Sergt. Bates March


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 Even before starting the march, he had rescinded the wager; now he refused the thousand dollars he had won, on the grounds that the good will he had helped engender between England and America was reward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!”