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June, 1996                                                                Vol. I,  No. 1, Issue 1 

Saving Michigan's Historical Flags

    The Michigan Save the Flags  Program began in 1991 as part of the states project to restore the capitol building. Shortly after the war, the 160 battle flags from the Civil War regiments were presented to Governor Henry Crapo, who vowed they would be preserved forever as a memorial to the 90,000 men and boys from Michigan who fought in the Civil War. The flags played a significant part of the dedication of the new capitol building in 1879.

    As part of the preliminary survey done prior to the capital restoration in 1989, the restoration committee thought it needed only temporary storage space to hold the flags and prevent accidental damage during construction. When the cases were opened, however, it was learned that much more was necessary.

    The flags had been displayed more than 70 years from their staffs, standing upright and crowded into cases in the rotunda. Due to their own weight and the exposure to light, humidity, and temperature change, the flags were beginning to deteriorate badly.

    A preservation attempt in the 1960's was also contributing to their demise. At the time, it was thought that the more delicate banners could be stabilized by sewing the tatters between layers of dyed nylon netting. Upon inspection in 1989, it was discovered that the brittle silk was disintegrating along the machine stitched seams.

    A committee separate from the Capitol Restoration Committee was formed and began to search for ways to preserve the banners. First, The new committee decided to remove permanently the flags from display. A difficult decision, but one necessary to ensure preservation. 

    The next goal was funding. Saving all 230 flags would be an expensive undertaking. To help with the fund-raising and publicity, several groups were enlisted, The volunteer committee enlisted the support of the state legislature and Michigan Bureau of History.

    However to help garner more broadly based support, other groups were sought to help publicize and raise funds for the restoration. These included reenactors, descendents of members of the original regiments and veterans organizations.

    Some of the fund-raisers included selling a poster which shows 17 of the finest flags in the collection, with all proceeds going directly to the preservation fund. The 7th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry of the National Civil War Association began offering a lapel pin of its Regimental Guidon, with a portion of the sales going toward the preservation. The entire project was funded through private donations.

    With funding sources in place, the committee began work in 1990. The flags were removed from their display cases and photographed. Because of their crowded display conditions, it was the first time many had been seen in several years. The committee then designed containers which allowed the flags to be removed from their staffs and displayed flat under controlled conditions.

    Committee members also began collecting histories of the flags and the regiments which carried them. For this they began searching for newspaper accounts, personal journals, and letters written by soldiers involved in the conflicts. 

    The staffs themselves were another problem. Though original, some were weak and splintered by bullets, and most had been cut down from their original 10 foot length to fit into the display cases.

    To date, all of the flags have been preserved from additional deterioration and stored. As more funds become available, those in most need of conservation will receive additional attention.

    To fill the cases of the restored capitol rotunda and retain the memory of the fallen soldiers, replicas of approximately half of the flags have been made and are on display during regular business hours.

    The original flags in the collection will be shown beginning June 14, 1996 at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. Due to space limitations, they will be shown in groups of 14. Other highlights of the exhibit will include other Civil War artifacts, uniforms, and photos. A video program will present the complete collection and show the steps taken in its preservation. 

    The Michigan Historical Museum is located at 717 W. Allegan Street in Lansing, two blocks West of the Capital Building. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4;30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturday; and 1:00-5:00 p.m., Sunday. For additional information, call the museum at (517) 373-3559.

    Questions concerning the collection, posters, and other fund-raising items may be directed to Kerry Chartkoff, Capitol Archives Specialist, at (517) 373-5527.  (JP)


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