In January 1868, a Union veteran named Gilbert Bates set out from his Wisconsin farm for Vicksburg, Mississippi, to prove a point and win a bet: that he could safely walk across the post–Civil War South—alone, unarmed, with no money—while carrying the flag of the United States. The effort quickly riveted the attention of Americans everywhere, who weren’t yet sure the country could meaningfully reunite after their fratricidal war. Mark Twain believed Bates would be abused, attacked, possibly even scalped, during this time when the U.S. Army still occupied the South, resentment ran high, and groups like the KKK were spreading terror.
Starting from Vicksburg, Bates walked 1,400 miles through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, through places where Federal soldiers shattered Confederate arms and Sherman’s men razed the land. He was never harmed—and almost always greeted with hospitality, generosity, and celebration. En route, Bates planned to sell photos of himself with the Stars and Stripes to raise money for widows and orphans and eventually called off the bet, which he would’ve lost on a technicality: even though he successfully traveled the South unharmed and reached Washington, DC, in the agreed-upon timeframe, he was not allowed to raise his flag above the U.S. Capitol and had to settle for the unfinished Washington Monument.
This is a deeply researched book that taps into big- and small-town newspaper coverage that described Bates’s journey across the American South and his reception. It recounts the courage of a former soldier who believed strongly in the bonds of Union and Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” and underscores the missed opportunities for a more perfect union.