Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What became of that glorious banner?

William B. Reynolds
In late July of 1862, a group of young men fresh from Kimball Union Academy marched into Lebanon, N.H., under a 5-foot by 8-foot silk banner. The young women of the academy had made it, stitching the legend “Amino et Fide” – “Courageous and Faithful” – in gold letters. The cloth was so thin that, when folded, the flag could fit in a soldier's back pocket.

A student named Helen M. Merrill had presented the flag to the school's new militia company the previous summer. The militia commander at that time was William B. Reynolds, a Vermonter in the Kimball Union class of 1861 who went to war shortly after his graduation. Later, leading the 17th Vermont Volunteers at the battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Reynolds was shot in the chest and killed.

Inscription on the grave of Maj. William B. Reynolds,
who died at age 21 while leading the 17th Vermont at
The Crater. His grave is in Milton. Vt.  
Just after graduation in 1862, 10 members of the graduating class along with eight others joined the Union army. The night of graduation day, the “Amino et Fide” banner was presented to a group of them who were volunteering together. “It was a sad meeting and one never to be forgotten by those present,” Oscar D. Robinson, the class valedictorian and one of the volunteers, wrote later.

These men rode in a wagon to Lebanon and signed up with Company E of the newly forming 9th New Hampshire Volunteers. They lived for 10 days with residents of Lebanon and spent the next 20 in Concord drilling and otherwise acclimating themselves to military life.

Before they knew it, and before they were ready, they were in battle – and not just any battle. They fought at South Mountain and Antietam in mid-September.

I tell this story in Our War, but I do not say what happened to the banner because at the time I knew only part of the story.

Now, thanks to Jane Fielder, the archivist at Kimball Union, I know a good bit more. I hope you’ve read my earlier post about the school, which consists mainly of Fielder’s email to me about the many KUA alumni who went to war. You should also check out her blog on the school website. She tells many stories about Kimball Union during the Civil War, including this post.

The “Amino et Fide” banner was a proud symbol of the solidarity between home-front and war-front during the early years of the war, and Company E wanted to fly it. But before the 9th New Hampshire marched off to South Mountain, the army forbade company flags.

The infantry regiment, comprising 1,000 men, was the army's basic fighting unit. Each regiment flew the national, state and regimental colors. A flag for each of ten companies would cause confusion while reducing a regiment's firepower by 10 rifles.

The Kimball Union boys got together and decided to send their banner and the brass eagle atop its staff to Abel Wood, a professor at the school. They cut the staff to pieces, and each kept a piece.

Oscar D. Robinson, shown as captain
of Company E, cherished the banner
given to the company in 1862.
Robinson, the valedictorian, went out as a sergeant in Company E and returned as the company’s captain at war’s end. He was by then the only living KUA alumnus in the company. His classmate and comrade, Franklin J. Burnham, who also survived the war, had been transferred to another company. Robinson and Burnham roomed together at Dartmouth after the war, both graduating in 1869. Professor Wood kept the silk cord and tassels but gave the banner to Robinson. Burnham got the eagle that had topped the staff. 

Robinson cherished his wartime mementos and wanted future generations to understand what it was like to fight. His letters, epaulets and more are now in the collections of the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College. 

But the flag became his prized possession. Robinson’s postwar career included a quarter century as principal of Albany High School in New York. Each year he displayed the flag on Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays and Memorial Day.

“On those occasions the old flag is always in evidence and greatly revered by all the teachers and pupils,” he wrote. “It is much worn and very frail.” Of its motto he wrote: “No words could better express the sentiment of the boys who carried it forth from the old Academy in the darkest days of the Civil War.”

In fact, the flag meant so much to Robinson that after he died in 1911, it was buried with him.

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