Of all the guests attending an incredible patriotic celebration held by the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment in early 1864, the greatest and loudest acclaim went to the general’s lady who started running an American flag up a 100-foot flagpole.
Commanded by Col. John D. Rust, the 8th Maine spent winter 1864 on Port Royal Island in South Carolina. Now home to Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station and the gateway to Parris Island, the island’s garrison then comprised the Maine boys, the 56th New York (Capt. Eliphas Smith), a 55th Pennsylvania detachment (Capt. James S. Nesbit), the 1st South Carolina (Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson), and Battery D, 1st U.S. Artillery (Lt. John S. Gibbs).
The overall commander was Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, a lesser known Civil War figure despite his receiving the Medal of Honor for meritorious conduct while leading the Harper’s Ferry garrison in late May 1862. A Deerfield Academy (Massachusetts) and West Point (’49) graduate, Saxton had served in the artillery (among other antebellum duties) in the antebellum army.
Assigned as the chief quartermaster at Hilton Head, S.C., Saxton stayed in the Southeast. Vehemently opposed to slavery, he received War Department approval to recruit former slaves for the 1st South Carolina, the first black regiment officially approved for army service on the East Coast. He insisted that regimental command go to Higginson, who with five other equally die-hard abolitionists had funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
For a reason unknown, Rust decided to schedule an official flag-raising ceremony on Port Royal Island in mid-winter 1864. The event took place on a Wednesday; based on the story published by The Ellsworth American late that month, the ceremony occurred no later than February 17, 1864.
“The day was as bright, beautiful and warm as in June” up North, observed a correspondent for The New South, the Port Royal-based newspaper published by Union postmaster Joseph H. Sears. Rust ensured that all the local muckymucks got an invite, and The New South’s first-person account suggests that Sears attended the soiree.
Arriving at Rust’s headquarters tent “about eleven” a.m., the guests “formed in a line and marched to the flag-staff[,] which was about 100 feet high and beautifully wreathed with evergreen,” the reporter noted. Soldiers had cut down a massive Southern pine, smoothed its trunk, and carefully raised the resulting flag pole into place just for this occasion.
Forming a hollow (three-sided) square around the flag pole, guests’ seats, and a speaker’s platform “covered with a carpet of the soft grey Southern moss,” the 8th Maine lads executed a precision “present arms” holding that position as an army chaplain delivered “an earnest prayer.”
Already fastened to its halyard, the American flag lay on the moss as Matilda Gordon Saxton (Rufus Saxton’s wife) stepped forward and started to run the flag up the pole. “She did [so] bravely and heroically as far as her strength would permit,” noticed the reporter, and then her husband “stepped forward to give the aid of his stronger muscle.
“Our brave stars and stripes were soon waving loyally and gracefully in the breeze,” the journalist said.
Thunder echoed across Beaufort Island as 35 cannons fired a salute, and a band broke into “sweet, patriotic music.” No such ceremony would be complete without the customary speeches, so up first stepped Higginson.
He kept his speech mercifully “short … eloquent and humourous.” Addressing the host regiment, he said “that though he had never faced the 8th Maine before, he had faced the enemy with them [in Florida], and if they would stand by him now as they did then[,] he had nothing more to ask,” the journalist reported.
“Greeted with enthusiastic cheers,” Saxton spoke next, “delivered an earnest and patriotic address,” and commented on the flag pole, comparing its height to Maine’s “own mighty forests.” The American flag stood “far above the puny palmetto,” and Saxton hoped that one day “from Maine to Texas we had one flag.”
At least five other speakers followed him, each man evidently “inspired by the occasion” as they “delivered eloquent and appropriate addresses,” the journalist said. Rust had wisely interspersed “vocal and instrumental music” between various speakers.
When the last speech faded in the Low Country air, the 8th Maine heartily cheered for President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and Matilda Saxton “for raising the flag” (she received six separate cheers). The Maine boys cheered “for the dear ones at home,” and “all parties’ participating in “a closing cheer.”
Swept up in the moment, “Rust proposed three cheers for all on our side,” the journalist reported, claiming that “it was responded to by eleven hundred throats and was followed by an immense ‘tiger.’”
With the flag raised, Rufus and Matilda Saxton led the guests “across the drill ground to a beautifully decorated impromptu dining room which seemed to have sprung up by magic during the night,” noted the journalist. After enjoying “the variety and abundance of good cheer” spread on many tables, the guests moved to benches placed “under some grand old oaks” to watch athletic contests.
The celebration ended at 4:30 p.m. “Guests began to depart,” said the eaves-dropping journalists, “and exclamations of delight and pleasure were heard on all sides.”
Sources: Flag-raising at the 8th Maine Camp, The Ellsworth American, Friday, February 26, 1864; War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 35, part 1, p. 465
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