formed on the left and right flanks. Quickly he bounded across a fence and moved down a slight slope, ahead of the tramping crush of hundreds of boots and shoes. Above his head, minie balls hissed and popped, cutting twigs and brush, a dire warning that a determined enemy stood unseen before them, contesting their advance.
But Mays led deeper into the soaked forest, waving his flag furiously as the 7th pressed a dangerous enemy largely unseen. Gunsmoke obscured the battle front and the incessant roar of the musketry nearly drowned out shouted commands. Try as they might in this chaotic, disoriented tangle of brush where death could come at any second, the men kept the flag in sight for guidance … and hope.
On the right, the 11th Virginia was coming up in support. Somewhere off to the left, the 17th Virginia was moving through the woods, heavily engaged. But as the forefront of the attack, the 7th Virginia pushed ahead, leveling their muskets again and again against a determined foe they rarely could see.
As the most visible member of the 7th’s regimental formation, flag bearer Mays became an obvious, desirable target. Cutting down the standard carrier, every line officer knew, robbed a regiment of its momentum, its direction. Kill the enemy flag bearer, went the conventional wisdom, and the enemy’s assault could easily wither.
But no Federal bullet could touch him. Again and again, his muddy hands felt sharp tugs on the flagstaff, and twice it was jerked rudely from his grasp. But each time, he seized the standard and returned it to the front of the regiment where all friends might see it, take heart, and know that the center was firm, preserved, and advancing.
Confederate forces gained a badly needed victory at Williamsburg that day. At the height of the fighting, a cry suddenly swept down the gray battle line: “They are running!” Pushing hard to capitalize on their hard-won advantage, Hill’s Virginians routed the Federals in their front. One veteran likened it to “a lot of boys hunting rabbits in the thickets.”
James Kemper was rightly proud of his men, and spoke highly of them to Gen. A. P. Hill. But incredible rumors circulating about the regimental color bearer, Pvt. Tapley Mays, demanded his personal investigation.
The regimental commander summoned Mays and examined the colors. Carefully, incredulously he counted 27 bullet holes in the banner and several splintered gouges in the staff. Twice he learned, the flag had been shot from Pvt. Mays’ grasp. And most incredible of all, this brave soldier had not sustained a scratch!
Gen. A. P. Hill, in his official report, praised Mays’—now promoted to sergeant—battlefield valor. Such men he knew, who willingly carried the flag into the very jaws of death, could inspire whole brigades. And the regimental historian noted that “for his gallant conduct on this field … [Mays] was made the subject matter of a complimentary letter to him from the Governor of the state, promising that he should receive a fine sword…”
Three weeks later when the 7th went forward into the fight at Seven Pines outside the Confederate capital, Sgt. Mays bore the flag into the thickest of the combat, again coming away unscathed. Four weeks later, on 30 June 1862, during the height of the fighting at Frayser’s Farm, the 7th Virginia rushed headlong across an open field 400 yards wide. In their front stood an entire Federal battery supported by a phalanx of blue infantry.
Badly winded, scattered by their rush through the woods, and far in front of the vital support of sister regiments, the 7th, with Sgt. Mays prominently in front, charged impetuously across the open field toward the waiting enemy. There was “no hanging back nor turning to right or left; no other thought but to push ahead,” remembered one participant. All the way across that deadly space, the regiment
met a shower of shot, shell, and canister, and a storm of leaden bullets. The men never once faltered, but rushed like a torrent upon the battery, routing the infantry; and Sergeant T. P. Mays, the ensign, planted the colors of our regiment on the enemy’s guns.
Although wounded in this inspired albeit reckless charge, Tapley Mays again drew the official notice of Brig. Gen. James Kemper, now his brigade commander.
But daring death on so many fields was more than fate would allow. Desperate to hold back the legions of blue infantry that threatened to overrun their position at Turner’s Gap on Maryland’s South Mountain the following September, Mays kept his banner flying at the forefront of the skirmish line, yelling encouragement and leading cheers among the boulders and fallen timber northeast of the National Road. The battle raged “until darkness fell, the enemy making repeated but unsuccessful efforts to dislodge our men,” wrote a member of the 7th.
That night, only seventeen officers and men remained of the decimated Mountain Boomers. A half century later, when Judge David E. Johnston wrote his war memoirs, the memory of Tapley Mays again burned bright.
“Mays was serving in the capacity of ensign of the regiment, and died at the front, where danger was met and glory won, with that flag which he had so gallantly; proudly and defiantly borne aloft on many victorious fields. Brave and undaunted, he ever led where duty called, sharing the hardships and privations of camp life, the march and dangers of battle, without a murmur, and dying with his flag unfurled and its staff clenched in his hands. May the memory of Tapley P. Mays rest in peace.”
Sergeant Tapley P. Mays’ Confederate Medal of Honor is on permanent public display in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.
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 Johnston, David E., The Story of a Confederate Boy, (Portland, OR, 1914), 99-100.
 Ibid., 100.
 Morgan, W. H., Personal Reminiscences of the War of 1861-5, (Lynchburg, VA, 1911), 99: OR, Vol. 11, pr. 1, 564-5.
 Morgan, 104.
 Ibid., 105.
 Ibid., 108.
 Johnston, 102.
 Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 18, 392-3.
 Johnston, 140.
 Ibid., 142.