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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003 02:20 pm

"The blood of noble patriots"

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Holden Putnam came to Illinois in the 1850s and was commissioned as a colonel in the 93rd Illinois infantry in 1862. He died in defense of our nation’s flag and the “cause of Civil Liberty” at the Battle of Missionary Ridge on Nov. 25, 1863
Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library

Last October, I picked up Illinois Times and read Job Conger's article, "Dying Colors," about the disposition of the regimental flags that had been on display in the Hall of Flags in the Howlett Building since the 1930s. The subhead read: "Some grand old flags survived the battle, but are losing the war." Due to less-than-optimal storage conditions in the great hall, sunlight, heat and humidity were taking a tremendous toll on the flags, and they have since been removed to a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled storage facility at Camp Lincoln.

At about the same time, I was nosing around the manuscript collection at the Illinois State Historical Library and quite serendipitously ran across a letter that stopped me dead in my tracks for its drama, patriotic tenor and eloquence. The letter is from Lt. Col. Nicholas Buswell, commander of the 93rd Illinois Infantry Volunteer Regiment, and was penned at his HQ at Bridgeport, Ala., on Dec. 20, 1863 to Illinois Governor Richard Yates, Springfield. Accompanying the letter was the regimental flag, just enough of which was left to show that it was once the Stars and Stripes, and it was rent not by heat and humidity, but by shot and shell. If ever a flag deserves a quiet retirement, it is the flag of the 93rd.

The 93rd was organized at Chicago in September 1862 by Col. Holden Putnam, and mustered in the following month, 998 strong. They marched with Grant's army in the Northern Mississippi campaign and first came under fire at Jackson on May 14. They then moved to Vicksburg and endured furious fighting, engaging the rebels at Champion Hill, Miss., along the way. On Nov. 24, they crossed the Tennessee River in the area of Chattanooga and entered the fiercest fighting they had yet seen: the Battle of Missionary Ridge. It was bloodletting on a grand scale, with the armies at times scourging each other from a distance of only 20 yards. More than 100,000 troops fought there; more than 12,000 became casualties during three days of combat. Col. Holden Putnam was one of those killed in action that day.

The letter reads (in part): "Governor: In consideration of the fact that the national colors of this regiment have been so much torn and mutilated in the many engagements through which they have been borne that they are no longer fit for service, we deem it proper to return it to the state, to be preserved among the archives of that Commonwealth, made glorious by the deeds of her sons on many hard fought fields. In returning the 'Old Flag' to you, it may be of interest to state a few of the leading incidents connected with it since it has been in our keeping . . .

"During our first campaign, and through the battle of Jackson, Cpl. James Hickey was color bearer. At Champion Hill, after he had planted the proud standard for the third time . . . the brave Hickey fell. E're the folds of the flag had touched the ground, it was caught by Cpl. A.G. Spellman, who bore it from that time through the fierce contest. Its folds were pierced by 27 bullets, the staff being hit by 4 or 5, cutting it nearly off. In the charge on Tunnel Hill, Nov. 25th, Cpl. Spellman, now Lance Sergeant, after planting the flag within 20 paces of the enemy's works, was severely wounded. Sgt. William P. Erwin now caught it and gallantly planted it again, and was instantly killed. Our brave and lamented Col. Putnam now called out 'Give me the flag!' It was handed him, but alas! While waving it with one hand, as with the other he waved his sword, he fell . . . Cpl. J. Frank Ellis now took it and carried it through the rest of that fearful struggle, and though wounded, carried what was left of it off the field, though more than three quarters of it had been shot away by grape and canister from the enemy's guns . . . . Grand total loss: 316 officers and men.

"With this brief memoranda, we return to you the flag which but little more than a year ago we brought to the field. In parting with it, our feelings are those of pride mingled with sadness; pride, that we are conscious of having borne it with honor not only to ourselves and State, but to the cause in which we are engaged; sadness that so many of our noble companions have fallen in its defense. In sacred memory of them let it be preserved, stained with blood though it be, 'tis the blood of noble patriots, shed in a glorious cause -- the cause of Civil Liberty."

 

The Department of Military Affairs is seeking donations for the restoration project and contributors may earmark a specific flag as the object of their contribution.

 

Cheryl Pence, Mary Michals and Jim Helm of the Illinois State Historical Library assist Bob Cavanagh in researching this column.

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