Restoration begins on Vermont’s Civil War flags

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(Host) Thirty-three Civil War flags that have stood in a display case at the Statehouse for over a century are being removed, in hopes of preserving them.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Reminders of Vermont’s role in the Civil War are everywhere at the Statehouse. A huge painting in the Cedar Creek Room depicts a key battle where Vermonters fought. A tall display case just outside the House Chamber holds a collection of the flags Vermont’s 18 regiments carried in battle. The flags have stood here practically untouched for 132 years. David Schutz says is the Statehouse Curator.

(Schutz) “The Civil War had just ended. Passions were still very high in terms of what that war meant to a place especially like Vermont, where more soldiers were lost to the Union cause per capita than any other state in the Union. So the Statehouse, which had just been completed prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, took on the tone as a memorial to the Civil War.”

(Zind) Shutz says the flags were wrapped around their staffs and placed on display in 1871 with no thought of preservation. The years have made them frayed and brittle. Some hang in tatters.

Now the flags are being removed so they can be preserved from further damage. Many will eventually be stored away from public view in the archives at the Vermont Historical Society. Some may be displayed again once steps have been taken to preserve them.

(Pagan) “I will give the sheet a little misting to help the flag think about relaxing into the horizontal position.”

(Zind) A flag carried by Vermonters in the battle of Gettysburg has been removed and unfurled on a makeshift table upstairs in the Statehouse. A large tear in the center is the result of aging. Michele Pagan is a Washington based conservator. She covers the flag with a cotton sheet and sprays a fine mist of water over it.

(Pagan) “I’m doing some localized humidification, which helps the brittle, painted silk. If you dropped this silk on the floor, it would shatter like a dish.”

(Zind) To make room to lay out the other flags, this one is carried downstairs, taking pains to keep if from bending. For a moment the flag from the battle at Gettysburg passes under the gaze of the large bust of Abraham Lincoln that dominates a Statehouse hallway. Civil War historian Donald Wickman is an authority on the flags. For him, there is an emotional aspect to this work. He is gripping the same staff held by Vermonters who fought in the war. Their names are still known today.

(Wickman) “A flag carried by the tenth Vermont, Sargent Mahoney died in the final charge of Cedar Creek. And you can’t help but feel a lot of pride in your state, in these men that knew that carrying a flag was a great honor. It was also a target to enemy fire.”

(Zind) Curator David Shutz says there are also plans to preserve flags from the two World Wars and from the Spanish-American War.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind at the State House in Montpelier.

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