The Flag – February 2015

The Flag

By Bob Drynan

March I938, Guatemala


isidroThe two U.S. Army engineers had crossed the Guatemalan border with Mexico five days earlier with their guide, Isidro. They had made the trek on a dirt and gravel road almost to the Guatemalan border by jeep. Fortunately it was the dry season or even the jeep wouldn’t have gotten them that far. When they reached a village that Isidro identified as Lagartero Selegua, they were forced to abandon the jeep and acquire horses and mules to carry their gear. They were making a preliminary survey for a highway that would link the Chiapas capitol city, Tuxtla Gutierrez, with the Guatemalan regional center of Huehuetenango. Isidro had led them along the winding course of a small stream which had no name. Isidro was his Spanish apodo. His Mayan name they found unpronounceable.

         They happened upon several isolated indigenous settlements. The villages appeared to have had little or no contact with the outside world. In the second they were shocked to observe that the headman’s hands contained six fingers! Isidro had difficulty translating, because they spoke an isolated Mayan dialect different from his own. Still, the man brought his five children to them. They all had a thumb and five fingers on each hand. The surveyors also noted that others in the village possessed six fingers, while some had the normal five on each hand.

         Approaching the third village, one surveyor dismounted to urinate, He was struck by a snake. The pain in his leg was immediate and he suddenly found his heart wildly palpitating. He collapsed against a nearby tree. Isidro spotted the snake instantly and exclaimed, “barba amarilla!”. He ran toward the village a few meters ahead shouting. The surveyor’s companion began thrashing through their gear, looking for their snake bite anti-venom. Isidro returned with two natives. The bitten man slid to the ground, beginning to drool and vomit. When his friend ran to his assistance, one of the natives grabbed him and thrust him back, saying something unintelligible. Isidro translated, “the snake, you call him fer-de-lance. Very dangerous.”

         The swing of a machete finished the snake, but the syringe containing the anti-venom did not seem relieve the symptoms. The two natives carried the stricken man to a large thatched hut. A small woman entered and applied a poultice to draw out the poison. The injured man slipped into delirium, then semi-consciousness and finally silence. It all had happened so quickly.

         Isidro led the second surveyor away from the hut, sat him down and opened a can of C-rations from a mule pack. A tiny woman, perhaps five feet tall, brought him a drink, a yellowish liquid. Isidro nodded his head, “drink”. The man downed it . . . some kind of beer. He felt the alcohol go to his head. He suddenly realized how much time had passed, and he rose to return to the side of his comrade. 


 “No,” said Isidro, “leave him to the curandera. He is safe with her and she will help him.”

“A woman, taller than others approached the hut, She dressed in yellow, much like a sarong, the surveyor thought. She wore a headdress of brilliant feathers and beads made of guanacaste seeds adorned her throat. In one hand she bore large pouch and under her arm a blanket and in the other, two colorful gourds.

         The surveyor sat in front of the hut and listened as the curandera rattled the gourds and chanted a strange song. After a time she stopped and the waiting man held his peace until he could no longer stand it. He pushed through the dangling hemp cords into the hut. The curandera knelt by a small fire, crooning over a stone bowl of steaming water into which she introduced pinches of various colored dried herbs which were spread out on a plain straw mat by her knees. Ignoring his presence, she rose and crossed to his recumbent companion. Returning to her knees she lifted his head and forced him to swallow the strange concoction. When he had swallowed all of the tea, she sat back on her heels and began to wave alarge pink flamingo feather over his prostrate friend as she whispered an incantation.

         He drew in a deep, startled breath. His friend was covered by the blanket she had brought with her . . . but it wasn’t a blanket! It was a Confederate Naval ensign!

         January 1865, Gulf of Mexico

The Confederate steamer Antelope approached the killing ground established by the U.S. navy’s blockade of the Texas port of Galveston. The Union patrols reached far out into the Gulf of Mexico to interdict Confederate traffic that instead of risking the course into Galveston, might choose to call at Tampico or Vera Cruz and transship weapons and merchandise to the Texas border by land. Antelope’s captain, Lieutenant Carlton Talmadge, CSN, sought a gap in Yankee cordon that would allow him to make a night approach to the Texas port, but the fiery tempered Georgian’s luck had run out.

         Two Yankee cruisers approached him, one from the east and the other out of the north. The northern-most vessel blocked his path to the Mexican coast or Galveston, and the one approaching from the east pinned his back to the Yucatan Peninsula. The 250-foot, wooden side-wheeler Antelope could muster 17 knots under threat and outrun most of the heavily armed Yankee cruisers, but flight south from the northern cruiser brought him broadside within a thousand yards of the Yankee approaching from the east.

         The range of the Dahlgren or Parrott 15 inch swivel guns mounted mid-ship on most blockading US naval cruisers could reach out fifteen hundred to two thousand yards. He would have to run the gauntlet of the eastern cruiser in order to pass around the Yucatan barrier to complete his escape. It was already dusk and the approaching cruiser in the darkening sky would have difficulty to gauge the range. Talmadge took the chance.

         Misfortune occurred when an explosive shell landed along the portside paddle wheel after several ranging shots as the rebel blockade runner pulled away. Damaging several of the paddles, Talmadge’s speed fell to 12 knots. As night fell Antelope rounded the Yucatan and entered waters off the coast of Guatemala.

         The Yankee cruiser hauled off to block to escape into the Caribbean. Talmadge had no alternative but to run the wounded vessel into the mangrove entangled coastline of the Guatemalan Petén. Morning would bring the Yankee cruiser in to complete capture of the Confederate ship.

         The Antelope was built under contract to Confederate agents in Glasgow, Scotland. With the exception of its three officers, the crew consisted of British seamen paid generous bonuses to bring blockade runners safely into Southern ports. The crew remained aboard ship awaiting capture and eventual repatriation to the Bahamas.

         Talmadge and his two junior officers, lieutenants Neville Cross and Hugh McGonagle, chose the uncertainties of the Guatemalan wilderness rather than Yankee imprisonment. The three Confederates armed themselves with British Enfield-Snider breach-loading rifles that were part of the cargo for the Confederate Army, packed food, water and hammocks. Talmadge’s last act was to bring down the Confederate battle ensign, carefully fold it and stow it in his pack. Then leading his companions he plunged into the Central American jungle.

* * * * *

         The first to go was McGonagle from snake bite. Talmadge and Cross tried cutting the wound to bleed out the poison, but it spread so rapidly through his body that their efforts were in vain. The young officer died in agony.

         Cross and Talmadge soon became sick when they were forced to drink water from the streams they crossed in the Petén jungle. Their food exhausted, they were unable to identify natural foods available in the rain forest. Diarrhea, sweats, and chills, sapped their strength. Talmadge began eating grubs he found under the bark of fallen trees, but Cross couldn’t bring himself to do so. Eventually in delirium Cross wandered off one night, leaving no trace.

         Talmadge refused to succumb, fighting his way through underbrush and thickets, crossing streams, becoming weaker each day. Even when he threw off unwanted weight to ease his burden he refused to abandon his cherished flag.

         Finally, he stumbled into an indigenous village and collapsed. He was placed in a same hut where a curandera practiced rituals of herbal treatments and incantations handed down through generations. Talmadge in one of his spells with chills, wrapped himself in his Confederate flag and from then on, it became a part of the curanderas’ traditional treatments.        

Author’s Note: Many years ago in my youth I read an article about the construction of the Inter-American Highway. Construction began in the early 1930s, was accelerated in the early years of the Second World War during the presence of Nazi U-boats in the Caribbean, but abandoned as the immediate threat diminished.   Work resumed in the late 1940s. The highway runs from Alaska to Southern Chile, broken only by the Darien Rain Forest in Southern Panama. The article mentioned that U.S. Army Engineer surveyors had encountered several isolated indigenous enclaves, one with inhabitants having six fingers on their hands and another where they encountered a woman wearing a Confederate flag as a dress. After reading the article I decided that someday I would write a story speculating about the provenance of that flag.

         I chose the story of a blockade runner since the Union Navy had forced so many Confederate vessels to scuttle along the coasts of Central America. Nevertheless, following the Civil War many ex-Confederates fled the United States and founded communities in places like Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Cuba and even faraway Brazil. In fact there is a suburb in Sao Paulo called Americana that was founded by expatriate Confederates. In later years, as Sao Paulo sprawled out of its original confines, it absorbed the rural community of Americana.

         Another possible alternative origin of the flag comes from Confederate general, Joseph Orville Shelby, who rather than surrender at the end of the Civil War marched his Iron Brigade into Mexico and offered his services to Emperor of Mexico, Maximillian. The commanders of the French army sustaining the rule of the Austrian born blueblood rejected the service of the tatterdemalion rebel cavalrymen, but Maximillan instead offered to allow many of them to settle in Mexico near Vera Cruz. Others of Shelby’s men set off as soldiers of fortune. The flag in that indigenous community in Guatemala might have found its way there with some of the adventurers from Shelby’ disbanded brigade.



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