A 19-year-old Maine patriot, Charles Morgan Searles, unknowingly wrote the song that predicted how he would die.
Nineteen when he enlisted in the 21st Maine Infantry Regiment, Searles was a farmer in Chelsea, now home to the Togus VA Hospital. The first among seven nine-month regiments raised in Maine in late summer/early autumn 1862, the 21st Maine headed for Louisiana and evisceration at Port Hudson.
Early in the regiment’s formation, Col. Elijah D. Johnson created a color guard comprising two sergeants and eight corporals, including Searles, who was drawn from Co. K. The sergeants carried the colors, which included the national flag and either the state flag or the regimental flag. The corporals guarded the sergeants and the colors and carried the flags if the sergeants went down during a battle.
On Wednesday, May 27, 1863, the 21st Maine Infantry joined the assault on “the Confederate works” at Port Hudson, La. Perched on a high bluff where the Mississippi River took a wicked turn, the town (such as it was) and upriver Vicksburg were the last two Confederate-held posts on the Father of Waters.
Starting at 6 a.m., Navy warships and the “land batteries” opened a bombardment that battered enemy lines for almost eight hours, wrote Joseph T. Woodward, the regiment adjutant, in his Historic Record and Biographic Roster 21st Me. Vols.
When the Union guns fell silent at approximately 2 p.m., the 21st Maine occupied “a point about one-fourth of a mile” from the enemy lines and “immediately on the left of the road leading from Plains Store to Port Hudson.” Ahead lay the abatis, “the heavy timber … felled” by the Confederates; the cut trees now “lay thickly with interlocked branches, so cut and prepared” to block direct access to the Southern earthworks, Woodward noted.
The Union regiments charged. “Met by grape and canister” and “the effective fire of musketry” as they emerged onto open terrain, the 21st Maine lads ran into the abatis and left “dead and wounded” in their wake.
Advancing “as steadily … as if on parade,” Color Sergeant Hadley P Dyer took a bullet through his wrist. He “folded the wounded arm over the [flag] staff and moved on til a second bullet entered his shoulder,” leaving Dyer mortally wounded, Woodward noted.
Confederate lead shredded the 21st Maine. In the color guard, “Searles, Baker and others … were dangerously hurt,” wrote Woodward, pegging the day’s total Union casualties at 1,915 men.
Searles was “wounded in [the] left side [of his] chest and [in his] lung,” Woodward reported. Evacuated to a Union hospital at Carrolton, La., he died on June 8, 1863. He was buried in a Louisiana cemetery.
Sometime before May 27, Searles wrote an untitled song describing a flag bearer’s responsibilities:
The flag of our country, I hold in my hand. I’ve sworn to protect it wherever I stand.
Though danger surrounds us I’ll raise it on high and stand by the flag till we conquer or die.
The flag of my country I’ll die to protect, for should it be shattered our Union is wrecked.
Then haste to the battle my banner shall wave to share on the hearts of the dauntless and brave.
A word to my mother, one word from her boy may vanish her sorrow and fill her with joy.
Oh do not be weeping for gladly I go, waving my banner in the face of the foe.
Should death be my fortune a comrade of mine will bear on the flag I am forced to resign.
’Tis for God and my country I gladly will go, to bear on the flag in the midst of the foe.
Marching along we are marching along. I’m holding the flag as we are marching along.
’Tis carried by an arm ever faithful and strong and floats on the breeze as we’re marching along.
Sources: poem provided by Brian A. Emery, a Searles descendant and provided to Maine at War by Richard Goyer; Historic Record and Biographic Roster 21st Me. Vols., Joseph T. Woodward, 21st Maine Regimental Association, Charles E. Nash & Sons, Augusta, ME, 1907, pp. 11, 32-22, 241
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.