Battle Flags Program Survives

Jeff Morgan, spokesman for the State Historical Society, says a state effort to save tattered battle flags carried home by Iowans from the Civil War and other conflicts still has enough cash to keep going.

In January, Gov. Chet Culver’s budget proposal did not include funding for the program. But when the dust settled and the legislative session ended last month, Morgan said $188,000  remains in place to cover battle flag costs during the next budget year.

That’s enough to pay for two full-time employees and for supplies, he said.

Most of the flags are from the Civil War, a conflict where 76,000 Iowans fought and more than 13,000 died. Iowans fought in pivotal battles, including Shiloh and Vicksburg.

For  soldiers, the regimental flags served as a beacon in the chaos of the battlefield. Sight of the flag kept them aware of their unit’s position and its movements. And  troops felt a keen emotional connection to the colors – many sewn by folks back home.

One of the most famous flags in the collection was carried by the 2nd Iowa Regiment. (Shown above) I wrote a story on the battle flag effort back in May of 2001 and described that flag’s historic role in a famous battle involving Iowa troops:

Cpl. Voltaire P. Twombley was not the first man to hoist the Second Iowa Regiment’s silken battle colors on Feb. 15, 1862 – the day plowboys, shopkeepers and assorted volunteers stormed Fort Donelson, Tenn.

First to clutch the standard was Sgt. Harry Doolittle of Davenport, who was hit three times during a withering exchange of fire. Cpl. Solomon Garfield Page, also of Davenport, was killed with the colors in his hands. Cpl. James Churchill of Clinton was then wounded as he hauled the banner forward to within just yards of the entrenched Confederate defenses.

Twombley, from Keosauqua, snatched up the flag, only to be smacked down by a stray shot. But he scrambled to his feet and pushed through the rebel line. The key outpost fell into union hands and Twombley won the Civil War equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

“The unfaltering onset of those gallant men is written in the sleepless memory of a million freemen,” said Iowa House Speaker Rush Clark as he received the flag in Des Moines weeks later.

Now that’s a House speaker with flair.  

Stabilizing the flags for storage and display is a painstaking process that’s been going on for the better part of this decade. There are 295 battle flags in the state collection, and one flag can take several weeks of work.

Clearly, they’re worth preserving as a tangible relic and reminder of Iowans’ remarkable sacrifice in America’s bloodiest war. Word that the program will continue is good news this Memorial Day.

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