SEE TO THE COLORS!
by Benedict R. Maryniak
President, Buffalo (NY) Civil War Round Table
A PLEA FROM THE LONG-WINDED AUTHOR
I was graciously given this space to ask for your involvement in saving what's left of the flags which were carried by New York troops during the Civil War. I'd like you to use your Memorial Day "moment of silence" to read this. We take a "moment of silence" as a respectful gesture of reverence when there is nothing else we can do. Please do not mourn for the vanished armies of the Civil War while we can still save something of them. New York State possesses the largest collection of military flags in the western hemisphere -- 1,675 -- of which around 1,500 are attributed to the Civil War. These are not all large six-foot regimental banners, but also smaller guidons, camp colors, and flank markers. Nearly a thousand are in the Old State Capitol at Albany, over 500 are stored in the Watervliet Arsenal, and the rest can be found in armories all over the state.
Back in October of 1999, I became a member of the NYS Temporary Committee on Military Battle Flags, and I came away with only one certainty after twenty months -- there is currently a small preservation effort that has been underway for about a year, but it falls miserably short of the need. There will be no increase unless politicians hear from more constituents. The NYS Senate heard all about the problem during 2000 but took no action -- did not even match funds appropriated by the NYS Assembly -- because there wasn't enough of a public howl. If you've ever been moved by the Civil War through a book, a film, a song, a monument, a bit of local history, an ancestral link, or any other compelling item, you must talk about it with your rep in the NYS Assembly and Senate. You must also express your concern that action, not intention, is needed.
A BIT OF CIVIL WAR HISTORY
"The rebels flanked us - got us in a crossfire from three different ways and mowed us down like grass. We had fourteen holes shot through our flag and three through the color-sergeant. We was cut up very bad at the Bull Run battle." In attempting to tell his father what the 94th New York had weathered at Second Manassas, it was inevitable that Corporal Nathan Hildreth would get to talking about his outfit's colors -- a regiment's flag was its soul.
Long before corps badges and insignias, regimental colors emerged as emblems of the volunteer soldier's pride in his unit. It was the "boys of '61" who sought to have the names of their well-fought engagements placed on unit flags, and a joint resolution of Congress soon gave permission for each regimental banner to bear names of battles in which the unit had taken part. From then on, the flags themselves recited their own saga with battle honors and legends inscribed on them. One of the Union regiments followed a flag given to its colonel by his minister father that had part of the 90th Psalm emblazoned across it -- "Thou hast given a banner to them that fear Thee; that it may be displayed because of the truth. In the name of God we will set up our banners." Winning battle honors for their colors remained a strong incentive for superior performance by troops of both sides throughout the war.
A regiment's flags were carried into battle by its color-guard. Appointment as one of those ten men was a highly-prized promotion often used in prompt recognition of a soldier's merit -- in effect, the same as presenting a medal. Members of the color-guard were excused from all duty -- they did not act as guards, camp police, kitchen help, or foragers -- but they led their regiment into every storm of shot and shell. Membership in the color-guard was succinctly described by Austin C Stearns of Company K, 13th Massachusetts, in a journal entry during early December, 1862. "While halting a few moments waiting for the troops to cross on a pontoon bridge, Cap't Hovey ordered me to report to the color sergeant as a corporal on the color guard; the boys of K crowded around, some to shake hands, and all to say 'Good by,' for they said 'You are gone up now.' At Antietam, all the color guard but one was either killed or wounded, and judging from that, they thought my turn had come. The color guard is composed of two sergeants who carry the colors, one the National and other the State, and eight corporals whose duty it is to guard the colors, and under no circumstances to allow the colors to be lost. In a battle it is a great honor to take the colors of the enemy, and it is also a great dishonor to lose the colors, consequently the colors draws the hottest fire and some of the most desperate fighting takes place at the colors, and although at times it is a post of great danger, it is at all times a post of honor."
In practical terms, regimental colors served as a visual guide for maintaining alignment when the unit was deployed in line of battle: the two-rank linear formation had to be kept shoulder-to-shoulder for effective musketry. The flag also served as a direction marker for the regiment's movement. As long as it floated above the battle line it was a factor in advance, as well as a rallying point in a retreat.
There are countless stories about color bearers. At Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, the 42nd New York Volunteers (nicknamed the Tammany Regiment because of the political hall where it was recruited) were leveled by a devastating volley within ten yards of that field's famous stone wall. With most of the men blown off their feet and dazed survivors running back to shelter, Color Sergeant Michael Cuddy pulled himself up on his flagstaff. Shot through with several bullets, he jerked his banner high into the air, swept it in the Southern faces, and joined the rest of his dead guard. The following year, at Second Fredericksburg, 65th NYV Colonel Alexander Shaler grabbed a national color and used it to spur his charging column into the rebel workson Marye's Heights.
In Albany NY, on the Fourth of July, 1865, Republican Governor Reuben Fenton stood before deep ranks of veterans and a collection of 724 unit colors. The banners ranged from pristine six by six-and-a-half foot silk regimental flags to small silk guidons to remnants to shreds on staffs. Many units were represented by several flags, having obtained a succession of replacements in the field; many units were not represented at all. A group of NY infantry units would remain on active duty in the South until early 1866, but most of the state's army had already vanished in peace. A quarter of federal forces during the war had been New Yorkers -- 186 infantry regiments, 12 regiments of heavy artillery, 56 batteries, and 33 mounted regiments. Thirty-eight regiments of the NY National Guard had also been activated for brief periods.
"I need not ask you to cherish them proudly," said the general officer who presented the flags as he looked toward Fenton, "for they shall tell our children's children of manhood and patriotism rising in their might to sustain the right."
"Sadly, yet proudly," replied the governor, "I receive in behalf of the State these ensigns of our patriot soldiers." "By them the great experiment of self-government has been settled . . . it is the success of the cause of truth and justice that surrounds these frayed and tattered banners . . . these flags are now deposited for permanent custody in the Bureau of Military Record."
Almost as soon as the New Yorkers had been discharged from service, their military activities seemed very long ago and hardly even seemed real anymore. After a year or so, the memory of army life was antique - quaint - and yet how seriously they had taken themselves and their place on the world stage. That they were concerned about preserving a tradition regarding the Civil War can be seen in the Grand Army of the Republic and many other veterans organizations.
There was a fear of being left on the roadside, forgotten and impotent. Postwar America was on the way to its future and showed little concern for a past. Without some sort of tradition or commemoration, former soldiers might easily have feared their contributions would be overlooked, their say-so in future decisions minimized. And old age was not a venture to be embarked on lightly. Stories about the war would be told in the winter of old age at the Grand Army hall, to quicken and bring back life. Stories for nights in the deepening winter of a long life. Tradition to afford an anchorage in the rushing stream of passing years. The last New York Civil War veteran and GAR member died in Rochester during 1953 and the last of all the GAR vets in 1956. The final surviving regularly-enlisted veteran of the Civil War turned out to be a Confederate who joined his comrades during 1959.
Magnificently ensconced in oak cabinets at Albany's Old Capitol Building, the Civil War flags were by no means retired. In half-baked, though well-meaning, gestures they were lent to GAR posts to be unfurled in parades at national encampments across the country. Dozens of touching photographs show crowds reduced to silent reverence at the sight of the tattered flags, their shreds streaming in breeze. Besides the wear and tear of "active duty," the entombed flags were slowly being destroyed by the effects of sunlight, humidity, and gravity. Just as America had kept a melancholy vigil as her last Civil War veterans dropped from sight, people seemed to mark national progress by the debris which accumulated on the bottom of the flag cases in Albany. When enough banners had fallen to pieces and there was room in the cases, flags from later conflicts were added.
But our Civil War never went away; it didn't stay in our attics. It had a tug on our imaginations and affections that we continued to feel. It remained a compelling story with very familiar characters . The battlefields were still familiar and thousands of photographs remained. Though we've been deluged by war and death through our televisions, it may be that their realities are better-comprehended from the distance of the Civil War. Increasing numbers of visitors come to view those oak cabinets in Albany to get near the Civil War and they do not shed gentle tears over the inevitable passing of an era. Because there are space shuttles, personal computers, organ transplants, and the "Unknown Soldier" of Vietnam has been identified by his DNA, people look into the cases and see flags rotting away. They see history slipping through our fingers.
THE COLLECTION AND ITS RESCUE
The NYS Division of Military and Naval Affairs (DMNA) is currently responsible for the State's flags and a computer database is used to keep track of each banner. I've never been told all the categories of info collected in the database, but some of them are serial number, storage location, conservator appraisal of the flag's condition, the military unit that carried the flag, and whether DMNA has a photograph of the flag.
All the flags are sun-bleached, dried brittle by steam radiators, clamped like fists to the poles around which they've been wrapped, and strained at all seams by the tug of gravity. There is a bewildering amount of literature concerning the preservation of antique cloth, but it all boils down to the three following approaches:
- FLAT STORAGE - The flag is spread upon an inert pad just a bit larger than the flag and the flattened flags are stored in racks or drawers. You need a picture of the side going face-down because there's no expectation of moving the flag again.
- PRESSURE MOUNT OR SEWN MOUNT, THEN FRAMED - You encapsulate the unfurled flag in a huge picture frame. The flag is sandwiched between a fabric backing and plexiglass, held in place by pressure and/or minimal sewing. Again, you need a picture of the side going face-down because there's no expectation of moving the flag again. About a dozen regimental banners have been preserved in this manner, including a state banner of the 5th NY Infantry, and are on display.
- STABILTEX ENVELOPE - Flags of cotton or wool can be sewn between layers of a sheer polyester fabric called Stabiltex. Though they must still be stored flat, they can be handled with less risk of damage.
The rest of the rescue involves a number of factors and requirements:
- Most of the flags are silk and many are shattered. Many -- those in the oak cases -- are rolled around staffs and will not be undone until they can be properly stabilized immediately after being unrolled. It is inevitable that some flags will be found to have deteriorated to so much powder when they are finally unrolled.
- A place to store the flags must be found, acquired, and prepared. This should also be the place where the flags are stabilized, in order to minimize movement. All by itself, this question of a site is enough to stall the rescue for decades because it is a political plum. Every county will take a crack at it and every application will have to be duly considered. An endless river of feasibility studies will be needed for the endless river of suggested sites.
- A "world class" military museum. In addition to the interminable haggling over a location, there is a sizable faction in favor of doing nothing with the flags until a "world class" museum can be found for ALL of NY's military collection.
There have been several cost estimates and proposals since the NYS Temporary Committee on Military Battle Flags (Flag Committee) was created by the Public Laws of 1995 (Section 191, Executive Law). In late 2000, the NYS legislature was told that the situation was desperate and that the total cost would be $2.5 million. As their collective gorge rose, the legislators were asked for $975,000 to begin the preservation process. They were told the Executive Branch would provide a facility and donations would be sought. Assuming a state-owned site could be obtained and that $150,000 would be needed for its rehab, the first five years of the plan would cost $684,800 and 500 flags would be treated (though all of them would at least be moved into better conditions).
The NYS Assembly allocated $175,000 and the Senate made no appropriation.
WHAT'S BEING DONE
The $175,000 is being expended on flag preservation projects at the discretion of Governor Pataki -- a member of his operations staff has been assigned to save some flags and try to get the bigger questions answered. Two flag conservators have been hired to work exclusively on the flag collection and space has been secured at Peebles Island, where the NYS Dept of Parks & Recreation does all the work to maintain historic sites throughout the state. The state flag of the 26th Regiment of US Colored Troops (the 20th & 26th USCT were black units raised in New York) was pressure-mounted in a frame, and flags of the 169th NYV and 127th NYV are to be stabilized in the same way. I've been told that all of the stabilized flags will be displayed on the second floor of the Capital.
The Flag Committee hasn't met since late 2000. All of its members who were not state employees have resigned in disgust, except for Lance Ingmire and yours truly. New "civilian" appointments have reportedly been made but no information has been sent to Committee members. Former vice chair of the Flag Committee, Steve Smeltzer, had his views published in the May 2001 issue of "The Civil War News." He remains desperate to see the flags restored but feels helpless in the face of State chicanery.
One bright spot. There have been a few instances in which legislative reps have used their discretionary funds to preserve certain flags at the behest of constituents. Although I'm happy to see the successful effect of concerted effort upon an elected official, I'm bothered that money talks. The whole problem with New York State's flags is that many people today see them as an accumulation rather than a collection, a burden foisted upon the State before anyone understood the long-term costs. Though there are valid laws on the books that require New York State to preserve the military flags (McKinney's Consolidated Laws of NY Annotated, Book 35, Military Law, pages 49-51), these are disregarded in the name of fiscal necessity.
In the cemetery at Hartford in Washington County NY, dirt was heaped up on the eve of Memorial Day 1879 to create a mound in memory of townsmen who died in the CivilWar. The town couldn't afford a monument. The local chapter of the Womens Relief Corps eventually placed an ornamental urn atop the mound. There may be a similar occurrence at Albany in coming years. A group of handsomely-framed Civil War battleflags will be surrounded by hundreds of photographs, the images being all that remains of flags that did not outlast the discussion of how to save them. What will be the consolation of all the charms of books about the Civil War if this happens?
Sadly, we long ago abandoned public affairs to con artists who make a trade of politics.