“To the men of Fort McAllister who bravely fought and died under this flag and never surrendered, I return it back to you. To the state of Georgia, who sent many brave men into battle, I have deeded this flag back over to you. And to you, the good people of Georgia, I have returned this precious flag over to you as part of your heritage. It does not belong on my wall or on anyone else’s; it belongs here at this fort. May it ever rest here in peace.”
Fort McAllister Historic Park celebrated the homecoming of a Confederate battle flag Saturday, nearly 150 years after it was surrendered to Union Maj. William Z. Clayton at the Battle of Fort McAllister.
Robert Clayton, a homebuilder from Maine and the great-grandson of Maj. Clayton, addressed an audience of about 150 at the event and explained the history of the flag and the ancestor who claimed it.
Clayton said he first discovered the flag 20 years ago in a cardboard box in his father’s closet with a handwritten note that said, “To be returned to Savannah or Atlanta sometime.”
He framed the red silk flag, which bears the hand-painted words “Emmet Rifles” and “Fort McAllister” and the dates of two previous battles, and displayed it in his living room until a visit to Fort McAllister in October 2010 prompted him to honor his ancestor’s wish.
“I realized this flag hanging on my wall was just a war trophy and a worthless piece of cloth in my hands, but back in Georgia it had a life of its own,” he said. “This old cloth was soaked with the pride and heroism from the brave men and women of Georgia. It belonged here (Fort McAllister), not hanging on my wall. It needed to go back.”
So Clayton approached Fort McAllister Historic Park Manager Danny Brown and offered to return the flag.
“I said to him, ‘What would you think if I told you I had the Emmet Rifles flag on my living room wall?’ I don’t think he believed me, but I offered to send it back.”
Clayton shipped the flag to Georgia last summer, where it was carefully restored and framed by the state of Georgia’s Preservation Lab. It was installed in the Fort McAllister museum in February.
“The flag is a major piece of the puzzle as to what happened here,” said Brown. “The fact that we know who it belonged to, that it stayed in the same family for so long and that we know where it came from. It’s priceless.”
Clayton said he wasn’t sure why his great-grandfather wanted the flag returned to Georgia, but he believed that a small, leather-bound copy of the New Testament might have had something to do with it.
Clayton’s ancestor was shot in the leg at the Battle of Shiloh, and while he lay bleeding on the field, his knapsack containing the New Testament given to him by his late wife was stolen.
In 1924, 62 years after its disappearance, the Bible was returned to Clayton.
“I believe this act prompted Maj. William to return the favor and return the flag,” said the younger Clayton. “One good turn deserves another.”
The park’s celebration also included performances of Civil War-era ballads by a band dressed in period garb, a ceremonial cannon firing and free admission to the park.
“I’m really glad that people here accepted me and the flag. I never expected such a big event or turnout,” said an emotional Clayton. “I think my great-grandfather would be very proud.”