It was a noble resolution that led to the proper preservation of Iowa's war flags. There was no danger of people forgetting the soldiers, or their sacrifices, but these flags, that were emblems of great deeds, might fade away. History hardly relates of another such scene as was witnessed in Iowa's Capital on the 10th of August, 1894. That day saw the same soldiers who had carried the flags in battle bear them to their last resting place. It was thirty years nearly since the war- almost an average lifetime-and all these years the battleflags of the state had been hidden away in the old arsenal by the river. A few had been in museums; a few, honored as souvenirs of the great war were treasured as so much gold in private homes, where happy children pointed to their shiny folds and said, "my father carried yonder flag." Now all the flags, banners, and guidons that had been through the war from Iowa were to be gathered together, and with acclaims of honor, and amidst tears and prayers, be borne to the capitol. It was a day to be remembered for a lifetime. So long as those who witnessed the touching spectacle live, they will recall to their own hearts, and tell to their children, how they saw 5,000 veteran soldiers of the great war come and march again under the flags they once bore in battle. They will tell you of the pathos of the scene-of white-haired men, who in their youth, had borne these flags in the fierce storm of conflict, now again taking them in their hands and blessing them and kissing them. The heart throbs and suppressed tears of many a soldier touching again the folds of these flags never will be known. There were mothers looking on whose sons lay dead on southern battlefields; and sisters whose brothers filled nameless graves in dark forests of the south. "My boy fell defending that flag," said an old man standing at the street-side, as the banner of his son's regiment passed by. The crowd about him gave way till the color-bearer could let the old man touch the sacred colors with his hands. Many hearts beat quick and many eyes were wet with tears. Yet this was the scene repeated and repeated all along Locust street, from Fifth street to the bridge, and from the bridge to the capitol. Many a white-haired mother from country farm or village looked on in silence as some flag was borne by, and with swelling hearts, and tearful eyes, thought of him whose grave she had never seen.
Des Moines was filled with people, and the vast crowds that lined the streets where the flags were borne, had but a single thought. Patriotism and gratitude, and love of country swelled in every breast. There were no partisans. All men and women alike gazed on the tattered flags and thought of the past. They looked into the faces of the men marching and said, "These are they who stormed forts, charged batteries, waded through swamps, starved in southern prisons; their very blood this moment on the bullet ridden flags." None cheered, their hearts stirred too deep--they only felt--and a greater emotion few will ever feel this side of the grave. Here and there the little remnant of some army band played the very music to which these men kept step at Shiloh, and Mission Ridge. The same drums, the same drummers, the same fifers, the tones that had been silent thirty years again caused the blood of the marching men to tingle as they touched elbows and with quickened step recalled the days when as comrades and brothers they went battleward to that same old tune.
Locust street for a solid mile was full of men thinking of other days. Where were the thousands who had touched elbows in the marching line, to that same music, to those same drums thirty years ago?
Twenty-five thousand of Iowa's soldiers are dead. Every man marching on Locust street that day thought of a comrade who once marched at his side to that tune, but who now slept in his soldier grave. Ahead of them in the line, they saw the flags, torn and tattered that they had borne over some rampart blazing with cannon. Then the flag was new, shiny, and glorious. Then they were making history, now they were memories--slowly receding to the past. The world does not wait; time does not wait, the soldiers had their day, their glory and their death. The spectators must have theirs too. These thousands of youths lining the sidewalks are thinking of the deeds and the glory of these veterans, and they pant for deeds and glory of their own. Will they be as brave, as true, as noble, as patriotic as these who are bearing their flags for the last time forever?
All the vast crowd are thinking of these things, and to many the spectacle before them is of spectres with their flags marching on to the end. In a sense they are bidding them good-bye forever. It is the final obsequies of men who have made history. They will lay their flags down at the capitol, and generations will look at them and say: "There are the signs of their glory, but they are gone."
The tinge of melancholy that seized on the multitudes of people almost silenced demonstration. Spite of the occasional cheers of soldiers on being handed the flags, spite of the drums, and the bands in the procession, there was comparative silence, and a minor strain ran through every chord, touched every heart. The occasion was too great for noise; too many hearts throbbed with sad recollections, too many eyes filled with tears.
At the head of the procession rode the gray-haired Colonel Shaw, a soldier of two wars, a hero of his command, who rode with the blaze of musketry as coolly as now he rode to the capitol.
One hundred and thirty-five veterans walked in line bearing the old flags. Five thousand other gray-haired veterans, who had once defended these colors at the mouth of the deadly cannon, followed as a guard of honor, and what a guard it was!
The blood of these men still stained the honored folds of the flags. These banners had never known defeat. They had been borne in a hundred battles--across the works of many a fort, but dishonor had never touched one of them. It is a proud, a noble record for Iowa, that her flags were always flags of honor and of victory. They were, like Iowa soldiers, at the front everywhere.
When future generations shall gaze in silence upon the dim colors of the flags there in the capitol, let them reflect that eighty thousand Iowa men carried these emblems of a nation into battle, and that thirteen thousand heroes were maimed, slaughtered, or died in their defense. Let them reflect that no Iowa flag every surrendered to equal numbers; that not one of these banners ever was held aloft in a war of subjugation, nor for state aggrandizement. They were the signs of our own preservation only--the symbols of a free people. They are dimmed, but by the blood of their defenders; and torn, but by a foe that thought more of human bondage than of the nation's life.
It was noticeable that no captured flags of the enemy were borne in the procession, yet Iowa men had captured more flags than she had regiments. Hatred of foemen, revenge, were forgotten. On the other hand there was no silly and hypocritical longing for the love and good will of those who had shot down comrades, starved helpless prisoners, and well-nigh murdered a nation. "Let God judge them, and let us forget them" was a sentiment of fathers and mothers whose sons sleep in the woods of Tennessee or in the sands of Andersonville. That these sons should be forgotten and their brave deaths condoned at such a moment, was a crime against human nature.
When Governor Jackson issued his proclamation declaring August the 10th a state holiday, that on that day the flags should be borne to the capitol in solemn, but glorious procession, there was universal gratitude and approval. It was the anniversary of the battle of Wilson's Creek, where Iowa's first blood was shed. It was decided that the battleflags at the arsenal should be taken possession of by the representatives of the Sons of Veterans and by them be handed over to the color-sergeants who had borne them in battle; they in their turn carried them with glad hearts to the lines of veteran soldiers waiting in line to receive them with tears and blessings. Many had not seen these flags since the bloody battle's charge when, lying on the field wounded, they gave faint cheers for the symbols of their glory.
Colonel Dungan, the lieutenant-governor of the state, had been selected to address the color-bearers at the arsenal, and his words teemed with patriotism and honor, for he too had been a noble soldier.
When it had been announced in the press that the old color-guards, the very men who bore these flags through the dreadful war, should be the very men to carry them now in their last procession, a glad cheer went up over the state. These brave men, hidden away, pursuing their simple avocations on farm or in country village, silent as to their heroic deeds in their youth, were almost forgotten by the busy age. Now they came forward and plead for their rights--the honored privilege of once more carrying the old flag and touching its fading folds with their hands and their lips. Many and many a letter reached the committee of arrangements pathetic and tender to tears, written without the elegancies of rhetoric or penmanship, yet tenderly, touchingly pleading that the writers might carry the flag once more before they died. And it was their right. Their inelegancies of rhetoric and spelling were good enough in the days when cannon were firing and muskets blazing, and men were wanted to carry these flags into hostile lines and over the walls of death. They were good enough now. Thirty years had made a difference, too. They were young then; now many are old, some poor. The fleeting years had not allowed them to catch up with the opportunities they lost while absent serving their country.
Civilians went ahead and got rich--rich even on the misfortunes of war. These soldiers lost their chance--many their health--many even their savings of boyhood. To many in that line a grateful nation had given a pension--it helped keep the wolf from the door--and yet was not a drop in the bucket to the hardships, the losses, the calamities that followed serving in a four years' war.
In all this vast crowd there was none who did not rejoice in the help the nation had given, and who did not wish it had been more. There was no cry of fraud and big pensions; no people's servants in high places sneering at the cripples who had saved the country; no political sycophants and demagogues striving to reduce the soldiers' little income. Ah! had some snarling creature on that 10th of August raised his voice against pensioning the men who bore those flags he would have been stoned to death.
The day was hot and sultry, but spite of the heat the long line of veterans gladly took up its march escorted by the National Guard, by Sons of Veterans, by soldiers from other states, by civic organizations, by bands of music and by the governor of the commonwealth and all his military family. As the line crossed the river and approached the capitol, its war flags waving, its blue-coated and white-haired legions keeping step to the music they had heard in battle, it was a spectacle never to be forgotten. Once it was like the funeral of some great conqueror. Rome had scarcely seen so grand a spectacle, for her triumphal entries were the return of professional soldiers who waged war for conquest, and in whose train men were led to bondage. This line, solemnly, gloriously, marching to Iowa's capitol, was the fragments of an army that had fought for the perpetuity of free institutions. The slaves that marched in its line were slaves no longer, but free men who in the ranks of the union army had battled for country.
The splendid arches under which the column moved, though bearing the names of honorable battles, still spoke of peace--good will to men. Many of the private citizens of the city decorated their places of business in a way that told of their appreciation of the day and the patriotism of their hearts. Flags floated everywhere, yet no flags were looked at save those faded and torn in the procession of the soldiers.
When the marching line and the banners reached the east side of the capitol a great crowd of people already awaited them. The old flags and the color bearers and as many veterans as possible clustered together on the great east steps, where they were photographed, that children's children may know something of how their fathers and the flags looked on this day, greatest of all in Iowa's history. Then commenced the speaking exercises of the occasion.
The committee on general arrangements had consisted of Gen. John R. Prime, the adjutant-general of the state; Capt. Charles Aldrich, curator of the historical society; Philip Schaller, department commander; Capt. C. H. Smith and Capt. J. P. Patrick, and by invitation, George A. Newman, commander of the Iowa Grand Army of the Republic. The secretary was Charles L. Longley, of the department of the Grand Army of the Republic. At different committee meetings everything had been arranged that could tend to make the day one of great honor, and now followed the opening address by the president of the day, Gen. J. W. Noble, himself one of Iowa's distinguished soldiers.
Des Moines Union band followed with its strains of loyal music. There was a fervent invocation by the Rev. A. V. Kendrick, National Chaplain of the G. A. R., and an original poem by S. H. M. Beyers entitled "The Battleflags of Iowa," and then came the principal address of the day, on the "Returning of the Flags," by Maj. John F. Lacey, member of congress, and a gallant officer of the old army. The response was by his excellency, F. D. Jackson, governor of the state. Both addresses were listened to with joy and were received by the attending thousands with demonstrations of satisfaction.
Martial music by Carper's drum corps followed the speeches, and Mrs. Jesse Cheek, of Des Moines, closed the exercises by singing the "Star Spangled Banner."
Now the flags were in the golden-domed capitol, in glass cases hermetically sealed. There they will remain forever, where patriots can look upon them in ages to come. It was a fit place, in this noble building, this just pride of a great state, to put these honored and priceless treasures. In rooms near them are the written records of these soldiers' deeds; their enlistment papers; their discharges--Ah, too oft the records of their deaths. No patriot looking upon them but his heart will throb faster and truer; and no recollection of the war but will call up the memory of those two great patriots and public servants, Adjutant-General Baker and Governor Kirkwood, who put these records here, and who did more than all other public men of Iowa to make the path of an Iowa soldier a path of honor. Near by, too, stands that noble monument erected by a grateful people in honor of what these men did to save their country. What trio of war could more appropriately be together--these blood-stained flags, these glorious records--this monument of bronze and stone? And when gazing on them, let no future patriot forget the words of that great war governor when he said, "The heroism of our soldiers has made it a proud privilege to be a citizen of Iowa."
That many of these war flags had been preserved to be honored on this great occasion had been due to the patriotic thoughtfulness of an Iowa woman. When Senator John H. Gear was governor of Iowa, his wife saw these flags being destroyed by dust and time. With her own hands and with the aid of a few friends she tenderly covered each one with a fabric that should protect them and hold them together. The act was typical of the universal patriotism of Iowa women in war times. The women of Iowa made many of these flags, and with tears and blessings gave them to husbands, brothers, sons, and lovers to carry into the war for the preservation of the country.
It is the proud satisfaction of a whole people to know that these flags were never dishonored--that they were bravely, nobly borne through four years of terrible conflict, and at last returned to the state stained with the patriotic blood of heroes.
These flags belong to the women of the state not less than to the men. Their unrecorded sacrifices were not of blood, but of human hearts. Let them, too, share in the glory that these illustrious flags cast upon the state.
Last update: Sun Dec 24 00:57:33 CST 1995