Save the Flags
One of the greatest successes of Save The Flags has been its
"adoption" program. Individuals, organizations, schools and communities can help
with the preservation, research and display of the flags by "adopting" specific
flags in the collection for a donation of $1,000. To date, more than 100 flagsmostly Civil
Warhave been adopted, providing the project with much needed funds.
Just as important, adoptions help preserve history by commemorating particular
regiments and individuals. Adoptions are often made in the name of the original regiment
which carried that flag into battle. Or, a flag may be adopted in the name of a veteran by
Those adopting flags are honored by a special ceremony at the State Capitol, a photograph of
the flag they have adopted, and a legislative tribute.
The money raised benefits the entire collection, since much of what is done to preserve
the flags has more to do with providing the proper storage and display environment than
any conservation technique. Humidity, light, handling and dirt must be controlled, and the
flags must not come into contact with plastic, wood or paper. Acid-free stainless steel and anodized aluminum storage and display units have
been custom designedpartially funded by Save The Flagsand the flags installed. By
doing so, the ongoing deterioration of the flags has been stopped.
In another phase of the project, individual flags deemed so fragmentary and fragile
that they cannot be viewed or studied without further intervention are being sent one at a
timeas funds allowto the nation's top battle flag conservator for further conservation:
Fonda Thomsen, Director of Textile Preservation Associates of Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Thomsen and her staff carefully encapsulate the brittle silken fragments between layers of
sheer acid-free material called Stabiltex, which allows the flag to be safely viewed and
studied. This meticulous work is done entirely by hand, without sewing through the
flag. The results are spectacular, but the process is very expensive. Depending on
the size and condition of the flag, such treatment can cost at least $5,000 per flag and
sometimes much more.
Fortunately, most of Michigan's flags do not require this much work and, in some cases,
none at all. Even so, the money needed to fully stabilize every flag in the collection
will ultimately amount to several hundred thousands of dollars. A more specific cost is
not possible because the cost depends on the size and condition of each flag. Our
objective is to take one flag at a time.
One of the most important benefits of the project has been the opportunity for people
all over Michigan and, indeed, from all over the country, to participate in saving these
fragile, tangible links to the past. No other artifact of the Civil War evokes more awe
than the very battle flags Michigan men carried and fought under. We often point out that
we are not just saving artifactsno matter how interesting and beautifulbut history
itself. And people from all walks of life are helping. One of our most recent adoptions
was a flag of the Fourth Michigan Volunteer Infantry, adopted by a 16-year-old young man
from Southfield, Michigan. He earned $1,000 by returning cans and bottle and working odd
jobs for more than a year. In another instance, fourth graders from Mattawan, Michigan, have
raised more than $5,000. They raised the money by holding school
bazaarsand donated it all to Save The Flags.
The Save the Flags Project
As part of the restoration of the Michigan State Capitol, a program was launched on
July 2, 1991, to help save nearly 160 fragile, battle-torn Civil War flags
the had been
displayed for decades in the Capitol rotunda.
How did these flagscarried into battle by Michigan volunteers over 130 years
agofind their way to the Michigan State Capitol? In 1866, after the close of the Civil
War, Michigan regiments returned to the state their most precious mementoes of the
wartheir regimental flags. Covered with the names of the battles in which they had
fought, tattered from bullet holes and sometimes even stained with the blood of their
bearers (for flag bearers would suffer the greatest casualties of the war), these flags
stood for everything they had fought forthe honor of their regiments, the abolishment of
hated slavery and the preservation of the Union.
The regiments presented these treasured banners to Governor Crapo, who promised that
they would be preserved forever as a reminder of their sacrificesthe nearly 90,000
volunteers Michigan sent to the war. This buildingour present Capitolwas built, in
part, to provide a suitable place to preserve and display the flags. Crowds of people
visited the Capitol on its dedication January 1, 1879, and Adjutant General John
Robertson, a witness to the event, said that "the sight of the 'Old Flags' revived in
the minds of all recollections of past victories and defeats, of friends lostand a
When the restoration of the State Capitol began in 1989, it was thought that our biggest
problem would be to protect the flagsthen almost 125 years oldfrom accidental damage.
But we soon discovered a much bigger problem. The flags were being destroyed
anywayactually turned to dustnot by construction during the restoration, but by age
and by the way they had been displayed for so long. Standing upright and unfurled in eight
crowded cases surrounding the rotunda, these huge, heavy, brittle silk banners were
literally falling to pieces, and bits of the flags littered the bottom of each case. Light
was bleaching them of color. Crowding was so severe that little could be seen of any one
Concerned about the well-being of these fragile mementoes, we formed a volunteer task
forcethe Capitol Battle Flags Task Forceunited in a common interest to learn how to
preserve the flags and how to display them without damaging them. We wanted to learn more
about their histories (often almost forgotten today) and the histories of the men who
carried, fought and died for themas well as the women who presented and sometimes even
made the flags.
After consulting with Fonda Thomsen, one of the country's leading Civil War flag
experts, we learned that we could save the flagsthey were not too far gone. But it would
be expensive. And, we must remove the flags from their rotunda cases, which were
themselves contributing to their destruction. Reluctantly, we realized that we had to
choose between leaving the flags in the Capitol where they had traditionally been
displayed, or saving them. We could not do both.
We learned that saving the flags meant removing them from their staffs so they could
lie flat and protecting them from the agents of destruction: handling, dirt, light, heat,
Special cases were designed, large enough for the huge six-feet-on-a-side flags to lie
flat, and constructed of materials that cannot harm the delicate flags. This means that
no wood, plastics, cardboard or most paper was used, since these have acidslike the
oils on our handswhich literally eat up aged, brittle silk. They had to be protected
from the light. And, very importantly, a way had to be found to display them so that the
whole flag could be seensomething not possible in the rotunda cases.
We have and are accomplishing all this. The Michigan Capitol Committee, which oversees
the Capitol and its collections, and the Michigan Historical Center have joined forces to
save these fragile treasures. Together, we mounted an exhibit of the flags called
Rally Round the Flags, which displayed more than 56 flags in the collection on a
rotating basis for almost one year in 1996-97. Environmentally-controlled space has been
created for the flags at the Michigan Historical Museum, a few blocks from the Capitol,
where the flags can be protected and yet remain accessible. Ironically, even though
removed from their "display" cases in the Capitol, the move to the museum marks
the first time the flags can actually be viewed by scholars and the public.
But it takes a great deal of money to accomplish these goalsthousands of dollars per
flagand there are more than 230 flags in the collection. The state has contributed more
than half of the funds needed, but the Save the Flags project has been absolutely
invaluable in helping with the rest.
On July 2, 1991, with the help of reenactment organizations from around the state, the
governor, the secretary of state, the adjutant general, and many other concerned citizens,
we launched Save the Flags to help fund the project. It soon became clear that
the people of Michigan were as concerned about the flags as we were. A poster was created
and its sale benefits the flagswith 100 percent of the proceeds from its sale going toward
them. A program was launched in which a contribution of $1,000 allows an individual,
group, business or community to "adopt" one of the flags in the collection. The
program has been very successful, because we are not just saving flagswe are saving
history. Today, Save the Flags is one of the most successful historic
preservation programs in the countrya model and inspiration for flag conservation
For more information about Save the Flags, please telephone Ms. Kerry
Chartkoff at (517) 373-5527 or Mr. Matt VanAcker at (517) 373-5157.
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