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Why This Civil War Vet Marched Across England With the U.S. Flag

Gilbert Bates toured the South and England on foot in Union uniform, flag in hand.

Gilbert Bates knew what a lack of understanding between people could lead to: violence and war. Bates was a Civil War veteran of the Union's Wisconsin artillery who knew that people were basically good, no matter what the rumors said. If there was an area that was supposed to be hostile and dangerous for Yankees or Americans, Bates would set out to prove the rumors wrong.

And he did so on more than one occasion.

After the Civil War ended, Sgt. Bates returned to his Wisconsin farm. Tensions between North and South were still high, even though the war had resolved the major issues. Northerners and Southerners were still deeply mistrustful toward one another. But Bates knew the South was in the Union for good. The victory had been hard-won, but it was won nonetheless. So when his Wisconsin neighbors began to circulate rumors that the South was rising once more in rebellion and that any Northerner was not safe down there, Bates set out to prove them wrong by marching across the South with the Union flag in hand.

Related: 6 Reasons the Union Won the American Civil War 

Bates's march received so much notoriety at the time that even Mark Twain, the famous American author, wrote of it, predicting that Bates would "get more black eyes, down there among those unreconstructed rebels than he can ever carry along with him without breaking his back." But everyone who predicted his demise found their fears—or hopes—were greatly exaggerated.

Bates walked across the unreconstructed South, some 1,500 miles, through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia to Washington, DC. He didn't arrive on one leg and with an eye missing, as Twain predicted. 

In fact, nearly the polar opposite occurred. Bates received genteel Southern Hospitality everywhere he went, even flying the American flag he carried over the former Confederate capital at Richmond. The only place he wasn't allowed to fly it was over the U.S. Capitol building.

This march led to Bates taking on a bet. A wealthy friend of his bet the flag carrier that he could not do the same march across England without receiving a single insult. Bates, who had an incredible belief in the goodness of his fellow man, took that bet.

Related: 19 Essential Civil War Books 

gilbert bates
  • Sergeant Bates with the flag passing through Richmond.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Relations with England at the time of the Civil War were much different from the "Special Relationship" we enjoy today. In the 1860s, the British were more interested in King Cotton than supporting the Union against its rebels. In many ways, the English Crown supported the Confederacy, if not openly, then as an open secret.

Related: 10 Civil War Battles That Shaped America's Bloodiest Conflict

Still undeterred, Bates marched on foot—in full Union uniform—across the country. He walked some 400 miles from the border of Scotland to London to great fanfare. The English could not support him enough. He never paid for a meal or a place to sleep. By the time he got to London, the crowds swelled so much he had to take a carriage to raise the Stars and Stripes next to the Union Jack.

Upon arriving, he telegrammed his friend, canceling the bet. To Bates, the event was worth more than any sum.

Published on 14 Nov 2019

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