Flag History & Traditions
With Pride & HonorThe 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment’s national color, sent home after the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, became the first battle flag to be displayed in a state capitol building. That battle-scarred flag became a vivid reminder of Minnesota men’s bravery and sacrifices made that day on the battlefield. It was the start of an honored tradition to display battle flags in Minnesota’s statehouse.
On Flag Day, June 14, 1905, the historic battle flags from each military unit, carried by Civil and Spanish-American War veterans, were the focal points in a military parade from the second Capitol in downtown St. Paul to the new Capitol building. For many of the aging veterans, this transfer of their regiment’s colors was a poignant reminder of the pride and honor they had serving their country. For some veterans that trailed behind their flags in the parade, this was the last public event they would attend that recognized the role they played in U.S. and Minnesota history.
From battlefields to display in the Capitol rotunda, the battle flags from the Civil War and Spanish-American War have been honored and cherished relics for generations of visitors and each has a story to tell.
Battle Flags of MinnesotaMinnesota raised twenty-one different units (infantry, cavalry, artillery, and sharpshooter) for service in the Civil and U.S.-Dakota Wars. Four additional infantry regiments were raised for service in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.
Most Civil War era regiments carried two flags, or "colors" - the National Stars and Stripes and a special organizational flag representing their state or unit. Several of the flags in the Minnesota Historical Society's collection were hand-made or purchased by local women's groups for newly organized regiments.
Shredded in battle or tattered from daily use, each regiment would consume several flags during its existence. When a flag was retired from service it was often sent back to Minnesota to be placed in the custody of the state's Adjutant General's Office. As flags were replaced over time, it became common to have the U.S. Quartermaster Department or private companies produce custom-made flags for regiments.
In the Civil and U.S.-Dakota Wars, most infantry and artillery flags were made according to government specifications and measured six feet by six feet-six inches. Cavalry and light artillery regiments carried flags measuring about two-and-a-half feet by two feet that were usually swallow-tailed in their shape, though some carried square flags.
National flags often had the name of the regiment painted on the fourth red stripe from the top. There was no official rule on how to arrange the stars in the canton (the upper left corner) of national flags. Several patterns and colors of stars including gold, white, and silver were used in flags from Minnesota.
In the 1860s, regimental flags were dark blue emblazoned with a Federal eagle or state seal with the name of the regiment noted below those emblems. The first regimental flags purchased by Minnesota had the state seal on one side and the national eagle on the other side. Later flags supplied by the Federal depots were more uniform and had the federal eagle on both sides. Often, when receiving a new flag, soldiers painted the names of the battles and campaigns in which the regiment or unit had participated and added new ones as the war progressed.
Carrying the ColorsIn camp and on the march, their regimental flag represented the soldiers’ home, state, and nation. In battle, it served as a communication device for commanding officers and provided soldiers with a rallying point for organizing a charge, defense, or withdrawal. Because of this, enemy fire often concentrated on the soldiers carrying or defending the colors, and if a color-bearer fell, another soldier quickly seized the flag and held it high.
Capturing the enemy’s flag or planting one’s colors on enemy-held ground symbolized victory. In a Civil War charge at Nashville, for example, both the Fifth and Ninth Minnesota Infantry Regiments claimed to be the first to plant their colors in the Confederate defenses, which hastened the surrender of hundreds of enemy soldiers.
Legacy and ChangesStarting with the Spanish-American War in 1898, regimental colors accompanied deploying units and were used in military parades and ceremonies but were not carried into battle. Although flags were no longer waved in the face of the enemy, they were still regarded with pride and patriotism by the soldiers who marched under them.
In 1863 a variety of different badges were used by the Union army to identify army corps. Cloth badges were sewn to hats or uniforms or made into metal badges for soldiers to wear. As flags became less important in identifying regiments, sewing patches onto uniforms to identify a soldier’s regiment, division and corps became the standard practice following World War I.
Changes in military organization after 1903 created a federal structure for the old state militia units – the beginnings of the modern National Guard. These changes were first implemented in 1917 with America’s entry into World War I. The legacy of Minnesota volunteers continues today in units of the 34th Infantry Division (the “Red Bulls”) of the U.S. Army National Guard. Originally, the Adjutant General’s office of the Minnesota National Guard was responsible for the care of the Civil War and Spanish-American War flags, their display in the State Capitol and storage at Camp Ripley. In 2007, the responsibility to conserve, preserve, and exhibit these state treasures was transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society.