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NT: May 2, 1889 National Tribune: Planting the Flag at Fort Harrison, Sept. 29

SOPO Editor’s Note: This article has been transcribed by Brett Schulte.



What Our Veterans Have to Say About Their Old Campaigns.




Col. [Cecil] Clay [58th PA] Again Makes Claim to Planting the First Flag.

EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: In your paper of March 22, 1888, you printed a description I wrote of the capture of Fort Harrison on Sept. 29, 1864, by the First Division, Eighteenth Corps. This was written after having twice, by authority of the Secretary of War, gone over all the papers in the War Department bearing on the action, and made up a tabulated list of killed and wounded from the nominal casualty lists, and after much correspondence, extending over years, with officers and men of both sides who were at the fight. People continued, however, to fire “Random Shots,” and in reply to one of those I wrote a letter, printed in your issue of May 24, 1888, in which I said: “The only reason I take any notice of this is, because I wish to attract the attention of the numerous readers of your valuable paper to the loose way in which people make statements as to events and persons about which they know nothing, and for which they have no authority.” This, repeated with more emphasis, is why I notice an article in the “Picket Shots” column of your issue of Oct. 18, 1888, which only recently came to my attention, along with several other numbers accumulated while I was on my fall hunt and while busy on my return, in which C. W. Clayberger, Co. G, 188th P[ennsylvania]., says W. L. Graul planted the first flag on Fort Harrison, and mentions as eye-witnesses “Col. Given, Serg’t Dennison and Private Clayberger,” defies anyone to meet the 188th “at Fort Harrison and prove who is right about this matter,” and says I am mistaken, “for Serg’t Graul planted the blue State flag of the 188th P[ennsylvani]a long before the Stars and Stripes appeared on the fort.” That he is one of the persons I mention above is apparent upon reading what he says in THE NATIONAL TRIBUNE of a week or two later, where he explains that “what he intended to say was that Corp’l Graul planted the Stars and Stripes on the fort long before the blue State flag was handed to him.” Everybody in our brigade knew at the time that the blue State flag of the 188th P[ennsylvani]a was the first flag on Fort Harrison, and that I, of the 58th P[ennsylvani]a., carried it there. By the time the flag was, as Clayberger says, “handed to him,” which was after I had carried it in and was done with it, there were plenty of flags in the fort. It is not necessary to go to Fort Harrison to determine so simple a matter. My account of the fight was not published as a part of any petty controversy going on among the lot of the “Random Shots” people, but to give them information on a subject as to which they betrayed much ignorance, and save their further waste of time over it. For the satisfaction of Mr. Clayberger and the “eye-witnesses,” I will be glad if you will publish the accompanying affidavit.—CECIL CLAY, (formerly Colonel 58th Pa.,) Brevet Brigadier-General, Washington, D. C.


I, Cecil Clay, do swear that on the 29th day of September, A. D. 1864, I was a Captain in the 58th P[ennsylvani]a in the service of the United States, and was with my command at Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] Farm, Va., on that day, and was the senior officer present with the regiment during the assault on Fort Harrison. The Division (the First Division, Eighteenth Corps) was formed in three columns, each of the three brigades being in column by division, with a regiment in line at the head. The 58th P[ennsylvani]a. was in line at the head of the Third Brigade column. Fort Harrison was rectangular; three sides protected by a large ditch and heavy parapet, the rear or fourth side open so as to be commanded from the next line; a huge traverse dividing the interior into two equal parts. The Third Brigade was on the right of the Division, and struck the fort on the angle furthest from the river, so that the 58th [Pennsylvania] in line overlapped the angle, swung around to the left and went over the parapet. The first two men of the brigade who mounted the parapet were Billy Bourke, of Co. B, 58th P[ennsylvani]a, and I. We climbed up high enough to look over and see a number of men standing ready to fire, when a shot struck Billy across the forehead, he fell over against me and we both rolled back into the ditch. The blood ran into Billy’s eyes so that he could not see, and I then took from him the blue State flag of the 188th P[ennsylvani]a., which he had carried when we first climbed the parapet, having picked it up when its proper bearer was shot, and climbed the parapet, he pushing and helping me.  Meantime Private Otis Copeland, of Co. F, and Lieut. Johnson, of the 58th [Pennsylvania], had climbed up ahead of me. Copeland was shot and killed; Johnson, already hit in one arm, was shot in the other, jumped down inside the fort, took the first two prisoners taken there, and was then knocked down by a shot in the breast. I received two wounds while on the parapet, and when I jumped down on the banquette, a third. When Copeland, Johnson and I mounted the parapet not another person was to be seen on it. A few minutes after I received my third wound I stopped Serg’t Nathaniel McKown, of Co. B, 58th P[ennsylvani]a, and asked him to cut off my gloves and sleeves and see how much damage had been done. While he was doing that I stood the flag against the parapet close to us, and it stood there for some time before it was turned over to the 188th [Pennsylvania] people. Serg’t McKown, in a recent letter to me, says, after stating that I carried the first flag on the work: “It was the State flag of the 188th P[ennsylvani]a. At that time he [Cecil Clay] was severely wounded. * * * While I was cutting his gloves off from his bleeding arms it was leaning against the parapet. * * * The colors of the 188th P[ennsylvani]a. was there by my side for some little time before they called for it. In a letter addressed to Gen. Ord, dated Dec. 30, 1879, I stated that at Fort Harrison “I carried in the first color.” Gen. Weitzel indorsed on this: “Jan. 12, 1880.—Dear General: *** He did all that he claims to have done. * * * Yours, truly, G. Weitzel.” Gen. Weitzel took command of the corps not long after Gen. Ord was wounded, having hurried up from Fortress Monroe, and knew all about this matter. On Jan. 31, 1884, Gen. S[amuel]. H. Roberts, who as colonel of the 39th N[ew]. Y[ork]. commanded the Third Brigade at Fort Harrison, wrote me a long letter about the action, in which he said: “The Third Brigade was the first in the work, and you took the first Union flag upon the breastworks, which happened to be the one belonging to the 188th P[ennsylvani]a. * * * These are all plain facts, which no one would have thought of denying at the time.”             CECIL CLAY.

Sworn to and subscribed before me this 28th day of March, A. D. 1889.

[SEAL.] FRANK A. BRANAGAN, Notary Public.1

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  1. Clay, Cecil. “Fighting Them Over…Fort Harrison.” National Tribune 2 May 1889. 4:1.
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