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Sergt. Bates March

July 2024
11min read

Carrying the Stars & Stripes unfurled, from Vicksburg to Washington, and Gretna Green to London

Tuesday, April 14, 1868, was a busy day in Washington, D.C. In the Senate the impeachment trial of President Johnson was in full swing, with one of the newspapers urging parents to keep children away from the sessions lest they be corrupted by the “rude manners” of some of the legislators. In the House a committee was investigating the transfer to private hands of an island acquired from Russia and said to be rich with fur-bearing seal.

Tuesday, April 14, 1868, was a busy day in Washington, D.C. In the Senate the impeachment trial of President Johnson was in full swing, with one of the newspapers urging parents to keep children away from the sessions lest they be corrupted by the “rude manners” of some of the legislators. In the House a committee was investigating the transfer to private hands of an island acquired from Russia and said to be rich with fur-bearing seal. People were talking about a recently crowned billiard champion, the new monument to Lincoln in front of City Hall, and Joseph Jefferson’s “nearly perfect … representation” of Rip Van Winkle at the National Theatre. Voters were being registered in the First Ward. Workmen were demolishing the old penitentiary building on Capitol Hill. And at ten o’clock in the morning hundreds of waiting citizens sent up a rousing cheer as Sergeant Gilbert H. Bates—late of Company H, 1st Regiment Heavy Artillery, Wisconsin Volunteers—walked across the Long Bridge from Virginia with the American flag that, travelling on foot, he had carried aloft and unfurled for 1,400 miles through six recently rebellious and still-unreconstructed southern states.

The thirty-year-old sergeant was a short man—about five feet six—but in spite of a painfully swollen foot and ankle he was walking tall. Square-shouldered and square-faced, he had a proud look in his clear gray eyes, the look of a man who was in a position to say, “Mission accomplished.”

Three months before, he had started his long tramp. His motive? To disprove the belief, widely held in the North, that disloyalty to the Union was still rampant below the Potomac and that a man could not take the Stars and Stripes onto Southern soil without being murdered. Only twice had Bates encountered trouble. In Augusta, Georgia, some Negroes, inspired presumably by local scalawags and carpetbaggers, had lain in wait with intent to do him bodily harm; thanks to a quick-thinking friend the scheme had miscarried. Near Milledgeville, in the same state, the Sergeant had been set upon by five unreconstructed “cur-dogs … of a disagreeable size.” In a fifteen-minute battle, strenuously wielding his flagstaff, Bates had beaten them off.

Otherwise his journey had been one long triumph. In community after community, shouting children, their schools recessed for the occasion, had strewn his path with flowers. Twenty farm women had waited for him along an isolated road, having prepared and brought with them a sumptuous dinner against his coming. Thousands of Confederate Army veterans, some of whom had travelled as much as forty miles to meet him, had shaken his hand and saluted his banner. Governors and judges, mayors and councilmen, had feted and toasted him and sped him oil his way with patriotic oratory.

Arriving in Washington, the Sergeant was greeted officially by Senator James Rood Doolittle of his home state. Then, taken in hand by a committee from the Army and Navy Union, he was whisked off to a private home. There he prepared himself for a day that would see the ironic climax of an adventure which for a week or so would excite almost as much comment as had the somewhat shorter march of William Tecumseh Sherman over roughly the same ground four years before.

The Sergeant had not taken his last hike. In 1872 he would march again in England, carrying the American flag, again impelled by a desire to prove that the enmities generated by the American Civil War were truly dead. History would bestow few words on this well-spoken young farmer and laborer, but who can say that he was not a man of exemplary good will, a sort of premature “one-worlder”?

His American march was the outgrowth of a bet arranged in November of 1867. The scene was Edgerton, Wisconsin, not far from the Albion farm home to which Bates had returned at war’s end after nine months of garrison duty with the forces guarding the national capital. In Edgerton the young sergeant, a stalwart Democrat, fell into hot dispute with a friend of the Radical Republican persuasion.

“Sergeant,” the Radical is quoted as saying, in Bates’ own account of the conversation, “the Southerners are rebels yet. They are worse now than they were during the war. They hate the Union flag. No man dare show that flag anywhere in the South, except in the presence of our soldiers.”

“You are mistaken,” was the Sergeant’s reply. “I can carry that flag myself from the Mississippi all over the rebel states, alone and unarmed, too.”

A few minutes later the terms of the wager had been set up. Bates was to march unarmed and moneyless. He was to travel from Vicksburg to Washington, D.C. If, on or before Independence Day, 1868, he had arrived in Washington, his flag intact and he himself unscathed, his Radical friend was to give Bates’ family one dollar for each day of the Sergeant’s absence.

Word of the wager got around fast. Before the Sergeant could settle his affairs and kiss his wife and two children good-by, several Wisconsin cities had offered to supply him with a flag. “No, thanks,” Bates told them in effect. “Vicksburg will take care of that.”

He arrived in that Mississippi River city on the evening of January 24, 1868, wearing coarse, heavy garments, cowhide boots, and a slouch hat. En route he had met one Frank Howard, who got him quarters at the Prentiss House and arranged to take care of his bills. Next morning there was a stream of visitors, including the town’s most prominent citizens and a number of Northern soldiers stationed in the city. The representatives of a women’s organization called to announce that a flag was being made, and on Bates’ fourth and last day, in a ceremony at the Prentiss House, it was presented to him—a “neat silk flag,” five feet long and three wide, attached to a regulation staff. The Sergeant was presented also with a velvet uniform bearing his regimental insignia. The clothes in which he had travelled south were packed up and sent to his home.

A procession accompanied him out of town, headed by the city fathers on horseback. Next came a band, playing “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” Then came Bates and his flag, followed by thousands of townspeople in carriages or on foot. The procession terminated at the monument to Generals Pemberton (C.S.A.) and Grant (U.S.A.). A short distance beyond, on the summit of a little hill, Bates turned, and waved his banner.

“Cheer on cheer arose,” he later wrote, “till it almost awakened the dead echoes of the cannon that had roared about the spot in 1863.” Moving on, the Sergeant put the hill between himself and his new friends. For a time he could hear the receding blare of the band’s “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp!” Gradually the music faded, and “not without a certain feeling of sadness,” he would recall, “I pursued my solitary way.”

Drenching rains and a snowfall were his lot across much of Mississippi. Finding the wagon roads in “fearful condition,” he took to the railroad tracks. There were crowds to greet him at every station, “however small.” A train was halted while its passengers piled out for an excited round of cheers and talk. Money was shoved into the Sergeant’s pockets. Before Bates could decide how to cope with these kindnesses, he was the unwilling possessor of $14.50. At his first opportunity he stuffed the money into an envelope, mailed it home, and resolved to accept no more, a resolve he adhered to for the remainder of his journey.

On he walked, along sandy lanes, through pine barrens, and across swamplands. Hotel accommodations were provided in every town and city. Some nights he spent at fine plantations, some in back-country shacks. He would remember with special warmth a meal in the farm home of an Irish couple who greeted him as “the bowld boy” and insisted on promptly pulling off his boots for him. Spending a few days at Hickory, Mississippi, so named because Andrew Jackson had camped there en route to New Orleans, he was serenaded one night by fifty men with a dozen fiddles and a keg of whiskey. His arrival in Jackson, the state capital, was simultaneous with that of another figure popular in the Southland, Mr. Jefferson Davis.

At “a pretty place” in Mississippi he was given a horn drinking cup by a lady who said her husband had made it while a prisoner of war “at the North.” At Tuskegee, Alabama, an eight-year-old, hearing that Bates had a little daughter called Hattie, gave him her newest doll and asked him to send it home. At the state capital his uniform was enhanced by a “pink silk sash, heavily fringed with gold bullion and beautifully inscribed in gilt letters, ‘Presented by the Ladies of Montgomery, Ala., Mrs. Vernon Vaughn, president, Mrs. A. L. O’Brien, secretary.’” At Charlotte, North Carolina, a veteran who had fought under Lee handed over an American Hag that had once belonged to a Union corps headquarters, saying that its capture by the Confederates had cost “a good many lives; but … you have recaptured it, Sergeant, without firing a gun.”

An incident in the forests of Georgia touched Bates profoundly. He was on a lonely stretch of road, and he had been walking for miles, seeing nobody. Suddenly he came upon a young farmer, chopping wood. The farmer said he’d been watching for Bates. He wished to extend the hospitality of his home, two miles away. On their way to the house, the men stopped at a roadside mound where the farmer’s brother, killed fighting for the Rebels, lay buried. The farmer “stood upon one side of the grave,” Bates recalled, “I upon the other. Unconsciously we bared our heads. A plain wooden head board marked the place … he reached me his hand over the grave of his brother. I clasped it in the deepest emotion.”

The late afternoon of April 8 found Bates crossing the Richmond and Danville Railroad bridge into Richmond. He had been expected at another bridge, and a crowd had gathered there. But the news was not long in spreading, and shortly the Sergeant was making his way with difficulty through a throng in front of the Exchange Hotel. That night he waved his flag from the top of what only a few years earlier had been the capitol of the Confederate States of America, while thousands cheered and church bells pealed. Early on the morning of April 14 he descended Arlington Heights to the Long Bridge and across into Washington.

The skies were clear and a fresh breeze whipped his flag, but at one o’clock that afternoon, when he set forth from the Washington home to which he had first been taken, a heavy rain was falling. In spite of this, the curbs were crowded with noisily demonstrating onlookers as Bates marched into Pennsylvania Avenue at Fourteenth Street, flanked by two officers detailed to his protection by the mayor and followed by several hundred citizens and Heald’s Washington City Brass Band “in full uniform.”

On the north portico of the White House, President Johnson took Bates’ hand. In the East Room Professor Heald and his musicians rendered “The Star-Spangled Banner” in fine style; Johnson uttered a few words of welcome; and Mrs. Martha Patterson, the President’s daughter and hostess, presented the Sergeant with a magnificent bouquet.

Re-forming on the White House lawn, the procession moved to the Metropolitan Hotel, where Bates would live during his six-day visit. There was a brief ceremony, with the Sergeant standing on the balcony and Representative Charles A. Eldredge of Wisconsin delivering the main speech.

“My friends,” the congressman said, “I cannot forget the fact that it is just seven years this day since the flag of the Republic was lowered in humility and sorrow from the battlements of Sumter. The flag that Major Anderson was then forced to take down now floats proudly over every foot of our land. … And this young man, who, without money and alone, and on foot, has carried it for more than fourteen hundred miles will now plant it in glory and triumph upon the dome of the National Capitol.”

Great applause followed, after which the members of the procession, with the Sergeant leading, trudged eastward in the rain. The Superintendent of Public Buildings had granted permission for Bates to unfurl his flag from the dome of the Capitol, but on the east steps of that structure an incident occurred into which the Sergeant and his friends read a dark but no doubt correct significance.

The Radicals were in control of Congress, and these gentlemen, anxious to forestall any reconciliation with the defeated South, took a dim view of Bates and his peregrinations. The Sergeant and his followers were met at the Rotunda door by Chief J. Corson of the Capitol Police. Ostentatiously barring the way, Corson professed to have no knowledge of the arrangements for Bates to “fling his calico to the breeze.” His orders, he said, were “not to allow any demonstration in the building.” If Bates wished to carry his flag to the dome he must get permission from Sergeant at Arms Ordway of the House.

One of the marchers hurried into the building to return twenty minutes later happily waving a permit signed by Ordway. Meanwhile Chief Corson had bethought himself of another rule. Before the permit could be honored it must be countersigned by Sergeant at Arms Brown of the Senate. Again a member of Bates’ group invaded the building. It was some time before he returned with the sad information that Brown was nowhere to be found.

Angry but undaunted, Bates turned away. With his friends at his heels he marched back down the avenue and across the swampy lower end of the Mall to where the Washington Monument, one-third completed, nestled in an unsightly raddle of piles of building stone and contractors’ shanties.

Once more there was a ceremony. The speaker this time was the Honorable E. O. Perrin of New York, recently named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Utah Territory. Pointing out that only one southern newspaper had cast aspersions on Bates’ march, Judge Perrin told the Sergeant that “here in the capital of the nation, by men full of professions and boastings of loyalty, you have met your first, your only rebuff. … Had the so-called rebels torn from [the flag] twenty-seven bright stars, a Radical Congress would have welcomed the dismantled ensign with shouts of joy, as being evidence of an unrepentant people. But it was a standing rebuke to them to find it pass safely and triumphantly throughout your entire journey, without an insult, and requiring no reconstruction at their hands.”

At the conclusion of the Judge’s speech, Bates clambered to the top of the unfinished monument. Into the rain and wind swept the folds of Old Glory, while those below lifted their voices in tremendous cheers.

So ended the first of Sergeant Bates’ star-spangled marches. His trip to England, four years later, was the result of another wager, arranged in Saybrook, Illinois, where the Sergeant and his family had taken up residence. During the Civil War, pro-Southern sentiment had reached sizable proportions in the British Isles. For this, economic difficulties were mainly responsible. The North’s blockade of Confederate seaports cut England oil from Southern cotton, creating serious unemployment in those sections of Britain dependent on her textile factories. In August of 1872 an international arbitration tribunal ordered England to pay fifteen million dollars for damages done to American merchant shipping by Confederate cruisers, like the Alabama , built and equipped in British ports. In the wake of these developments the belief was general in the United States that anti-American feeling was rife in England.

Bates thought otherwise. He bet a hundred dollars against a thousand put up by a Saybrook merchant that he could carry the American flag from Gretna Green on the Scottish border to the Guildhall in London and that the British people would hail him as the southerners had in 1868. Accordingly on November 6, 1872, less than four months after the Alabama award, Bates marched across the Sark Bridge, uncovered his flag, and headed south. His prediction that the British people would treat him well was more than realized. They took the handsome sergeant to their hearts and made him at home on their hearths. His only difficulties were provided by the weather. As he passed the granite quarries in the vicinity of Shap Fells, bending into a gale-force wind, he had to travel for some miles on his knees to keep his banner aloft.

London, which he reached on November 30, gave him a roaring reception. The newspapers were united in the conviction that the Sergeant’s march was a good show. The Daily News presented the statistics: Bates had travelled 332 miles or an average of eighteen a day, carrying a flag weighing a dozen pounds and a knapsack of equal weight. All in all, the editors declared, it was “a capital feat of pedestrianism.” A group of British showmen offered the Sergeant £60 (then the equivalent of about $300) a night for five weeks of vaudeville appearances. These and other offers to exploit the flag were turned down by Bates. Even before starting the march, he had rescinded the wager; now he refused the thousand dollars he had won, on the grounds that the good will he had helped engender between England and America was reward enough. (Bates gave the author’s proceeds from his book describing his English march to the Infant Orphan Asylum at Wanstead “to help the 600 poor little ones who are gathered [there] like so many bleating lambs in the fold. …” The pamphlet in which he described his American march has all the earmarks of a campaign document in connection with the 1868 presidential election.)

Home he went, after it was all over, to spend the remainder of his days in the happy obscurity of his family and his work. But memory of his deeds would linger on. In afteryears, school children would read of his first and more ambitious venture—his 1,400-mile tramp through the onetime Confederacy—in the charging cadences of poet-novelist Captain Mayne Reid’s From Vicksburg to the Sea :

Bear on the banner, soldier, bold!/ It is a thought of worth;/ And often will the tale be told/ Around the winter hearth./ Ten thousand, thousand eyes are bent/ Upon thy daring deed;/ A nation, now no longer rent,/ Is wishing thee “God speed!”

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