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Friday, March 16, 2012

The Flag Of The 93rd

The battles-scarred remnants of the retired flag in its final rest.

93rd Illinois Infantry National Flag

The American Civil War was a bitter stain on our national history. It was a time which forced men into terrifying conflicts and hardship. Where men stood looking at sown fields near quiet villages now stood across fields of death many miles from their families. The stories are those of bravery but also of terrible horror.  

In our distinctive families, we can find our several ancestors who fought in the many battles of that war.  Most noted in my family is the story of William Peter Erwin, my great grand uncle.  He left his home and family at Ward's Grove, Illinois in October of 1862 to join in the fight. He died on the morning of November 25, 1863 during the battle at Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga.  

I ran across a 2003 article by Bob Cavanagh for the Illinois Times. In this he recalled a manuscript he read at the Illinois State Historical Library.  The letter was written by Lt. Col. Nicholas Buswell, commander of the 93rd Illinois Infantry Regiment, from his post at Bridgeport, Alabama on December 20, 1863, nearly a month after the eventful battle.  The letter and the regimental flag was sent to the Illinois Governor Richard Yates.  The flag of stars and stripes was in tatters and barely recognizable, battered by gun shot and the elements of battle.

Mr. Cavanagh provided in his article portions of the eloquent letter I would like to share with you here. It presents that fateful moment that is marked in our family legends. 

"Governor: In consideration of the fact that the national colors of this regiment have been so much torn and mutilated in the many engagements through which they have been borne that they are no longer fit for service, we deem it proper to return it to the state, to be preserved among the archives of that Commonwealth, made glorious by the deeds of her sons on many hard fought fields. In returning the 'Old Flag' to you, it may be of interest to state a few of the leading incidents connected with it since it has been in our keeping .  

"During our first campaign, and through the battle of Jackson, Cpl. James Hickey was color bearer. At Champion Hill, after he had planted the proud standard for the third time . . . the brave Hickey fell. E're the folds of the flag had touched the ground, it was caught by Cpl. A.G. Spellman, who bore it from that time through the fierce contest. Its folds were pierced by 27 bullets, the staff being hit by 4 or 5, cutting it nearly off. In the charge on Tunnel Hill, Nov. 25th, Cpl. Spellman, now Lance Sergeant, after planting the flag within 20 paces of the enemy's works, was severely wounded. Sgt. William P. Erwin now caught it and gallantly planted it again, and was instantly killed. Our brave and lamented Col. Putnam now called out 'Give me the flag!' It was handed him, but alas! While waving it with one hand, as with the other he waved his sword, he fell . . . Cpl. J. Frank Ellis now took it and carried it through the rest of that fearful struggle, and though wounded, carried what was left of it off the field, though more than three quarters of it had been shot away by grape and canister from the enemy's guns . . . . Grand total loss: 316 officers and men.

"With this brief memoranda, we return to you the flag which but little more than a year ago we brought to the field. In parting with it, our feelings are those of pride mingled with sadness; pride, that we are conscious of having borne it with honor not only to ourselves and State, but to the cause in which we are engaged; sadness that so many of our noble companions have fallen in its defense. In sacred memory of them let it be preserved, stained with blood though it be, 'tis the blood of noble patriots, shed in a glorious cause -- the cause of Civil Liberty."