Robert McNamara commented in his essay “Why Were Flags So Important in the Civil War?” that these flags marked the position of the regiment on the battlefield. In the noise and smoke of battle, regiments could become scattered, and vocal commands, or even bugle calls, could not be heard.
So a visual rallying point was essential, and soldiers were trained to follow the flag. “The Battle Cry of Freedom” — a popular song with both Union and Confederate soldiers — contains this phrase: “We’ll rally ’round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again.” (http://history1800s.about.com/od/civilwar/f/Civil-War-Battle-Flags.htm)
Soldiers strongly believed they represented their home state, and much of the morale of Civil War units was focused on that pride. A state regiment typically carried its own flag into battle. Being a color-bearer was considered a mark of great distinction, and it required a soldier of extraordinary bravery.
Flags were so conspicuous on the battlefield, they were often used as a target by the enemy. As a result, the mortality rate of color-bearers was high. Men would sacrifice their lives defending a regimental flag, to protect it from capture by the enemy.
At the end of the Civil War, state governments put considerable effort into collecting battle flags, and those collections were looked upon with great reverence in the late 19th century.
And while those statehouse flag collections have generally been forgotten in modern times, they do still exist. And some extremely rare and significant Civil War battle flags have been put on public display again in time for the Civil War sesquicentennial.
As reported in a previous edition (Coastal Point, May 15, 2015), in 1884, the Association of the Survivors of the 1st Delaware Infantry Regiment entrusted their regimental flag to the Delaware Historical Society for safekeeping. It has been in storage ever since.
However, earlier this year, the DHS initiated a program soliciting donations from interested organizations and the general public for restoration of the badly torn and tattered emblem. Having reached its fundraising goal in May, the DHS contracted with Philadelphia Textile & Object Conservation to restore the flag so that future generations of Delawareans could view this artifact and learn about its renowned history.
DHS announced in the Fall 2015 issue of its “Making History” newsletter that Nancy Love, the owner of the conservation company, conveyed that work on the 1st Delaware regimental flag was completed in August. That included “a careful and painstaking process to flatten and realign the ingrained creases in the silk fabric.”
The flag’s painted seal was brittle and required special care to flatten and piece it back together. Love noted that, despite the flag having been rolled up for these many years, the seal managed to survive in reasonable condition. The conservators discovered what appears to be a manufacturer’s mark on the lower part of the painting, namely “Hurstmann/Fla…”
“The flag’s large size and extremely fragile, piece-meal condition” made it difficult to see what was on the opposite side. Nonetheless, it is now known that both sides of the flag have the same design. The process required the creation of a sealed temporary mount, held by three people working together, to invert the piece.
Now that Philadelphia Textile & Object Conservation has completed restoration of the flag, it will encase it in a pressure-mount glass frame with a custom-cut recessed area for the fringe and pole casing. The DHS plans to exhibit the flag in the fall of this year, upon its arrival back to its permanent home. Stay tuned for an announcement of that date.
Lovers of history throughout the state — especially those who contributed toward the flag’s restoration — will anticipate an opportunity to view the restored symbol of the 1st Delaware Regiment’s courage and sacrifice during the Civil War.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.