Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Iowa's grand old battle flags

I've been gnashing my teeth for a couple of weeks now about a plan percolating among state government types in Des Moines to knock down half of Iowa's new (1984-87) State Historical Building, rechristen what's left the Iowa Cultural Center, build a few shops along Locust and turn the balance of the site into green space. Grrrr.

No big fan of the building itself here --- I've disliked the beast since the day it opened, principally because it was an absurd and wildly impractical design. But to knock it down after 30 years of use does seem improvident. And then there's the fact I'm not sure how many Iowans would notice --- or care. 

But this is all a topic for another day.

Instead, its good to remember some of the projects undertaken by the State Historical Society of Iowa, under siege for decades as lawmakers of both parties chipped away at its funding in order to finance their own pet projects.

One of those worthy Historical Society project, with specific ties to Lucas County, involves the conservation and display of more than 130 battle flags carried by Iowa units during the Civil War and enshrined in the state Capitol since 1894. You can read at length about the project here.

These flags, a mix of unit banners and U.S. flags, had accumulated during the post-war years at the State Armory, then located near the riverfront in downtown Des Moines --- on part of the site now occupied by World Food Prize headquarters (formerly the Des Moines Public Library). But they weren't being cared for.

That began to change in 1892 when Chariton's Warren S. Dungan (left), late a lieutenant colonel of the Iowa 34th Volunteer Infantry and now an Iowa senator, introduced legislation to remove the flags from the arsenal and place them in sealed cases in the Capitol. Although his bill passed both houses, it did not reach the governor's desk until the next year, when it was duly reappoved and signed.

As a result, August 10, 1894 --- a sweltering 95-degree day --- was designated "Iowa Battleflag Day." Every effort was made to get as many Civil War veterans to Des Moines as possible for the occasion, and an estimated 4,000 marched with the flags in procession from the Armory east on Locust to the State Capitol that day.

One of the incentives to travel had been a special round-trip rate offered by all of the state's rail line --- a round-trip ticket for the cost of one-way fare. In Chariton, on the morning of the 10th, old soldiers and others boarded a train at the C.B.&Q. Depot and rode east to Albia, where they changed trains and headed northwest to Des Moines. The trip home was via Indianola.

Dungan, now Iowa's lieutenant governor, had been assigned to deliver an address at the old armory and then pass the flags on to color-bearers for the march to the Capitol. In as many cases as possible, the bearers had carried these flags into battle during combat. Dongan's own 34th Iowa --- raised largely in Lucas, Warren, Wayne and Decatur counties --- had three flags in the parade, two U.S. flags and one unit banner. The designated bearers were Clark W. Whitten of Chariton, Co. K; F.M. Clark of Warren County, Co. C; and M.W. Parkhurst of Altoona, Co. B.

The parade from the Armory to the Capitol was perhaps mile in length. The old soldiers marched as best they could with other representatives from their original units. Although thousands lined the route, they were largely silent. The Des Moines Sunday Register staff plucked a few lines from contemprary accounts, republished in "Picture" magazine during 1964:

"None cheered --- their hearts stirred too deep .... The tinge of melancholy that seized on the multitudes almost silenced demonstrations .... The occasion was too great for noise .... There were white-haired mothers looking on whose sons lay dead on southern battlefields; and sisters whose brothers filled nameless graves in dark forests of the South ....

" 'My boy fell defending that flag,' said an old man as the banner of his son's regiment passed by. The crowd about him gave way till the colorbearer could let the old man touch the sacred colors with his hands."

Upon arrival at the Capitol and after more speeches, the flags were sealed in custom-built cases near the second-floor entrance to the State Law Library, where they remained until a major fire broke out in the House chambers in the Capitol's north wing on Jan. 4, 1904. Old soldiers reportedly rushed to the Capitol to help evacuate the flags, if necessary.

Although the flags were not threatened, they were removed to the state's new armory while the Capitol was under repair. On Aug. 27, 1905, the flags were returned to the Capitol and sealed in four cases built around the main floor level of the rotunda --- and that's where I remember seeing them as a kid, gradually disintegrating into dust.

That had been the initial plan --- that the flags would be allowed to return to dust. But the result was not especially attractive in a very public place and over the years came to seem disrespectful to the men who had served under them.

As a result, the Legislature authorized funding for a conservation effort and, during 2002, the first of the four cases was opened for the first time in nearly a hundred years and the flags carefully removed to a conservation laboratory in the State Historical Society building. The last of the flags were removed during 2006.

The restoration process is an ongoing project of the State Historical Society and the cases in the Capitol rotunda have been rebuilt. Restored flags are displayed there, as well as in the Historical Building, on a rotating bases. But a majority of the flags remain in safe storage in that threatened Historical Building much of the time to protect them.


If you're interested in reading it, here's the text of Warren S. Dungan's address, delivered at the old State Armory on the morning of Aug. 10, 1894:

Comrades, Survivors of the splendid army of over 75,000 men, furnished by the State of Iowa during the great rebellion: This day is to the whole people of the state, and especially to you, a day of absorbing interest --- a day to become historic in the annals of our beloved state. You have been called together by the proclamation of the governor of the state, for the purpose of removing these old battleflags, borne by you and your comrades on so many sanguinary battlefields, during that momentous struggle, from their present resting place in this arsenal to the place prepared for them in the corridors of the new capitol of the state, for their better preservation.

The sight of these dear old flags stirs your souls to their very depths. They awaken afresh in your memories the thrilling scenes of a third of a century ago. The whole panorama of that great war passes in review before you. You hear anew the startling sound of an enemy's artillery firing upon a United States fort. You feel again the depths of that emotion which stirred the hearts of all loyal citizens to realize the danger which threatened the union, and awakened in your hearts the patriotic resolve to swear anew allegiance to the old flag and to offer your services, and your lives, if need be, to preserve the union bequeathed to us by the fathers of the republic.

You recall the hour of the greatest trial experienced in your soldier life ---bthe hour of parting from your wife and child; or from father and mother, sisters and brothers, or your sweetheart.

You remember the shout which greeted the first flag received by your regiment as it was unfurled to the breeze in your sight. It was perhaps the gift of the patriotic women of your own neighborhood. The Thirty-fourth Iowa regiment, to which I belonged, went into camp at Burlington. The patriotic women of that city presented us with our first regimental flag.

In doing so they charged us to bear it bravely in the face of the foe, and never allow it to be trailed in the dust or to be dishonored. We pledged them life, fortune and honor to obey their injunction. This was an inspiration which the regiment could never forget. How well our pledges were redeemed history must record. An evidence of our fidelity, however, is seen in this battle-scarred flag --- the one they presented to us, and one of the three flags the Thirty-fourth furnished to the collection before us. If I remember aright the patriotic women of Burlington presented the First Iowa cavalry and perhaps other regiments with their first regimental flag.

Comrades, you recall the battles in which you were engaged and in which the stars and stripes were your inspiration to noble deeds. You bore them until they were torn and tattered, often bullet-riven and blood-stained, until no longer fit for service and then, with careful hands you folded them up and sent them to the adjutant-general of the state for safe keeping, where you find them to-day.

In recalling the heroic deeds witnessed by you in your army life nothing swells your breasts with greater pride than to remember the devotion of the color-guard to the flags and standards in their keeping. Their heroism was witnessed on many a battlefield. One color-bearer is shot down and another springs to his place, raises the fallen flag and moves forward only to fall as the first, until sometimes three or four have fallen in a single battle. Witness the Second Iowa at Fort Donelson; the fourth color-bearer falls, but is able to rise and bear the flag to the end of the fight and to victory. And that color-bearer is with us to-day in the person of Comrade Twombly, late treasurer of state. Many instances of a similar character might be enumerated, but time will not permit.

Comrades, your hearts may well beat with honest pride to-day when you remember how gallantly you bore these flags at Wilson's Creek, Vicksburg, Donelson, Lookout Mountain, Mission Ridge, Atlantic, Mobile, Blakely, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Fredericksburg, and on to victory at Appomatox. You kept your pledges to the noble women who presented you so many of these flags. Our flags have never been lowered or disgraced by an Iowa regiment; a few of our flags were captured by the enemy, but the troops that bore them were facing the foe defending them with undaunted courage. Here are the great body of the flags we carried to battle and to victory, our witnesses to the people this day.

Look upon them! Not only battle-scarred, but purple-stained with the blood of your fallen comrades. They were placed here for safe keeping, but soon they began to fade and waste away. Seeing this, the patriotic care of an Iowa woman, partly with her own hands, encased them in tarlton for their preservation --- the wife of the then governor --- Mrs. John H. Gear. This was a partial protection, but it was evident that they could not long be kept intact unless otherwise cared for. Iowa is proud of the record made by her citizen soldiery. She has shown this by many liberal laws on her state statute books. Proud of her military record and of the fidelity, valor and patriotism of her sons, and regarding these flags as the best evidence of that record, of that valor and patriotism, and viewing their possession as a sacred trust, she has prepared receptacles in the rotunda of our new capitol for their deposit, consisting of hermetically sealed glass cases, where, it is hoped, they may be preserved in their present condition for long years, if not for ages to come. There they will be in a position where the whole people of the state may look upon them as often as they pass through the capitol, patriotic object lessons, not only to the present generation, but to our children's children down the ages.

Color-bearers, yours is the post of honor to-day; you take these old flags in your hands for the last time; you carry them to the capitol and deliver them into the hands of the governor of the state who, on behalf of the state, receives them at your hands and sees to their proper deposit.

Comrades with us in the great struggle for the union who served in regiments from other states, we are glad to welcome you with us on this occasion. To you is equal honor due for the triumph of our cause. Being now citizens of Iowa, we know that you share with us the just pride we feel in preserving, as long as possible, our revered old battleflags.

Citizens of Iowa, your presence with us signifies your deep interest in all that pertains to the honor and welfare of our beloved state. Your loyalty to both the state and nation has ever been conspicuous. Your devotion to the flag has never faltered, and your regard for the union soldier has been constant. We are proud of the fact that the whole people of the state unite with us in our care for these battleflags, and share with us the honors and the responsibilities of their safe preservation.

One very sad thought forces itself upon us as we gaze at these battle-scarred and blood-stained banners--the thought that so many of the gallant men who carried them to battle and to victory were not permitted to return with them. All honor to the noble dead who "died that the nation might live." And are they dead to us? An Iowa poet has said:

"There is no death! The stars go down 
To rise upon some fairer shore, 
And bright in heaven's jeweled crown 
To shine forever more. 
There is no death! The dust we tread 
Shall change beneath the summer showers 
To golden rain or mellow fruit, 
Or rainbow-tinted flowers. 
There is no death! An angel form 
Walks o'er the earth with silent tread-- 
He bears our best loved things away, 
And then we call them dead."

They shall live in our hears and memories and in history, so long as patriotism continues to be the crowning virtue of good citizenship.

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