Sergt. Bates March

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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.”