A collection of restored flags that were carried by Iowa soldiers into battle during the Civil War is going on display this month at the State Historical Museum. The exhibit is called “Civil War Survivors: Iowa’s Battle Flags Tell Stories from the Front.”
Jeff Morgan, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, says many of the flags were hanging at the state capitol for well over 100 years and in the past few years, they were transferred to the state historical building where the staff has been busy conserving and preserving them and making them ready for display. He says the display will include only a fraction of the 260-some battle flags in the museum’s collection, from the Civil War as well as the Spanish American War and World War One.
Morgan says some of the flags have blood stains on them from the soldiers who carried them into battle while others have bullet holes in them from Confederate fire. He says it’s a moving experience to see the flags and to understand what they meant to the people in the Iowa communities that went to fight in the Civil War. Morgan says some of the flags demand up to 240 hours each of meticulous work to preserve and can cost nearly five-thousand dollars per flag to restore.
The preservation methods of the 1890s called for conservators to stitch gauze to the fabrics which, over years of exposure to sunlight, smoke and even the weight of the gauze itself was misshaping the flags and eventually would have destroyed them. Morgan says battle flags during the Civil War were more than simple pieces of cloth or symbols. They were essential members of the regiments. In battle, amid the noise, smoke and confusion, the flag directed the movements of the soldiers and identified the regiment to leaders in the distance. If the flag was lost, so were the regiment’s position, identity and honor. The exhibit opens February 18th. For more information call (515) 281-5111.