16th CT & 101st PA Colors at Plymouth, NC
The following information sheds light on the story of the 16th Connecticut & 101st Pennsylvania Colors during the Battle of Plymouth. It also shows how the 101st PA should be forever thankful for the bravery of Corporal Ira Forbes, Co. A, 16th CT; and how a small token of their appreciation was given to him.
First, a history of the 16th CT’s colors are presented here from History of Battle Flag Day, Sept. 17, 1879 published by Lockwood and Merritt, Hartford, Connecticut, 1880. It is the complete story of the day all of the Connecticut Civil War battle flags were taken from storage and put on exhibit in cases in the new State Capitol building in Hartford. The following is from pages 131-135:
“The colors of the Sixteenth regiment were torn from their standards at the fall of Plymouth, N.C., April 20, 1864, and in part distributed among the officers and men, while the remaining portions were burned to prevent them from falling into the hands of the rebels. The pieces that were saved were carried through the military prisons at the South, and finally, on the release of the members who survived the horrors of Andersonville, Macon, Charleston, and Florence, were brought home. The few shreds of the old colors, which were saved from the Confederates at Plymouth, and the disasters of prison life afterwards, have been kept as sacred souvenirs by their possessors. A few months ago the executive committee of the regiment determined on getting together as many of these fragments as possible and have them restored, that they might be deposited with the battle flags at the Capitol. The rescue of the colors involved the carrying of them across an open tract, from four to five rods in width, under the enemy’s fire. A bunch of a hundred men or more surrounded them. Within a few feet stood two light artillery guns, one of which had been spiked during a charge from the rebels on the position. The dead and wounded were grouped here, and the enemy had opened on the spot with grape and canister. From the State color, which was carried by Sergt. William E. Bidwell of East Hartford, the silver ornaments surmounting the standard had been cut away by a fragment of shell, and had fallen at his feet. Sergt. Francis Latimer of Hartford carried the national color, which he had eighteen months before gallantly borne off the field at Antietam, and from which he had ever afterwards been inseparable. During this crisis, the most memorable moment in the battle of Plymouth, the flags were called for by the officers of the regiment, Col. John H. Burnham and Adjutant John B. Clapp, who were directing the contest at the right of the line, while Maj. H. L. Pasco, with four companies of the Sixteenth Regiment and one company of the Eighty-fifth New York Infantry, was fighting on the left. Sergeant Latimer instantly obeyed the order, bearing the National color across the perilous spot commanded by the enemy’s infantry and artillery fire. The State color was carried across by Ira E. Forbes, a member of the color-guard, and both were placed in the hands of the officers. The National color of the One Hundred and First Pennsylvania regiment still remained, and that was called for by the officer in command. Color-Guard Forbes of the Sixteenth volunteered to go for it, and did so, bringing it back in safety, thus running the risk of his life three times in succession for the flags that had been called for. An hour later, the Union forces at Plymouth were in the hands of the rebels, but the colors, which they had defended till the last moment, were either burned or existing in shreds and precious bits here and there among the men. The restored flag of the Sixteenth is made up from these invaluable remnants.
Sergt.-Maj. Robert H. Kellogg of the Sixteenth, at present Representative in the State Legislature from the town of Manchester, has published within a few days an interesting sketch of the siege of Plymouth and the rescue of the Sixteenth’s colors, from which the following extract is taken:
“It is not necessary to recount the history of the three days’ fight. The place was defended with the utmost gallantry, but one redoubt after another was carried by assault, until on Wednesday morning, April 20th, it was evident that our troops could hold out but a few hours longer. The attempt of the rebels to carry the town by a grand assault in the gray of early morning had been partially repulsed; but they had forced their way into the streets fronting the river, and now from the houses in our rear poured upon us a hot fire. Completely surrounded and exposed to a trying cross-fire, every fort in possession of the enemy except Fort Williams or the citadel, the position of the Union troops was now desperate. All demands for surrender had thus far been met with steady refusal by General Wessells. After the last flag of truce from the enemy had returned to their lines, bearing a refusal to the demand for surrender, a tremendous fire of musketry and artillery was opened on the Union line, and the rebels with their characteristic yells were now swarming through the streets of the town, pouring into the camps and pressing every advantage with the confidence of victory near at hand.
It was at this juncture, with every hope of escape destroyed, that the color-guard of the Sixteenth, at the extreme right of the line, sheltered from the enemy’s fire behind an artillery platform, shouted to Lieutenant-Colonel Burnham, who was in command of the regiment, to know what should be done with the colors. The reply came, ‘Strip them from the staff and bring them here.’ To tear each flag from its staff was the work of a moment, but who should carry them through that pelting hail of bullets? It required brave men, and they were not wanting. Color-Sergeant Francis Latimer took the national color, and Color-Corporal Ira E. Forbes the State flag, and crossing the most exposed part of the field under a heavy fire, safely delivered them to Col. Burnham. It was a brave deed, gallantly done. Corporal Forbes returned and safely brought back the flag of the One Hundred and First Pennsylvania regiment.”
The story of the preservation of the colors is now widely known. The strips, torn into shreds, were distributed among the members of the regiment, and concealed in various ways throughout the weary days of their imprisonment in Andersonville, Charleston, Florence, Salisbury, and other prison-pens. These pieces, now gathered from widely-scattered sources and tastefully combined, form the restored colors of the Sixteenth Connecticut. Of the two members of the color-guard who risked their lives for the preservation of the colors, Mr. Ira E. Forbes of the Evening Post of this city, alone survives. Color-Sergeant Latimer died about a year since.’ The full color-guard of the Sixteenth at Plymouth consisted of Sergeants Latimer and Bidwell, and Corporals Lauren C. Mills of Canton, Charles G. Lee of Guilford, Hiram D. Williams of Hartford, John B. Bartholomew of Bristol, and Ira E. Forbes of East Hartford. Mills was wounded during the engagement and died April 28, 1864. Williams died at Andersonville, and Lee, after months of imprisonment at Andersonville and Charleston, perished near Wilmington, N.C., while passing through the lines on his way to be exchanged.
The following are excerpts from the diary of Corporal Ira E. Forbes, a member of the 16th CT Colorguard, located at the Civil War Manuscripts Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
April 20, 1864:
“A fine morning. About an hour before daylight the enemy charged our works, capturing the redoubts on the Columbia Road, and obtained possession of the town, but not of the troops. Our men fought with the utmost bravery, and against overwhelming odds. We still have Fort Williams. The enemy have advanced in heavy line[?] obtained possession of the 101st P.V. Camp, but we charged them and drove them back into ours[?] of the captured forts. Corp. [Lauren C.] Mills was severely wounded. I escaped unharmed. One of the battery men was shot dead almost instantly. He fell over beside me. Gen. Wisuls[Wessells] with one of his commanding officers have had a parley with the rebel Gen [Hoke] in reference to our surrendering his forces. Gen. W- would not surrender. The engagement renewed. At length, about 10 A.M., the enemy gained possession of the breastworks, and the troops surrendered after having struggled with the utmost gallantry to maintain their positions. We were marched to a field outside the works and numbered. This had been a dull P.M. to me. I have written a few words to mother which I hope to send as soon as we arrive in Richmond if not before. It looks like rain this evening. Many of our men are without blankets and all are obliged to lie down on the cold wet ground with no shelter above them.”
[Interestingly, Forbes doesn’t mention his heroic act of rescuing both the State color of the 16th CT & the National color of the 101st PA.]
May 31, 1864 at Andersonville:
[in part] “I have received a small piece of the 101st battle flag to-day. Given to me by Sergt Boots, and has been in several engagements - at Williamsburg, Fair Oaks, in the Seven days’ fight before Richmond, on the Blackwater, at Kingston and finally at Plymouth where it ended its career gloriously.”
The gift of a piece of the 101st PA National flag to a 16th CT soldier by itself is interesting, but now you know the rest of the story! It was a gift of gratitude! We also now know that at least small parts of the 101st PA’s National colors made it out of Plymouth!! To date, there has been no information regarding the fate of the Regimental State Colors of the 101st PA, but it is assumed that they were destroyed as well, so as not to fall into the enemy's hands.
Robert H. Kellogg, 16th CT carried a fragment of the 16th CT flag in a locket.