When the Civil War ended, Michigan’s Governor Henry Crapo (kray-poe) invited her veterans to donate their battle flags to the state. Over 122 regimental and National flags, many of which were torn from being in combat or were stained by their bearers’ blood, were handed in on July 4, 1866. (There were also captured Confederate banners and officers’ swords.)
The flags were stored in Detroit until the Capital Building in Lansing was completed in 1878. Some 70,000 spectators looked on as the flags, to be displayed in glass cases lining the Rotunda, were given into the state’s care. In 1941 a dozen Confederate battle flags were returned to their states of origin, as were three swords.
For over a century the Civil War flags, which had survived the rigors of the campaign, became prey to more insidious enemies: light pollution, temperature fluctuations, humidity and dust. The heavy brocade sewn to the perimeter of most flags weighed down and tore apart the silk flags themselves. Some flags were even reduced to powder.
Around the time of the Civil War Centennial the desperate condition of these irreplaceable historic relics was recognized, and steps were taken to prevent their further deteriorization. Unfortunately, preservation practices of the time, which included sewing the flags onto a mesh backing material, threatened to make things worse.
Then in 1991, under the leadership of Ms. Kerry K. Chartoff, a program was devised to assure the survival of Michigan’s Civil War flags. “Save the Flags” made it possible – at a cost of $1,000 per flag – for re-enacting units, individuals and businesses to sponsor the conservation, repair and stabilization of flags in the collection. An environmentally controlled facility was subsequently built in the basement of the Michigan History Center, located nearby the Capitol. Each flag is kept in its own drawer: they can be viewed by appointment. Ms. Chartoff is understandably proud to point out that every penny raised by Save the Flags goes to preservation. Save the Flags site
Thus far the long-term preservation of 240 banners has been assured. Save the Flags’ mandate has expanded to include flags borne by Michigan troops in the Spanish-American War and First World War.
The second part of this blog will take us forward in time, to July 9, 2016 . . .