U.S. Army regulations required infantry regiments to carry two flags measuring 6’6″ by 6’—a national color carrying the unit’s official designation and a regimental flag of blue decorated with a large eagle. For centuries large banners helped commanders to locate units on the battlefield and provided a prominent point on which men could rally in the confusion of battle. When Federal troops wavered during the unsuccessful May 22, 1863, assault on the defenses of Vicksburg, General Thomas E. G. Ransom “rushed to the head, seized the colors of the 95th [Illinois Infantry], and waving them high above his head, shouted, ‘Forward, men! We must and will go into that fort! Who will follow me?’ The tide was turned.” During the war the stained and tattered colors of many Illinois regiments were replaced with new sets and returned home, often to be proudly displayed in the statehouse at Springfield as vivid symbols of courage and sacrifice.
For much of the war’s first year Illinois outfits relied on friends and local organizations to provide a set of colors. As the state quartermaster general wrote, given the need to quickly supply thousands of troops during the emergency of spring and summer 1861, “none but articles of absolute necessity have been provided for our volunteers; on the other hand, complaints have been made that many things essential to the full equipment of a Regiment, and allowed by Army Regulations, have not (perhaps through mistaken economy,) been furnished… and Regimental Colors, Standards, Guidons… without which evidences of their nationality and distinctive character no regiment should go into the field.”
Local folk happily filled the void, providing many individual companies on their departure with flags of non-regulation shapes and sizes. As the companies were organized into regiments some of these flags were retired while others were “promoted” to serve as regimental colors. Flag presentation ceremonies proved to be a high point in the early service of most units. Men in newly issued uniforms stood proudly before friends and family as a community leader (often a lady) spoke words of benediction, to be flowed with gallant thanks from the unit commander.
Though always an important part of a regiment’s equipment, the colors came to have special meaning in battle. The banners often held an important symbolic value for men who marched under them. Most soldiers looked upon the loss of a flag as a kind of disgrace, leading them to fight hard to prevent such a humiliation. Rebels felt the same way, making the capture of Union flags a great prize. It all added up to make membership in a regiment’s color guard a risky business. Letters and regimental histories are filled with stories of defending flags and the physical abuse they suffered in battle.
A correspondent of the 93rd Illinois Infantry wrote of the regimental flags barely surviving two major fights. On May 16, 1863, at Champion Hill, Mississippi, the outfit “fell back fifty yards, leaving over one-third of our brigade dead and wounded on the field, our colors riddled with bullets, seven balls struck the staff, the color bearer killed, and over half the color company killed and wounded.” Six months later in fighting that broke the siege of Chattanooga, “Our colonel was killed. Three men had been shot holding the colors,—he then took them and was shot through the head and fell dead. Our flags are all shot away. We have part of the field of the colors with one star left. The regiment flag is all gone but the staff—shot away by the enemy’s grape and cannister.—We are saving the pieces.”
Some of the state’s flags came to be stained with the lifeblood of those who carried them. On July 12, 1863, at Jackson, Mississippi, George Poundstone “made desperate attempts to keep the enemy from capturing the flag” of the 53rd Illinois. The fight was desperate, with almost 80% of the regiment being killed or suffering wounds at its close. Poundstone, wounded in the chest, took the flag from its staff and “thrust it in his bosom,” successfully preventing the banner’s capture. As the curator of the state’s flag collection wrote in 1886, “his heart’s blood has written upon the flag he loved so well, a record of his devotion and bravery that speaks more plainly than could epitaph on marble.”
After the war
As regiments arrived back in Illinois at the close of their service there was a need to dispose of the colors. In June 1865 the War Department issued an order that all flags purchased with government funds and issued by the quartermaster department remained government property. Units were to turn such flags over to their state governor to be cared for in a manner decided upon by state officials. Flags that had been presented by individuals and volunteer organizations could be disposed of as unit officers saw fit. Some were returned to the donors, others placed in courthouses, schools, or other public buildings, while many more remained in the care of a trusted comrade. Today they can be found in collections scattered across Illinois.
The flags placed under the care of the governor were first stored in the state arsenal in Springfield. In 1878 they were moved to the newly constructed state capitol, where beginning in 1884 they were displayed in glass cases with photos of some of the men who had fought under them. Today the state’s treasured collection of Civil War flags is cared for in special facilities by the Illinois State Military Museum, 1301 North MacArthur Blvd., Springfield, Illinois 62702www.il.ngb.army.mil/museum