- Historic Sites
Sergt. Bates March
Carrying the Stars & Stripes unfurled, from Vicksburg to Washington, and Gretna Green to London
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
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.”