The Man Who Marched a US Flag Across the South 3 Years After the Civil War

June 15, 2021Matt Fratus
Gilbert Bates American flag coffee or die

Gilbert Bates and the flag he carried. Composite made by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.

It started with a bet.

Sgt. Gilbert Bates was a Civil War veteran of the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery Regiment. Bates had returned to Wisconsin as a farmer when he told some neighbors he thought he could march across the just-defeated rebel states of the South wearing his old Union uniform and carrying an American flag. He thought the country, after the trauma of the war, was united and would welcome him.

“Sergeant Bates at his home in Edgerton, Wisconsin, had some conversation in which several of the prominent citizens of his town engaged,” a newspaper of the time put it. One of the men in the conversation disagreed with Bates. So they made a bet.

Under the terms of the agreement, Bates had to walk alone, unarmed, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Washington, DC, without money in his pockets and carrying an unfurled American flag. Bates began the nearly 1,500-mile journey on foot in January 1868, right through the heart of the landscape that had been torn apart by war only three years earlier.

While his neighbors expected certain death for a Northerner “to show his face down South,” Bates insisted he would be greeted only with Southern hospitality.

Gilbert Bates flag wager
Portrait of Gilbert Bates. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The people of Edgerton were not his only doubters. Mark Twain, the humorist and beloved author of American literature, believed Bates’ effort was for vanity and self-appeasement.

“He proposes to sell photographs of himself at 25 cents apiece, all along his route, and convert the proceeds into a fund to be devoted to the aid and comfort of widows and orphans of soldiers who fought in the late war, irrespective of flag or politics,” Twain wrote in a letter addressed to the Territorial Enterprise published Feb. 27, 1868. “And then, I suppose, when he gets a good round sum together, for the widows and orphans, he will hang up his flag and go and have a champagne blow-out. I don’t believe in people who collect money for benevolent purposes and don’t charge for it. I don’t have full confidence in people who walk a thousand miles for the benefit of widows and orphans and don’t get a cent for it.” 

Twain also expected Bates’ adventure through the pre-Reconstruction South to be more severe than Bates thought. “I expect to see him coming into Washington some day on one leg and with one eye out and an arm gone,” Twain wrote.

The complete opposite happened. Bates was treated to dinners, parties, and parades provided by crowds of welcoming Southerners present to cheer on the faith Bates had in them. 

When he reached Washington, his trip was considered an overwhelming success. Then, in the early 1870s, Bates took his positive movement across the pond to England. 

Gilbert Bates American Flag coffee or die
Sergeant Bates carrying the US flag through Richmond. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The British had supported the Confederacy for their cotton trade during the Civil War, and many in the US retained animosity toward the British for picking the wrong side. And the British, of course, had lost the US as colonies less than a century before.

Again, Bates took a wager. Some sources suggest he wagered $1,000 against $100 (other sources put the odds in reverse) that the people in London would welcome him as the Southerners had and would show respect for the national symbol and pride associated with the American flag.

Again, he was right. “Cancel wager,” he telegraphed the friend he’d bet with. “I regard this mission as something finer than a matter of money.”

The English welcomed Bates with praise. He was even given a turtledove to bring back to the president and was immortalized in wax at the famous Madame Tussauds wax museum.

“May the flags of Britain and America ever wave in freedom and peace till that far truer time when there shall be but one flag, because but one people on the face of the Earth,” Bates said in a speech in London during the winter of 1872. “God grant that work so begun may not be willingly laid down.”

Back in the US, he toured as a public speaker for the next 20 years, touting national unity.

Read Next: Devil Dogs: The Modern Marine Corps, and Some of Its Best Lore, Began at Belleau Wood

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
uss milius
US Denies Chinese Claim It Drove Away American Destroyer

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said that a statement from China's Southern Theatre Command that it had fo...

March 23, 2023Associated Press
The Speed Project: Vet Team To Run in Lawless, Invite-Only Ultramarathon

For the first time, a team of (mostly) US veterans and active-duty service members will run in The S...

March 23, 2023Jenna Biter
uranium-based ammo ammunition Ukraine UK depleted uranium
A Look At the Uranium-Based Ammo the UK Will Send to Ukraine

The British defense ministry on Monday confirmed it would provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.

March 23, 2023Associated Press
Zaporizhzhia Ukraine Russia
Ukraine: Russia Hits Apartments and Dorm, Killing Civilians

“Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegr...

March 22, 2023Associated Press
cold brew coffee soda float
The Bitter Barista's Cold Brew Coffee Soda Float

Today, we combine the best of both worlds with this indulgent recipe, smashing together our love of coffee and ice cream with a cold brew coffee soda float!

March 21, 2023Heather Lynn
abrams tanks ukraine
US Speeds Up Abrams Tank Delivery to Ukraine War Zone

The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or ...

March 21, 2023Associated Press
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved