Restoration of Iowa’s Civil War Battle Flags

With the guidance of the State Historical Society through the work of textile preservationists, Iowa’s Civil War Battle Flags get some tender loving care. In this special segment is from Iowa PBS’s This Old Statehouse project, we learn a little bit more about the Iowans who fought and died for our state during the Civil War.



Narrator: In January of 2000 beneath the capital’s shine golden dome and under the glare of television lights a group of civil war veterans stood for inspection again. For these members of the state’s battle flag collection the war never really ended. Advancing lines of grey clad soldiers have merely been replaced with the onslaught of time.


When the comrades have departed

When the veterans are no more . . .

Narrator: A one-hundred and fifty year struggle can leave even the most battle hardened ensign tattered and torn. Steve Sprague lead a group of Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in support of the weary troops.

Steve Sprague: Many of the people who were standing at attention around the cases had relations that served under those flags. Just the thought that they were to be touched again and they were to be examined was utterly incredible.

Narrator: Clad in Civil War era uniforms, Steve’s group is helping to tell the story. And as part of a grassroots coalition they’re also seeking to safeguard these relics of the country’s great internal struggle. Under the guidance of the State Historical Society and through the work of professional textile preservationists the ultimate goal is the stabilization of the state’s entire collection of flags from the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I. Jerome Thompson is Bureau Chief for the State Historical Society’s museum

Jerome Thompson, Bureau Chief for the State Historical Society’s museum: I want to use the term stabilize because that’s the basic goal of this project. It is to take the flags and get them into a position where we can actually study them, photograph them, see them.

Narrator: Over time the flags have become so fragile that the meir weight of their own fabric coupled with protective layers of gauze has become too much for the banners to bear, tearing them as they hang.

Steve Sprague: What surprised many of us was how much grease and dust and soil had worked its way into those cases. I think a lot of us had considered that they were air tight and so that the flags inside where going to be relatively as they were when they were placed there in 1894.

Narrator: The Civil War flags displayed in the capital are the most endangered of the state’s collection. In early 2002 though they’re scheduled to make the trip down capitol hill, where they’ll be reunited with the rest of the state’s collection and receive a little tender loving care.

Sheila Hanke, Collections Manager: The cases were put into the capitol to preserve the flags. Although their there and we’re thankful that they’re there. The heat from the lights have caused an expansion and contraction of the fabric, actually break it down. The coal dust has settled on it from the furnaces and the light has broken down the dyes in fabric so we are going to have white spots as you unfold the flags.

Narrator: Before the flags can be analyzed, the protective gauze layers must be removed. It’s a tedious process that collections manager Sheila Hanke says probably isn’t for everyone.

Sheila Hanke, Collections Manager: I have to individually snip each stitch that was sewn into the flag and pull it out with the tweezers. It’s about four thousand stitches on one flag I did and it took me two days to cut all of the stitches out. Just to take the gauze off. Sounds a little bit boring, but as you’re peeling the layers of the fabric off, you can discover wonderful things underneath.

Narrator: Like thread samples. From each flag, Hanke carefully liberates a microscopic quantity she then analyzes and compares with known varieties. The composition of the fibers can narrow the research to specific time periods, helping her identify both with the flags were made and when they might have needed alterations or repairs.

Jerome Thompson, Bureau Chief for the State Historical Society’s museum: There’s a lot of community history that these flags represent. When a regiment was raised by a particular town or within a particular county, that’s a really strong local story. And that’s a statewide story. These are really important, tangible reminders of a really important time period in Iowa history. And they can’t be replaced.

Sheila Hanke, Collections Manager: That’s pretty maded, but did you see this one that I found the other day?

Narrator: Particles of soil and remnants of vegetation can help pinpoint areas of the country where the flags were put into service. The results of this physical analysis combined with the fruits of researcher David Holmgren work will help tell each battle flag’s story. By pouring through military records, regimental histories and even personal memoirs and correspondence, Holmgren hopes to learn not only where they flew but who flew them.

David Holmgren, Researcher: One of the difficult things is identifying who the color bearers were. There were some battles where the color bearer was shot down and virtually everyone in the guard was shot down.

Narrator: Admits the smoke and dust of Civil War battles the flags were often the only visible sign many soldiers had to identify their fellow troops and the location of the battle front. It was the color bearer’s job to keep that flag flying.

Steve Sprague: And you know that you had a very short lifespan because if you think about it, if you want to create confusion, you have the colors fall. And that’s why there was a unit, a color guard that was designated to protect the flag. The actual color bearers bore no arms. They were complete innocents in the middle of this death and destruction.

[drum roll]

Narrator: Today we still see color bearers accompanied by a color guard. It’s our way of showing respect for the sacrifices that have helped keep this country united and free. And the Civil War battle flags are tangible remnants of those struggles

Steve Sprague: These are the flags that our boys went to war with. These are the last vestiges of their participation in battle. It’s not about us. It’s not about the uniforms. It’s about the people who wore the real uniforms. It’s about the people who gave their lives in order that today we can live in freedom. In order that today we can enjoy all the fruits of our society. We don’t want to see those colors fall.

Excerpt from "This Old Statehouse DVD Special Features," Produced by Iowa PBS, 2001