Monday, September 12, 2011

Part 2 of flag returned 147 years later: Savannah militia units were caught up in war fever

Last month, the Picket reported on a descendant of a Union officer returning a captured flag to Fort McAllister, Ga., which defended Savannah during the Civil War. The flag belonged to the Emmett Rifles, a volunteer militia company. This installment provides a closer look at the Rifles and the Republican Blues, with whom they served.

What a parade it was. Onlookers lined the streets of Manhattan, curious about these dashing young men who had just arrived from the South.

Dressed in woolen uniforms and toting knapsacks, Savannah’s Republican Blues marched smartly to the sounds of their own band as they made a grand entrance, writes Jacqueline Jones, author of “Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War.”

The venerable volunteer militia unit enjoyed all that New York society could offer that week in July 1860. As guests of the New York Light Guards, the company wined and dined, marched, drilled and enjoyed ceremonial dinners and receptions. Their tall plumed bearskin hats, dark blue dress coats and white pants made them look almost regal.

The Republican Blues, the New York Times gushed, boasted “some of the wealthiest and most honored citizens of Savannah.”

At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for exclusive companies to travel to other cities, where they enjoyed the camaraderie of their fellow armed and uniformed volunteers. After all, Jones writes, white elites of the North and South shared kinship and educational and business ties.

The Blues sailed back to Savannah to find a region in turmoil, martial spirit growing as the country began to split. The election of a Republican president appeared more and more likely. Abolitionists railed against slavery as Southern politicians defended states rights.

A rush to enlist in the militias

One of the oldest and renowned militias in Savannah, the Blues had a rich history.

They saw service in Florida during the War of 1812.

“The unit’s members were professional, well-drilled, and prepared to defend the nation, the Constitution, their state, and their community,” writes Roger S. Durham in “The Blues in Gray.”

“Over the years, membership in the Republican Blues became a tradition passed from father to son, from generation to generation, and as such, the ties that bound these men together became very strong,” according to Durham.

Volunteer militia units, largely made up by immigrant groups, particularly the Irish, saw their ranks swell in the months leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.

In the summer of 1860, young men rushed to join the Blues, Oglethorpe Light Infantry, Georgia Hussars, the Jasper Greens, Montgomery Guards, among other companies – and a new group, the Emmett Rifles.

Augustus Bonaud, a Frenchman from Marseilles, organized the Emmett Rifles and served as its commander for more than two years.

“They were more or less formed in the war fever,” said Jim Dunigan, 31, of Savannah, who participates in the Republican Blues and Emmett Rifles (left) living history group programs at Fort McAllister and other locations.

The Blues were among the better trained and professional of the militia units, akin to the National Guard of today.

Jones depicts prewar Savannah as a city determined to uphold its society and plantation-based economy.

“Together, with the fire companies, the militias provided white men with the near-universal experience of parading and drilling, and provided many bankers and hotel keepers with the title of lieutenant or colonel – testament to the overwhelming physical force that undergirded the system of slavery,” she writes.

In November 1860, Jones writes, the Blues unveiled a secession flag. Imprinted on the flag was a coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

The drums of war were quickening.

Militia companies, part of the First Regiment Georgia Volunteers, seized Fort Pulaski (right) in early 1861 shortly before Georgia voted to secede from the union.

But after the fall of Hilton Head, S.C., Confederate coastal strategy was rethought. Savannah could be defended, but Georgia cities such as Darien and Brunswick, closer to Union warships, could not. Georgia’s barrier islands were abandoned in late 1861.

Durham’s book features the Civil War journal of William Daniel Dixon, a leader in the showcase Blues.

After firing the first shots in defense in Georgia and serving at Pulaski and Tybee Island, the Blues were deployed to Fort Jackson, on the edge of Savannah. They were soon joined by the Emmett Rifles.

Drilling, drilling and more drilling

The Rifles comprised between 50 and 95 members throughout the war. Although they first believed they would serve in the infantry, the company, like the Blues, served as artillerymen at Jackson and, later, at Fort McAllister, the vital fort southwest of Savannah on the Ogeechee River.

Service was not easy. Malaria and other diseases were prevalent, stalking soldiers and civilians like. Daily routines included mustering and drilling.

The dreariness of garrison duty and other distractions occasionally took their toll. Dixon’s journal provides accounts of drunkenness, absence without leave and desertion. According to Dunigan, the Emmetts did not maintain their equipment well and were not considered an elite unit.

Still, "they gave (of) themselves for the defense of the city," Dunigan told the Picket.

"They were not tested in combat until the naval attacks at Fort McAllister and to all accounts they stood up to it manfully, shoulder to shoulder with the Blues," according to Durham.

At Fort Jackson, on April 4, 1862, four months before they were sent to McAllister in the first of two deployments, the Rifles hosted a group of Savannah women who had supported the troops.

Officers of the company “drafted resolutions expressive of our thanks to our lady friends for their kindness shown towards the Company,” according to an article in the April 7, 1862, issue of the Daily Morning News of Savannah.

“We tender to Miss Mary Knox our sincerest thanks for the beautiful banner presented by her to the company.”

The banner was the flag returned earlier this year to Fort McAllister.

The newspaper also made note of “Glorious News from the West.” Confederate forces garnered a decisive victory against the Federals at Corinth, Miss., according to the article.

The fighting coincided with the Battle of Shiloh, which Dixon wrote was a complete victory for the South. Historians consider the outcome essentially a Union victory.

On Dec. 13, 1864, shortly before Savannah fell, the Emmett Rifles would lose their flag to a Union officer who fought at Shiloh.

Credits: Sketch of Republican Blues in camp appeared in Harper's Weekly; photo of Emmett Rifles living history group, courtesy of Jim Dunigan; newspaper article, courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

READ PART 3: The man who returned the flag, William Zoron Clayton, was wounded at Shiloh, led a full life.

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