Minnesota Battle Flags Return: Civil War Sesquicentennial

Apr 10

Some of Minnesota’s most revered icons went back on display at the State Capitol Saturday: Three painstakingly restored Civil War battle flags — including the flag carried by the First Minnesota Volunteers at Gettysburg — were returned to their cases after an absence of two years. The 150th anniversary of the battle of Fort Sumter — the opening shots of the Civil War — will be marked Tuesday, kicking off four years of Civil War observances.

A Civil War reenactor stands guard Saturday by the freshly restored flag of the First Minnesota Volunteers, carried in the battle of Gettysburg, where the heroic regiment helped turn the tide in favor of the Union. (photo: ncoleman)

From the Minnesota Historical Society press release:

In 2009, 21 historic Civil War and Spanish-American War flags were moved from the State Capitol to the History Center textile labs for a major conservation effort. Funded by a Save America’s Treasures grant in partnership with the Institute of Museums and Library Services and the National Park Service, the Tawani Foundation and citizens from the State of Minnesota, these flags have been carefully cleaned, documented and stitched to specially prepared mounts to allow visitors to see each one fully unfurled. The flags had been displayed at the Capitol since its dedication in 1905. The first four flags to go on display are: the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the First Minnesota Light Artillery, all from the Civil War, and the Thirteenth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment from the Spanish-American War… Additional flags conserved in the project will be on display on a rotating basis, with flags being changed every 6 to 8 months.

Click here for a calendar of other upcoming Civil War events from the Historical Society


A 7-year-old St Paul boy "tries on" history Saturday during ceremonies welcoming restored Civil War flags to the State Capitol (photo: lbcoleman)

Speeches at Saturday’s Flag Day ceremony included these remarks from State Rep. Dean Urdahl of Litchfield, a historian and teacher with strong interests in Minnesota’s part in the Civil War as well as in the 1862 U.S.-Dakota Indian War in this state:

“I’m honored today to be part of this observance.  These restored flags are important symbols.  They help us to remember the most momentous time in American history.  It is fitting that this observance is held in our State Capitol, a monument to the Civil War.

“I commend the Historical Society for its commitment to our state’s story and these symbols that to me represent passion, courage and tragedy.

“The Civil War is the great seminal moment of American history.  Everything is measured up to and from that point.  The men who raised up and followed these flags did so out of the purest motives possible.  They wanted to end slavery and save the union.

“A multitude of reasons are given for this great conflict.  State’s rights, economic and cultural divides are frequently cited.  But no one should doubt that primarily this war was about slavery and ensuring that nearly four million people held in bondage in fifteen of our states would be freed.

“Slavery, that ‘peculiar institution,’ had plagued our national consciousness since the beginning.  It lay coiled like a snake at the feet of our founders as they wrote our Constitution guaranteeing all other Americans equality and freedom.

“As our young nation grew and expanded to the west the issue of slavery impacted decision after decision regarding the makeup of our country.  Thomas Jefferson called slavery a ‘fire bell in the night,’ implying the chaos that was to come.

“Slavery and the inevitable conflict that followed brought greatness to people whose names are immortalized because of it.  Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Grant, Lee, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Stonewall Jackson, and countless others are remembered today in large part because of how they were shaped by this era.

“The Civil War is a tapestry woven of singular events, the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh, the Devil’s Den, the Beehive, Pickett’s charge, (Col. William) Colville and the charge of the first Minnesota, Appomatox and the sacrifice of Abraham Lincoln.

“As we move into the next four years of observing the sesquicentennial of the Civil War there is much to remember.  If those who held and followed these flags could speak to us today what would say about the country they gave so much to save?

“In my district, in Litchfield, standing like a lonely sentinel on the east side of Central Park, is a building constructed to resemble a fort.  It is a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall built as a meeting place by and for the “Boys of 61”

“The meeting room is just as they left it.  Their chairs are there, with their names scrawled on the undersides.  Scenes of the war and their leaders are displayed from the walls.  But more importantly, proudly gazing down upon us are the original photos of the men that Meeker County sent off to save the union.

“They still speak to us today.  Listen closely and the echoes of a rebirth of freedom and giving a last full measure of devotion for this country can still resonate with us today.

“We hear much of a greatest generation.  Those who fought in WWII deserve that title.  But let us never forget that there was another greatest generation, that held these flags, that struggled mightily for great goals, that saved this country, that are depicted in this state capitol, and that with great dignity watch over us from the walls of the Litchfield GAR Hall.

“Through their unspoken lips comes the question:  ‘How stands the union we struggled to save?  How stands the Union?’  We must rise above the current problems that confront us and answer: Our Union still stands strong and free.”

Flag of the First Minnesota Light Artillery. (photo: ncoleman)