In the first great victory for the North, this fine example fell into the hands of Union troops, specifically Sergeant R. F. Larimer (as noted in an Adjutant General’s report), about whom we know quite a lot. Born in Scioto County, Ohio on October 27, 1838 he began farming with his brother, eventually purchasing a half-interest in a sawmill. After the outbreak of the war, in August 1861 he rushed out to join an elite unit being formed at Paris, Illinois, Birge’s Western Sharpshooters, later named the 66th Illinois Infantry. One had to be an able marksman to make it into the unit led by Colonel John W. Birge as it was soon off to war and action at the Battle of Fort Donelson.
The 18th Tennessee Infantry was there waiting. Mustered into service the same month as their adversaries in the 66th Illinois, the Tennessee forces were under the command of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner. In the early afternoon of February 14, 1862 the Federal ironclads St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Carondelet began shelling the fort. Using the eleven big guns in their water batteries, the southern forces repulsed the gunboat fleet under the command of Union flag officer Andrew H. Foote, wounding Foote during the retreat.
The southern celebration was short-lived. The Union infantry, led by General Ulysses S. Grant was being reinforced, quickly cutting off the Confederates’ possible escape route from the fort. Seizing the opportunity to evacuate some of the troops, Confederate Generals John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Bushrod Johnson left Buckner in command and took some 2,000 men and headed toward Nashville. Confederate Cavalryman Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest led additional troops across the Lick River to safety. Seeing this, Grant retook any ground lost earlier and demanded the surrender of the fort. Vastly outnumbered and seemingly doomed, General Buckner asked for terms of the surrender. Grant would reply that there would only be one type of surrender that day, “unconditional.” From that day the 18th Tennessee and their comrades were taken prisoner and their flag captured, Ulysses S. Grant would be the first hero of the Union with a new nickname, “U. S.” (unconditional surrender) Grant. It was at this point that Sergeant Larimer came into possession of the flag seen here today.
The members of the 18th Tennessee would spend seven months in Union prisoner of war camps until exchanged to fight again. They had lost 52 men at Fort Donelson but would lose hundreds more later on at Chickamauga and other battles before being paroled in May 1865.
This elegant Confederate First National flag, the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, is constructed of two layers of silk. The overall dimensions are 59″ on its hoist and 106″ on its fly. The blue canton measures 39.25″ on the hoist and 34.5″ on the fly. The canton is decorated with eight five-pointed stars arranged in a circle of seven with the eighth star in the center. The stars are appliquéd to each side of the canton using a lockstitch machine on the obverse, the reverse using hand stitching. The stars measure 5.25″ to 5.5″ across their points. The flag’s field is composed of three horizontal silk bars, the upper red one measuring 19.625″ wide, the center white and 19.5″ wide and the lower red one 19.75″ wide. All are hand sewn and hemmed around the periphery of the flag. Thirteen pairs of faded red silk ties, each about .875″ wide and about 5″ long are equally spaced for use in securing the flag to its staff. In the center of the bottom bar on each side is appliquéd a 1.5″ x 9.375″ white cotton label stamped with “CAPTURED AT FORT DONALDSON [sic],/ BY R. F. LARIMER, FEBRUARY, 1862.”
The flag has been researched and authenticated by Howard Madaus, the distinguished expert and author on Civil War flags. It has been conserved by Fonda Thomson and is housed in a protective archival frame for display by Thomson as well. An archive of research concerning the flag, both regiments and Sergeant Larimer accompanies the banner. Sergeant Larimer fought on throughout the South’s bloodiest battles, his younger brother being killed at Kennesaw Mountain. His application for an invalid pension after the war states his reasons for disability as “rheumatism and heart disease contracted at Fort Donelson in 1862.” He died in 1908.