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Civil War Captured Flags (U.S.)

Last modified: 2023-08-26 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | civil war | captured | virginia 28th |
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Introduction: Captured Confederate Battle Flags

During the Civil War most units had battle flags that were actually carried into battle. Capturing an enemy's flag was considered a heroic act and in the Union Army any soldier who did this was rewarded the Congressional Medal Of Honor. The captured Confederate battle flags were turned into the War Department and housed in Federal and State armories throughout the North after the war.
In 1887 President Grover Cleveland proposed returning the captured Confederate battle flags to the states from whence they came. The leadership of the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) vigorously protested, and Cleveland backed down. It was too soon.
However in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt quietly ordered the War Department to release its captured flags to various Southern states. There was no protest this time from the GAR veterans. So, after 40 years most of the captured Confederate battle flags that had survived were then returned. (source)
However, these only represented flag that had been turned into the War Department and many had not even made it that far, but remained in private hands. A good example of those not in Federal storage would be the 28th Virginia Battle Ensign discussed below. It had been "loaned" to the capturing Northern 1st Minnesota for one of its veteran reunions never to be returned, and lost in the shuffle of transferring records between the War Department and the Department of the Army which took its place. From there the actual flag pasted into Minnesota state hands there it stayed. When Virginia petitioned for its return in 2001, Minnesota Governor Ventura said, "Why? We won."
Pete Loeser, 19 August 2023

28th Virginia Infantry Regiment

[28th Virginia (CSA] image by Pete Loeser, 19 August 2023
Based on this photo.

The 28th Virginia flag was captured by the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg. This is what happened to it AFTER its capture:

First, after the flag was captured at Gettysburg it was turned over to the proper Union Army authorities who then sent the flag to the U.S. War Department for processing. This flag was received at the War Department and catalogued into a log book of other captured Confederate flags and assigned a WD number (as were all flags received by the War Department, in this case #58, which is clearly stenciled on the flag itself). Please note that not all captured CS flags ever made it to the War Department. Many went home with individual officers or soldiers and many were sent to Northern state governors.
Since the 28th Virginia flag was sent to the War Department, it then became the property of the Federal government as a spoil of war. Over the years after the war, these flags were sometimes lent out to various Union veterans groups for their reunions. This is what happened with the 28th Virginia flag. It was LOANED to the veterans of the 1st Minnesota (as entered in the WD captured log book, of which I have a copy) on the implicit instructions that the flag was to be returned to the War Department when they were done with their reunion. The Secretary of War did this with quite a few flags - most of which never came back either (and some are now lost while others were sold on the private market).
Mr. Caveness did some research into the "loaning" of these trophies and found that the Secretary of War did not have the legal authority to loan these flags - but did anyway.
That being said, the flag was a "loan" - not a "gift" to the 1st Minnesota veterans and they were supposed to return it. They did not, thus stealing, basically, Federal government property. The entry in the log of captured flags states "loaned, never returned."
Since the War Department no longer exists, the Federal agency that needs to step in to get the flag back through whatever powers of Federal domain they can use, is the Department Of The Army. They could issue a demand for the return and back it with a Federal level suit that Minnesota would have to comply with. The flag would then go to the Department of the Army who would then, following the wishes of Congress in 1905, return the flag to the state it came from (as they did hundreds of others at that time from the War Department). The Virginia flags went to the Confederate Memorial Literary Society - which is now the Museum Of The Confederacy.
It is my understanding that a few Virginia Federal congressmen are working to get the Department Of The Army to go after that flag so that it can be sent to where it was legally supposed to go in 1905 - the Museum of the Confederacy.
Minnesota troops also captured three other CS flags during the war that did get sent directly to the state itself. These are trophies of war that the state received directly and they can keep them as such (even though they are doing nothing to conserve them). But the 28th Virginia flag is an different matter entirely. It is stolen Federal property that needs to be handled as such and sent back.
Greg Biggs, 7 March 2000

Just as a footnote, Union Private Marshall Sherman earned a Medal of Honor for taking the battle flag of the 28th Virginia Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg. His citation contained only this text: "Captured a flag.":
Pete Loeser, 20 August 2023