Conservation of Wisconsin's Civil War Battle Flags

The regimental battle flags in the collection of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum came to the G.A.R. Memorial Hall in the state capitol during the years following the Civil War. Wrapped on their staffs when retired from service, except for unit reunions during the 19th century and for cataloging in the 1960s, the unconserved flags have not been viewed since that time. In fact, only a handful of people alive today have seen many of the flags in the museum collection. The ultimate goal of conservation is to preserve these flags for future generations, give greater access to scholars and allow the public the chance to view and appreciate them.

Flags typically are not unfurled until they are delivered to a textile conservator, who is an expert in stabilization and preservation of historic and fragile fabrics. While some flags are in relatively good condition when unfurled, others are literally in fragments. Flag condition often relates to their usage during the war, so some of the most historically significant examples show the greatest damage. Flags issued at the end of the war, or that saw use for ceremonial purposes naturally sustained less damage than those with extensive field service and combat exposure. Some flags and staffs in the collection have bloodstains, bullet holes and other evidence of their service during the Civil War.

The Veterans Museum undertook the conservation of the Wisconsin Civil War battle flags in the 1990s and the project continues to this time. As of 2008, approximately 122 flags out of 200 have been conserved. There is no predetermined list for conservation, although flags of greater historical interest or flags in the poorest condition often receive priority consideration.

Conservation of the flags is a very time-consuming and expensive undertaking. Conservators receive training at the graduate level in a handful of programs around the country and specialize in specific areas, such as textiles or paintings. Even within those specialties, many conservators have a particular area of expertise. As a result, it is difficult to find conservators available and qualified to work on flags of this condition and significance. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum does not have a textile conservator on staff or the space for a work area on site, so we must transport the battle flags to a qualified individual.

In the early days of the project, conservation cost between $1000 and $5000 per flag. The most recent estimate for a single flag is $10,000-$16,000 (although this specimen is in extremely poor condition). Increasing costs are due to the sophistication of the techniques and materials in use, as well as the extent of deterioration for any particular flag. Although a budget for conservation is provided annually, the procedures are time consuming and usually only one or two flags can be conserved a year. The public plays a significant role in saving these flags, with donations made by descendents of soldiers, interested individuals, Civil War re-enactors, and civic groups. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum greatly appreciates all donations to the flag conservation fund with all monies going directly to conservation costs. It truly is a race against time to save these flags before they are lost to history.

As mentioned earlier, much of the damage to the flags has historical significance, so the goal of conservation is not to restore the flag to its original condition. The intention is to stabilize the flag, support it against further damage and avoid damaging the fabric with the conservation technique itself. As with other museum techniques, the conservation process should always be reversible, allowing the flag to be returned to its unaltered state if desired.

The techniques for conserving the battle flags vary depending on the condition of the flag, but might include:

Conservation is important for future preservation, but also allows the flags to be more accessible to the public now. All of the flags shown on this website have been conserved, ensuring they are stable enough for limited handling, photography and exhibit. Without conservation these flags would still be wrapped on their staffs, too fragile to view, and inaccessible to researchers and the general public.