Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Battered and bloodied, New York flags tell stories of courage and conviction

Zouaves of the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry, having forded Antietam Creek, advanced toward Confederate positions and the town of Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862.

Suddenly, the regimental colors (left) went to the ground. Several soldiers and Capt. Adolphe Libaire of Company E sprang into action.

“In the advance on the enemy and after his color bearer and the entire color guard of 8 men had been shot down, this officer seized the regimental flag and with conspicuous gallantry carried it to the extreme front, urging the line forward,” reads the citation that went with the Medal of Honor bestowed to Libaire in 1898.

Today, 45% of the silk flag is lost, victim to use, poor storage over time and, possibly, souvenir hunters.

What’s left speaks to the incredible valor and service of the New York regiment, which suffered 240 casualties at the Battle of Antietam. After further service, the unit was mustered out in May 1863.

The regimental banner is one of nine conserved New York flags that went on display in August and are on view through early June at the state Capitol in Albany.

The exhibit “1862: Red, White, and Battered”, supported by the Coby Foundation, “reveals the hardships and sacrifices New Yorkers endured in 1862, the first full year of the Civil War.” For example, the national flag (above) of the 61st Infantry Regiment contains blood of a color bearer.

Supplementing the exhibit is a free one-hour Capitol tour offered on the first Thursday of the month at 5:30 p.m. The next one is Feb. 7, led by a guide in Civil War reproduction clothing. Those taking the tour also will learn about the building’s “Million Dollar Staircase,” which veterans helped build.

“The flags are more than a simple tool used by the soldiers,” said Christopher Morton, assistant curator at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs. “They had an emotional connection to the home and the state.”

The museum has the task of storing and conserving 2,000 flags, 900 from the Civil War, dating back to 1812. Nearly 450,000 New Yorkers served in Civil War.

“They call it the Empire State for a reason. It was a very important contributor to the union cause, in supplying soldiers, material and supplies for the soldiers,” says Morton.

The state’s permanent collection – the largest of its kind in the country -- includes banners of the Irish Brigade, including the 69th Infantry. Another well-known unit was the Garibaldi Guard (39th Infantry). Some were made by Tiffany Co.

At the monthly tour, Morton will tell visitors about the unit histories and flag conservation efforts.

Take the flag of the 16th New York Volunteers. Made by Tiffany in 1861, it was presented to the regiment on behalf of Elizabeth Howland, wife of a colonel in the unit. Pvt. John Moffitt received the Medal of Honor after picking up the fallen flag at the June 1862 Battle of Gaines’ Mill in Virginia. He was wounded.

 “You can see it has quite a bit of loss due to battlefield,” Morton says of the regimental flag (right).

New York State Military Museum
The state began collecting the flags, many of which were shredded by bullets and shells, in 1863. Many were furled and rolled up in the statehouse. That kind of storage was damaging.

“Most of the Civil War flags are in poor to fair condition,” says Morton. “It all depends on the materials, paint versus embroidered. They are 150 year pieces of fabric and they are very delicate.”

Rolling up the mostly silk flags can damage the fibers over time. Embroidery and paint also can have a gradual negative effect.

So far, New York has conserved more than 500 flags, storing them flat.

The museum, working with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation  and the Office of General Services, plans to have different banners exhibited at the Capitol this year and in 2014 and 2015 to mark other units that served in 1863, 1864 and 1865.

“The collection is grand in quantity and quality,” says Morton.

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