The final rotation of rarely seen Civil War flags is now on display in the Michigan Historical Museum’s Plowshares Into Swords exhibit, which features Michigan and the coming of the war. Over the course of the exhibit, Civil War battle flags have been rotated in sets of four. To expose the flags to a minimal amount of light, each set is only on display for three months. Visit the Michigan Historical Museum through Feb. 5 to see these cherished pieces of Michigan’s history.
This final flag rotation includes the battle flags of the 6th Michigan Cavalry Regiment, the 4th Michigan Infantry Regiment, the 18th Michigan Infantry Regiment and the 24th Michigan Infantry Regiment.
“One of Michigan’s most notable flags belonged to the 24th Michigan Infantry,” explained Michigan Historical Museum Education Historian Eric Perkins. “Color Sergeant Abel Peck—a farmer from Nankin—carried the flag into battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. He was the first of the regiment to die that day, and before the battle was over, nine color bearers lost their lives or received mortal wounds in defense of the flag.” Shot through by 23 bullets, its staff splintered, the flag was reduced to tatters. Despite 80 percent casualties, the regiment never surrendered the flag.
If a Regiment was fortunate enough to return home with its flag, oftentimes the battle-weary soldiers would cut off a small square of the flag as a bittersweet memento. According to Perkins, these souvenir sections show up as square edges on the remaining flag.
Many of the flags have been meticulously restored and all are kept in a climate-controlled room away from light except for rare occasions such as this. Yet most of the flags are missing sections—a reminder of each soldier who walked back through the front door of his home, still wearing his uniform, with a scrap of his cherished battle flag in his pocket.
“Visitors won’t see perfectly rectangular flags,” says Michigan Historical Center Director Sandra Clark. “These are the flags of war. They bear the scars of battle, and that’s what makes them so special, so cherished and so important to Michigan’s history. Each flag has a story. They were actually there.”
Clark encouraged the public to take advantage of this rare chance to see each of them, and learn about who made them, who fought under them, and their long journey from the battlefield to the museum.
For more information about this and other Civil War Sesquicentennial events, visit www.micivilwar.org.
Michigan Historical Museum admission is $6 for adults 18-64. Children through age 5 are free; youth ages 6-17 pay an optional $2; and seniors 65 and up pay $4. Annual passes are available. Visit www.michigan.gov/museum for details.
The museum is open seven days a week. It is located inside the Michigan Library and Historical Center, 702 West Kalamazoo St., Lansing. The museum and visitor parking are on the north side of Kalamazoo Street, two blocks east of M. L. King Jr. Boulevard. Weekend parking is free. For more information, visit www.michigan.gov/museum or call 517-373-3359.