Long after the Civil War ended, in 1885, a fire swept through part of the New Jersey state capitol building. As the blaze threatened the regimental battle flags in glass display cases, 19 men—employees, firefighters and a police officer—covered their mouths with wet sponges and entered the burning building. They rescued all of the relics, plus personal items that belonged to two of the state’s notable generals: Hugh Judson “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick and Philip Kearny.
The roof collapsed amid flame, ash and smoke shortly after the men spirited away the last of the banners.
The flags were stored temporarily in the undamaged office of the state’s adjutant general, William Scudder Stryker, who numbered among the 19 saviors. A war veteran, he had organized the 14th New Jersey Infantry and later served as a paymaster.
He and the other 18 heroes received badges of honor at a ceremony held during the annual encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic on Feb. 11, 1886, about a year after the fire. Stryker accepted the award with a moving address in which he described an episode that occurred in his office seven months earlier.
“One warm evening in July, I had been writing until a very late hour, and dropping my pen, I looked along the bullet and shell-ridden banners, and I hoped that it would some day be my duty and my pleasure to write up the personal history which clings close to each one of those flags.
“There, on my left, stood the splendid colors of the grand Sixth Army Corps, and beside them was the flag of the old Third Corps, and it seemed to me that I could hear the strong voice of the gallant Mott, as, cool, determined, and brave, he gave his orders in the trenches before Petersburg.
“Then my eye rested on the flag of the Fourth Regiment and I seemed to see the face of my young friend, who sat by my side for years in a Princeton College class-room, Adjutant Studdiford, as he fell just at the top of Crampton Pass, close by this flag, cheering his men.
“With the flags of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth New Jersey Regiments the Fifteenth was also grouped, and from this flag, the State flag, the warm life-blood of Sergeant John Monder seemed to drip, drop by drop, as it fell on the battle-field of Cedar Creek.
“Proud old First New Jersey Brigade! No danger ever appalled, no obstacle ever dismayed the men who were led by that knightly soldier–Kearny!
“Then the flags of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Regiments seemed to drop for recognition, and the bloody memories of the Peninsular Campaign, of Antietam and Gettysburg, of Chancellorsville, and all through the Wilderness, seemed to cluster around the flags of the Second New Jersey Brigade, Hooker’s Old Guard—Which never failed him, on which he was wont every time to rely.
“On my right was the flag of the Ninth Regiment, which floated forty consecutive days in the advance rifle-pits before Petersburg.
“The broken staff of the Eleventh Regiment fell at my feet, and I recalled the bravery of a gallant little party of that regiment at Chancellorsville, and the defiant waving of that same flag from Round Top, by Sergeant Johnson, after two color Sergeants had been shot.
“The flag of the Fourteenth Regiment stood alone, but beneath its folds seemed to lie the body of Sergeant Cottrell and as man after man seized that staff on the bloody field of Monocacy, they fell before the terrific fire, and bathed its broad stripes in their crimson blood.
“Tattered and torn appeared the flag of the First Cavalry, yet it was covered all over with the record of seven short of one hundred battles, and through it I seemed to see the face of my young friend, Colonel Janeway, as handsome as he was brave, pierced with twelve wounds, dead on the field of honor.
“The night-watchmen on his rounds just at the moment looked in at my office door, and the hour of reverie passed away. I left the room, filled full as it seemed to me of the smell of gunpowder, of the memories of whizzing shot and shell, of sharp musketry, of dashing charges on the foe, of loud huzzas, of fearful groans of dying men.
“May I be allowed, on behalf of this little group around me, to thank you all for this memento, which you have bestowed upon them here to-night, and to express the hope on their behalf, that your battle-flags may long be preserved to remind the people of this great country of your terrible struggle to preserve the unity of this Nation.”
References: Monmouth Inquirer (Freehold, N.J.), March 26, 1885; New York Times, March 22, 1885; Excerpt of Stryker’s speech from the journal of the 19th Annual Encampment, Department of New Jersey, Grand Army of the Republic, Feb. 11, 1886, copied by Robert Wilhelm on June 11, 2001.