Civil War flags may face their toughest battle yet
By Chris Carola
ALBANY, N.Y. - They made it through Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg, but many of the Civil War battle flags in the nation's state-owned collections might not survive the budget battles being waged in some statehouses.
Preservation work on deteriorating banners carried in some of the war's bloodiest battles has been eliminated, scaled back, or ignored by state budget planners focused on finding money for basics such as education, health care, and transportation.
In New York, home to the nation's largest state-owned collection of Civil War battle flags, money for a preservation project is being cut from Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget. Indiana's funding for flag conservation has been returned to the state's general fund. Ohio hasn't provided government funding for its 400-plus Civil War battle flags in nearly a decade.
Another recent budget casualty is Pennsylvania's allocation for maintaining the battle-flag collection it preserved in the 1980s.
"Thank goodness we did it back then," Ruthann Hubbert-Kemper, executive director of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, said of the project, which conserved all of the Keystone State's nearly 400 Civil War battle flags.
The lack of funding for flag preservation could hurt efforts to promote the 150th anniversary of the Civil War next year.
Battle flags are commonly used in Civil War exhibits, but usually only after lengthy preservation work that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Staging publicity-generating events using the flags may be more difficult in the run-up to the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2011, advocates say.
"This isn't the time to be cutting this. It's the time to be increasing it, because it will be bring in tourism dollars," said Ed Norris of Lancaster, Mass., head of the battle-flag preservation committee for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The total number of battle flags in state-owned collections isn't clear, but it's likely several thousand, only a fraction of which have been preserved. Some have deteriorated into mere fragments and fringe, victims of neglect or exposure to light, heat, and humidity.
"Time is the enemy," Hubbert-Kemper said.
With New York facing a budget deficit in the billions of dollars, the state is dropping its $100,000 annual funding for flag preservation, parks agency spokesman Dan Keefe said.
Civil War buffs and historians consider battle flags, especially those damaged by shot and shell, to be among the most compelling artifacts to survive the war. Flags marked a regiment's location on the battlefield, and flag bearers made prominent targets. Some banners are stained with blood.
"There are many flags that were carried in battle heroically by soldiers who died in doing so," said Christopher Morton, assistant curator at the State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, where many of New York's flags are stored.
In the South, several states rely on donations from reenactment groups and descendants of Confederate soldiers to fund flag preservation.
The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., is home to the largest Civil War battle-flag collection in the South, with more than 500.