Flag Relics in the Museum

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Flag Relics in the Museum

The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library has a number of outstanding items and flags on display related to Flag Day on June 14th.
One of the most impressive relics in the museum collection is the 37-star flag which is located in the library. The 37th star was added 151 years ago when Nebraska was added to the Union on July 4, 1867. It remained 37 stars for 10 years under three Presidents – Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. This period flag is relatively scarce because of the general lull in patriotic sentiment, when compared to the Civil War which preceded the 37 stars, and the Centennial era that follows.

The flag in the museum collection was made by Annin Flagmakers of New York City, the oldest and largest flag manufacturer in the U.S. since 1847. The original owner was Robert Blackburn of North Fort Myers who inherited it from his great-great grandfather. Because of its impressive size, it was likely flown in a prominent space such as a government building or a rotunda.

Civil War Flags
Presidents Grant and Hayes knew all about the importance of the flag as both served as Union generals during the civil war. During battle, the Civil War flags gave soldiers a rallying point. When battle was raging, it was impossible for units to stay together or for commanders to know exactly what was going on without the flags.

Each regiment carried the stars and stripes which bore the regimental designation on the center stripe. This was the battle flag that was carried into combat by a color sergeant. The flag was large – 6 by 6 foot – so men who became separated from their units could identify their unit or at least pick out their national flag so that they would know which direction would lead them back to their comrades. Visible through the smoke and dust of battle, the sergeant’s colors attracted the heaviest fire and became the center of hand-to-hand combat. Flags identified groups of men as friend or enemy, and allowed commanders to know what movements were being taken by their various units. The color sergeant became the pivotal point in battle around which the regiments advanced and wheeled. He was protected by the six corporals of the color party. When men became separated from their units they could identify their unit by its battle flag, or at least pick out their national flag so that they would know which direction would lead them back to their comrades.

Flags also have a major psychological impact in battle as well. There was nothing more disgracing for a unit than to lose their battle flag. The loss of the flag could totally shatter a unit’s morale. On the flip side, capturing an enemy flag was a huge morale boost for a unit. The importance of the Civil War flags can be seen in the fact that the Union often gave the Medal of Honor to men who captured a Confederate flag or saved their own flags.

The first person to be awarded the Medal of Honor on two separate occasions was Thomas Custer, the courageous younger brother of George A. Custer. At Waynesboro, Virginia, on March 3, 1865, Tom Custer led a charge against three regiments, causing the Confederates to break rank. Despite having his horse shot from under him, he took a dozen prisoners and captured the enemy flag. For his action, Tom was awarded the Medal of Honor. Three days later, at Sailor’s Creek, Thomas led a mounted rush against the Confederate line, was shot in the face, and yet was still able to wrest the enemy flag from the color-bearer. He then demanded that the Confederate soldiers surrender. Once again, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Twenty-three Union soldiers won the Medal of Honor for the capture of flags during the three days at Gettysburg, and Rebels in far larger numbers were killed or wounded carrying or defending flags.
In one of his presidential speeches Andrew Johnson stated: When I die, I desire no better sheet than the Stars and Stripes, and no softer pillow than the Constitution of my country.
Johnson died at age 66 after suffering a stroke while visiting family in Tennessee. He was buried wrapped with the American Flag and a copy of the U.S. Constitution under his head.

Also on display in the library are flags that were flown at the Capitol in Washington and a framed Grand Army of the Republic flag that dates back to the post-Civil War period in the latter part of the 19th century. Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, the (GAR) fraternal organization was composed of veterans of the Union Army who served in the Civil War.
Civil War flag remnant
A framed display in the museum’s Civil War section includes the remnant of a Union flag from the 75th Ohio Regiment that was captured during Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s famous flanking maneuver that decimated the XI Corps, under the command of Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, and made Stonewall a military legend.

The red and white flag that hangs above the Holocaust section of the museum is the Polish flag. Between 1941 and 1945, the German Nazis established six extermination camps in German-occupied Polish territory – Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. Both Auschwitz and Majdanek functioned as concentration and forced-labor camps as well as killing centers. An estimated 3.5 million Jews were killed in these six extermination camps as part of the “Final Solution.” Other victims included Roma (Gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war.

The ornate white, red and gold banner that hangs above the General’s Corner in the museum belonged to Former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, when he served as Secretary of Defense during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. Cheney oversaw Operation Desert Storm in 1991, among other actions.

One of the most famous pictures of the Apollo XI moon mission shows Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin posing with the American flag on the surface of the moon in July 1969. A poster-sized image of that famous photo, signed by Buzz Aldrin, is located in the Apollo XI case of our space display.

by Jim Zbick

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