Tuesday, December 29, 2020

'Lucky enough': How young officer captured flag at Nashville

A war-time image of 5th Minnesota officer Thomas Parke Gere and the restored
 4th Mississippi flag he captured at the Battle of Nashville. It's in the Mississippi Department
of Archives and History collection.

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Supremely confident but not cocky, 22-year-old U.S. Army officer Thomas Gere bounded past grim-faced paper-pushers at the War Department, the gloomy brick building a two-minute walk from the White House. The date was Feb. 22, 1865, a bright, chilly day a little more than two months after George "Pap" Thomas' Army of the Cumberland bludgeoned John Bell Hood's tattered Army of Tennessee at Nashville. 

War Department in Washington, near the White House
and across from Lafayette Square, during the Civil War.
(The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division
of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection,
The New York Public Library
A lieutenant and adjutant in the 5th Minnesota, Gere was joined by 14 other bronze-faced U.S. Army soldiers -- each was based in Tennessee, at least one had served in the Mexican War, and all but two captured an enemy flag at the Battle of Nashville (Dec. 15-16, 1864). 

Eagerly anticipating the day's event, the soldiers pushed through a massive, green leather door and filed into the War Department's large reception room. Members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, and other guests -- roughly 100 in all -- stood in a horseshoe formation steps from the men. Displays of upright muskets near the walls gave the setting a distinct martial air. 

Conversations abruptly stopped when a short, square-shouldered man entered the room. Standing between the two groups, 50-year-old Edwin Stanton -- Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War --  read Special Field Orders No. 38, issued two weeks earlier by Thomas. Go to Washington, the "Sledge of Nashville" ordered, for a special ceremony in honor of your capture of Rebel flags.  
War-time image of Edwin Stanton,
Lincoln's Secretary of War.
(Library of Congress)
Then the bearded and bespectacled Stanton read aloud the names of the soldiers:

Corporal J.W. Parks, 11th Missouri.

Private W. May, 32nd Iowa.

Private G. Stokes, 122nd Illinois ... 

Finally, he summoned Gere, the soldier in charge of the detachment from Tennessee. Holding his tattered Battle on Nashville trophy, the young officer eyed his impressive audience.

"Mr. Secretary,” Gere began, “I have the honor and pleasure to present to you the colors of the 4th Mississippi Infantry, C. S. A.” 

How he "captured" the flag was a combination of guts, valor of subordinates ... and a lot of luck.    

An illustration of Fort Ridgley, in Minnesota Territory, as it appeared in 1862.

Thomas Parke Gere's introduction to warfare came as a teenager in Minnesota Territory -- Indian country.

In August 1862, Gere temporarily took over command of Fort Ridgley from John S. Marsh, who apparently drowned after he was wounded in battle against Indians. Marsh had left the small outpost with roughly 50 other soldiers from Company B of the 5th Minnesota to investigate an attack at the Lower Sioux Agency, where eastern Sioux murdered some of the White settlers. Barely a quarter of the soldiers returned from the mission.

A circa-1863 photo of Thomas Gere.
"The Indians are killing the settlers and plundering the country," Gere wrote Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey. "Send reinforcements without delay." The second lieutenant in Company B was four months shy of his 20th birthday. 

Mature well beyond his years, Gere wrote a letter weeks later to Marsh's brother regarding the recovery of John's remains. "[The body] had caught in the roots of an old tree" along the bank of the Yellow Medicine River, he told Captain Josiah F. Marsh. "He was recognized by his uniform. The body was in a remarkable state of preservation. His right arm was lying across his breast; the left was behind his body.

"You are aware that Lieutenant [James G.] McGrew and myself have made every effort to have a proper search made long before this but were unsuccessful until now," continued Gere. "It is a great relief to know that he is at last found."

Later that year, companies B, C and D of the 5th Minnesota joined the rest of the regiment in the South. In May 1863, Gere and his comrades were marching and fighting in Mississippi during the Vickburg Campaign. In Nathaniel Banks' 1864 Red River Campaign in Louisiana, the 5th Minnesota guarded supply trains, served as a rear guard, and fought in such godforsaken places as Yellow Bayou, Campti, and Sabine Cross Roads. Later, this Swiss Army knife of a regiment served in Alabama and Arkansas.

"Composed of hardy frontier citizens, long accustomed to hardship and privation, probably no finer organization has ever been sent into the field," a Minnesota newspaper wrote when most of the regiment was furloughed in July 1864.

Five months later, the 5th Minnesota would face its supreme test of the war. 
Battle map shows advance of three Union brigades on Dec. 16, 1864. The 5th Minnesota
was in Lucius Hubbard's brigade.  (Battle of Nashville Trust via Guide to Civil War Nashville)

In the cavernous room at the War Department, Gere emphasized his capture of the 4th Mississippi colors was a team effort. 

"[It] was due, and should be credited, to the valor of the soldiers of [Lucius] Hubbard's Brigade, [John] McArthur's Division of A. J. Smith's detachment," the slender, earnest-looking officer told the dignitaries. "It was the result of the final charge upon the enemy's works by that invincible command in the second day's battle. Every soldier who participated in that assault shares the credit of the captured colors."

8th Wisconsin Lieutenant William Sargent
was killed at Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864.
"Words cannot express our sorrow!" Thomas Gere
wrote about his death. This is Sargent's marker
in Janesville, Wis. (Find A Grave)

At about 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 16, 1864 -- Day 2 of the battle -- three brigades from Smith's division were among Federal forces that attacked Confederate works at Compton Hill (Shy's Hill), the extreme left flank of Hood's army. (See map above.) Under relentless fire, the 5th Minnesota and the rest of Hubbard's brigade advanced through a muddy cornfield toward a line of Confederates behind a stone wall protected by abatis and a ditch.

Still reeling from their Day 1 whipping and overwhelmed by a numerically superior U.S. Army, the exhausted and hungry Rebels fled; hundreds became prisoners. ".. the most complete rout of the enemy that I have ever witnessed," Gere told his War Department audience.

When he reached the Rebel works on the east side of Granny White Pike, Gere's horse wouldn't cross the abatis and stone wall. While Federals advanced to his right, he spotted the 4th Mississippi flag-bearer fleeing to the Union rear without his colors. Gere couldn't reach the flag, so he ordered the soldier to leap back over the wall and hand him the prized war trophy. Perhaps the officer's waving of a loaded revolver compelled him to deliver it ASAP.

In a short entry in his war-time diary, Gere offered further glimpses of the hellish experience:

"... Fearful charge, hundreds fell, but we captured the works with prisoners by thousands 'Twas a fiery ordeal -- I can not attempt to describe it here. The enemy fled and we pursued; a glorious victory."

The 5th Minnesota suffered dozens of casualties in its deadliest battle of the war. Among those killed were Private Lysias Raymond, the married father of girls 1 and 4 years old; Irish-born Patrick Byrnes, whose mother was a widow; and one of Gere's favorites, William Sargent, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the 8th Wisconsin. "Words can not express our sorrow!" he wrote about the death of the English-born officer, who was shot through the heart.

"The fighting was the heaviest in our front," Gere continued in his diary. "It was indeed a desperate thing to go through that storm of grape, canister and musket balls -- we who got through wonder how we escaped! Our feelings can not be described! But we won the victory!"

"I was lucky enough," added Gere, who was wounded slightly in the right wrist on Day 1, "to get the battle flag of the Fourth Mississippi regiment in the charge."

ABOVE AND BELOW: Present-day view of terrain where 5th Minnesota advanced
on Dec. 16, 1864. It's in a residential area off Granny White Pike in Nashville.

The spotlight didn't just shine on Gere that winter day in Washington. After he told his Battle of Nashville story, the other soldiers present recounted the capture of their flags. Not all the stories were teeming with extraordinary heroism.

On Dec. 16, Corporal Frank Carr of the 114th Ohio recaptured a Federal cavalry guidon. He got stuck in abatis when his regiment was forced to retreat. "A fellow came up and asked me to surrender," Carr told Stanton. "I wouldn't do it, but put on my bayonet and was going to stand a fight when the fellow ran and dropped his flag."

A circa-1894 image of Thomas Gere,
who died in 1912. He was buried in
Arlington National Cemetery.
Also on Day 2, Private Wilbur F. Moore captured the colors from a Confederate battery. "The color-bearer was in a small line of rebels," he recalled, "and was trying to climb the hills. I shed my knapsack to go out for him, and captured him and a captain of the same regiment, too."

Each soldier at the ceremony handed his trophy to a Mexican War veteran, who placed the flag atop the display of muskets. "... when the last silken standard had been placed there," according to a post-war account, "the effect was brilliant and thrilling. The varied hues of the rainbow lighted up the sombre apartment in a blaze of color."

Clearly impressed with the soldiers, Stanton shook each man's hand. Then he briefly expressed appreciation.

“In behalf of the Government of the United States I return to you its thanks," he told the soldiers, "and the thanks of the people, for your noble gallantry. Accept also the gratitude of the department for yourselves and companions in arms."

The honorees were granted a 30-day furlough and advanced a month's pay. They later received another award from a grateful government: a Medal of Honor. 

Before they departed the War Department, Gere and his Tennessee detachment saluted Stanton. The man who managed the Union war machine waved back ... and wept.  

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Chatfield (Minn.) Democrat, Oct. 4, 1862.
-- Chicago Tribune, Aug. 25, 1862.
-- Janesville (Wis.) Weekly Gazette, Dec. 22, 1864.
-- New York Daily Herald, Feb. 23, 1865
-- The Bravest 500 of '61, Their Noble Deeds Described by Themselves, compiled by Theo F. Rodenbough, New York: G.W. Dillingham Publishers, 1891.
-- The Goodhue Volunteer, Red Wing, Minn., July 6, 1864.
--Thomas Parke Gere's war-time diary (typewritten copy), Minnesota Historical Society, (Battle of Nashville text courtesy Tim Bode, 5th Minnesota Research Group on Facebook.)


A post-war image of Medal of Honor 
recipient Otis W. Smith and an 
unidentfied woman. He captured a 6th Florida flag
at Nashville.  (Find A Grave)

(Click on links for Find A Grave info)

Lieutenant Thomas Parke Gere, 5th Minnesota
Lieutenant Charles McCleary, 72nd Ohio
Lieutenant Oliver Colwell, 95th Ohio
Lieutenant William T. Simmons, 11th Missouri
Sergeant William Garrett, 41st Ohio
Corporal James W. Parks, 11th Missouri
Corporal Luther P. Kaltenbach, 12th Iowa
Corporal George W. Welch, 11th Missouri 
Corporal Franklin Carr, 124th Ohio
Corporal George Stokes, 122nd Illinois 
Private Otis W. Smith, 95th Ohio
Private William C. May, 32nd Iowa *
Private Andrew Jackson Sloan, 12th Iowa
Private Wilbur F. Moore, 117th Illinois
Private Irving Holcomb, 41st Ohio
Corporal Harrison Collins, 1st Tenn.Cavalry **

* A 7th Minnesota captain disputed the capture of the flag by May. See post on Dan Masters' Civil War Chronicles blog.
** Collins, who was present at the ceremony in Washington on Feb. 22, 1864, received the Medal of Honor for capturing a flag on Christmas Eve 1864 at Richland Creek, Tenn., during Hood's retreat. 

-- Sergeant Alfred Ransbottom of the 97th Ohio attended the Washington ceremony. Ransbottom was honored for "extraordinary heroism" on Nov. 30, 1864, at the Battle of Franklin, where he captured an enemy flag.

Close-up of Medal of Honor awarded to Wilbur F. Moore of the 117th Illinois.
(Library of Congress)


  1. What a moving story. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Amazing story; impeccable research. Thanks, as always, for sharing these little known stories.

  3. Great story and terrific research John. Thanks for making the past come alive! I hope the descendants of these brave men will read this post.