CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Nearly 100 spectators gathered at noon Monday to watch Civil War re-enactors raise a replica of the 1861 United States flag — with only 33 stars — at the Bradley County Courthouse plaza.
The event launched the county’s commemoration of the war’s 150th anniversary and offered a glimpse at how divided Cleveland was over the state’s secession in the wake of the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C.
Sallie Shields, a young Cleveland resident, played a key role in the Unionist flag-raising on April 25, 1861: She presented the flag they would raise on a 90-foot pole that day.
“I’m a bit of a history junkie,” said Walker Valley High School senior Sarah Beaty, who not only assumed the role of Sallie Shields for the event but sewed the replica flag, as well.
While the flag raising began solemnly with a declaration for the Union, it ended with an impassioned war of words as 19th century statesman John Livingston Hopkins, played by attorney Jimmy Logan, implored citizens to fight against President Lincoln’s “tyranny.”
Bryan Reed, president of the Bradley County Historical and Genealogy Society, addressed the crowd in regard to doubts that the Unionists actually used a 90-foot pole for their flag.
“I do not believe it was an exaggeration,” he said.
Reed cited accounts that noted the pole’s then-high transportation cost of $5. Also, the U.S. flag could be seen from the train depot, which earned it some musket shots when Confederate soldiers passed through in the summer, he said.
Dave Jones, East Tennessee regional manager for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, applauded the efforts of Cleveland, Charleston and Bradley County to bring the Civil War story home and “tell it in a meaningful way.”
The area’s planned sesquicentennial events, 14 in all, stretch across the next four years. They highlight local reactions to battles far away and those close to home as Union and Confederate armies marched through the county.
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at email@example.com.