The Flag of Company A
The Flag of Company A
5th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment
by Armond Keuter
Among the hundreds of valuable artifacts in the collections of the Manitowoc County Historical Society, one stands out as altogether unique, not so much because of what it is, but because of what it represents in the annals of local history. It is a piece of fabric sewn into a flag and now displayed under glass in the Manitowoc County Heritage Center. Here is its remarkable story…
It is the year of 1861 and the village of Manitowoc with a population of 3,061 people was still struggling to take its place as a center of lumbering, fishing and farming on the shores of lake Michigan. Its citizens were increasingly concerned about he news reaching heir little hamlet regarding the problems of the Southern states and their withdrawl from the United States to create their own confederacy. On April 19, word reached Manitowoc that Southern forces had fired on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln had declared that military force had to be used to put down that rebellion and he called for volunteers to join the armed forces to fight for the Union.
The news spread quickly and people gathered on the street corners, in the stores, and saloons to discuss this tragic happening. Community leaders called for a meeting and a large crowd gathered in the County Court House to decide what should be done in response to the news. Support for Lincoln’s action was unanimous among those present at this war meeting and they promptly determined to issue a call for volunteer enlistments for service in the U.S. Army. Within two days enough men had signed up to form a company of soldiers and they organized themselves into the “Manitowoc County Guards.” Later they were officially mustered into the service as “Company A of the 5th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.”
Having elected their officers they established the North Side Park as their training grounds and proceeded with their daily routine to become soldiers. On June 17 as the Company marched toward its training site, a group of ladies joined them and upon arrival at the park they approached their Captain, Temple Clark, to present the Company with a flag. It was graciously received by the Captain and his men and hey promised to take it into every battle in which they should become engaged and never let it be disgraced even upon the threat of their lives. The flag had been made by ladies of the village and given to the soldiers in recognition of their courage and bravery as volunteers for the noble cause for which they had enlisted. An incident regarding the making of the flag is worthy of not here. The ladies who had shopped for the material for the flag returned from Chicago without any white silk so in this dilemma one of hem stepped forward and gave the cloth she had purchased for her wedding gown so the flag could be completed. Mrs. Gideon Collins who had made the presentation, spoke thes words a she handed them the flag.
“THOSE FEELINGS OF SADNESS WICH EVERY TRUE AMERICAN MUST HAVE A BEHOLDING OUR COUNTRY UNDGERGOING AL THE HORRORS OF CIVIL WAR MUST BE INERMINGLED WITH THOSE OF JOY BY THE KNOWLEDGE THAT EVER IN OUR MIDST THERE IS SUCH A GALLANT BAND OF SELF-DENYING MEN, READY TO BUCKLE ON THEIR ARMOR AND GO FORH IN BATTLE FOR THE RIGHT. CONFIDENT THAT JUST HEAVEN WILL HASTN TH DAY WHEN EQUAL RIGHTS WILL BE EQUALLY ENJOYED, WE BID YO GOD SPEED, WITH OUR HEARTS FILLED TO OVERFLOWING WITH THE HOPE THAT YOU MAY AT LAST RETURN LADEN WITH HONOR AND THAT YOUR PROUDEST BOAST MAY BE – WE FOUGHT FOR OUR COUNTRY. YOU GO, BEARING WH YOU THIS FLAG – THE GIFT OF WILLING HEARTS. IN THE SMOKE AND DIN OF BATTLE STAND BY IT BECAUSE IT IS THE STARS AND STRIPES – TH FLAG OUR FATHERS FOUGHT UNDER. LET THE REMEMBRANCE THAT THERE WILL BE MANY SILENT PRAYERS WAFTED HEAVENWARD IN YOUR BEHALF, AND MANY AN EYE BE DIMMED WITH GRATEFUL TEARS AT THE RECITAL OF OUR DEEDS OF BRAVERY, BE THE MEANS OF ENDEARING IT TO YOU A HUNDRED-FOLD. ONE MORE – MAY GOD SPEED YOU AND BRING YOU SAFELY HOME WITH FREEDOM’S SOIL BENEATH YOUR FEET AND FREEDOM’S BANE STREAMING O’ER YOU.”
The words, spoken with such emotion, moved the men of the Company to pledge hat they would stand by the flag, take it into every battle and never see it disgraced. It would turn out to be a sentimental promise impossible to keep. But they now had a flag and they proudly carried it as they paraded down the dusty streets of Manitowoc to and from their training grounds. The long expected call to report for duty came and the Company with the flag flying at its head marched through cheering crowds which lined the streets to the pier at the foot of Buffalo Street to make its way to Camp Randall in Madison. It was the 23rd of June, 1861, a day that would be forever remembered by this first group of volunteers that left Manitowoc for the Civil War. Among them was a nineteen year old, James Anderson, who had enlisted on the occasion of the war meeting in the courthouse. Anderson had come to this country from Scotland with his parents, a brother and two sisters. They had settled on a small tract of land in the town of Kossuth but finding life too difficult in that wilderness moved to Manitowoc where James continued his education. Upon the call for volunteers to join the military, he was taken up by the excitement of soldiering and joined Company A.
Upon their arrival at Camp Randall, they laid out their camp in true military order and erected a flag pole in front of the Captain’s tent and proudly raised the flag. It was at this time that they were officially designated, Company A and attached to the Fifth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. They carried the flag as they paged through the streets of Madison, but once they received their regimental colors they were no longer permitted to use the Company flag so they were faced with a quandary. Remembering the extravagant promises they had made to the ladies in Manitowoc, the plan was formulated that whenever they were about to go into battle, one of the soldiers would wind the flag around his body and thus redeem their pledge to the people back home. On July 23rd orders were received to bring the regiment to Washington D.C. at the earliest possible moment so tents were struck, knapsacks packed and the company boarded the train for Washington. Their last act was to haul down the flag and pack it into the Captain’s valise. This was to be the last time the flag would be displayed in connection with the Company. They arrived in Washington and became part of the Army of the Potomac. In spring they crossed into Virginia and very quickly engaged the enemy in several battles including Drainsville, Lewinsville, Lees Mills, and Williamsburg.
The flag was always with them and true to their promise it was carried out of sight by one of the men during each of these engagements. Following Williamsburg, Temple Clark left the Company and Lt. Horace Walker took his place. Walker decided that the Company had done enough to keep its promise and packed the flag into his valise and sent it to the rear along with his personal belongings. This would be the last time that any one of Company A would see the flag during the war and to them it was considered lost.
Fourteen Years passed, peace had returned to the land, and the nation was holding a great exposition in Philadelphia in honor of the centennial year of our country’s founding. A prominent local citizen Judge W.W. Waldo attended the celebration and while visiting the Wisconsin Building he saw a flag on display with the name “Manitowoc County Wisconsin Volunteers” imprinted on it. He succeeded in persuading the superintendent of the exhibit to turn the flag over to him so that he could bring it back to Manitowoc. He returned with the flag and presented it to the City Council and it quickly came to the attention of James Anderson, now a successful lawyer and judge. Anderson, who was one of the surviving members of the original Company A and fully familiar with the flag was emotionally moved upon the sight of the flag and took in into his custody for safe-keeping.
Curious about what had happened to the flag since he last saw it being placed in Captain Walker’s valise, he made contact with a Lieut. Col. S.D. Oliphant who had sent a message attached to the flag when it was delivered to the City Aldermen. He received a prompt reply. Anderson was greatly astonished to learn that the flag had been captured by a company of soldiers from Col. Oliphant’s regiment in hand to hand combat and he (Oliphant) kept it with his personal belongings until he took it to the Philadelphia Exposition where it was discovered by Waldo. And thus it was that the flag came back home to Manitowoc.
James Anderson retained it in his possession until 1925 when he presented it to the Manitowoc County Historical Society for permanent safe-keeping. While he had it, the flag was displayed at parades, draped on the coffins at funerals of any remaining veterans of Company A, and at such other patriotic event s that occurred. Since that time and to this day it is o display on the second floor landing in the east stairway of the Manitowoc County Heritage Center. Any wonder it is treasured above most any other artifact in the collections of the Manitowoc County Historical Society. This remarkable story has been preserved in a booklet written by James Anderson on he occasion of the program when th flag was presented to the County Historical Society on March 23, 1925 at Liberty Hall in the city of Manitowoc. Original copies of the booklet are in the archives of the Society and it was reprinted as monograph 64 by the Society. Copies of the re-print are available for purchase.