Michigan’s “Save Our Flags” program

Several years ago I wrote a pair of posts regarding how some Civil War re-enacting clubs donated their old replica flags (a.k.a. “colors”) to the State of Michigan (see “Returning the Flags” July 2016), much as actual Civil War veterans did in 1866. Today I had the opportunity to take a tour of the facility in the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing where close to 200 historical flags are housed in a climate controlled room.

These flags and guidons belonged to Michigan Civil War units (artillery, cavalry and infantry, United States Colored Troops), and state regiments that served in the Spanish-American War and the First World War. The latter was the final U.S.A. conflict in which specifically state-associated units took part. The overwhelming majority of these flags are of silk but some were woolen.

A sizeable number of the donated 6′ by 6.5′ Civil War flags were placed in glass-fronted cases lining the perimeter of the Michigan Capitol’s rotunda. Sadly, fitting them into the cases necessitated sawing 2′ off the bottom of their oak staffs; thankfully the museum preserved the longer lengths of wood. For subsequent decades these treasured banners of devotion and sacrifice were prey to the ravages of light pollution, dust, humidity and temperature fluctuations. Over time the heavy gilt fringe sewn to the flags’ edges tore some of them apart.

A well-meaning plan to “stabilize” the flags in the 1960s before they turned to dust threatened their ruination. A seamstress was hired to sew red, white, and blue mesh onto the reverse and obverse of the flags, to keep the large and small pieces of fabric in their places. Apparently no one questioned the seamstress’s decision to use her sewing machine to carry out this task. It was a blessing that money ran out before more than a handful of the flags received this treatment.

Flag poles from Michigan flags. Each bears a tag identifying the unit to which it belonged.

The renovation of the Capitol (1989 – 92) provided the opportunity to rectify this longstanding situation. An effort called “Save Our Flags” was founded, whose intention was to fund the stabilization and preservation of all the flags in the collection, utilizing the most up-to-date practices. Individuals, re-enactment clubs, and businesses donated funds to “adopt” a flag so it could be preserved. A company in West Virginia – the only one of its kind in the United States – was chosen to oversee the project. To prevent anything from going awry the flags to be worked on are carefully packed in acid-free paper and cloth, after which they are crated for transportation by hand, to and from West Virginia.

To describe the work as painstaking would be to downplay it to the enth degree. The first phase is to separate the mesh from both sides of a flag. So as not to further damage the silk or wool, this involves using fine-tipped pliers to tease out each strand of mesh. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this labor intensive endeavor is costly: removing the mesh from the Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry’s flag took 400 hours, at the eye-popping rate of $100 per hour. The museum has sent two staff members in their twenties to West Virginia for training, in hopes of having future stabilizing work done more economically, and in Lansing.

Caster-mounted racks into which drawers housing a single flag are stored.

All the flags are laid out flat on trays that slide out of and into shelving units mounted on casters, for ease of relocation. The larger flags (infantry) are stored by themselves, while more than one smaller item (artillery and cavalry guidons) might occupy the same tray. The lights in the preservation room are only turned on when a conservator is at work or when a tour is underway. An extra layer of protection is provided by shrouds that enclose the racks. These are opened and closed by means of curtain draw-rods.

 

Removing a flag’s storage tray from its rack.

Once a tray is removed from its rack it is placed upon a table. Conservators wear acid-free gloves to take off and replace pieces of  – you guessed it – acid-free paper that lie over and under the fabric.

 

Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry battle flag.

Here’s one of the battle flags of the Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry, the regiment whose re-enacting club to which I have belonged for 30 years. I say “one of the flags” because most units ended up carrying a succession of them over the course of the war. Flags damaged in battle, dirtied or stained with soldiers’ blood and gore, sometimes even captured by the enemy, were replaced from home.

Being a flag bearer was an honor and everything possible was done to prevent the colors from being lost. Indeed, a “color guard” detachment was tasked with keeping the flags safe. While I’ve been unable to uncover the origin of the present day practice of not letting the Stars and Stripes touch the ground, I understand that this was not an issue during the Civil War.

If the flag fell because its bearer was wounded or killed, it was incumbent upon a color guard member to pick it up and carry on. In the thick musket and cannon smoke (smokeless powder wasn’t invented until after the Civil War) of the battlefield, and the noise and confusion that were commonplace, flags were vital to helping soldiers know their regiment’s location. Also, flag bearers rallied units that had lost cohesion in battle.

Whether regimental or National colors, flags were often presented to the troops by groups of patriotic local women that had sewn them. Regardless of the type of flag in question, units had “battle honors,” a record of the engagements in which they participated, added to the stripes by professional sign painters.

Honors might also be featured on regimental flags. Not every unit possessed a regimental, which carried the state emblem and motto. In the Seventh Michigan’s case, the regimental flag also bore the phrase “The Forlorn Hope of Fredricksburg.” This commemorates the events of December 11, 1862 when the Seventh led an amphibious crossing of the Rappahannock River. It was intended to drive out Confederate sharpshooters posted on the other river bank, who were killing Federal troops.

Here ends my narrative concerning this topic. I hope you found it of interest!