Into the Fray:
The Flags of the Iron Brigade, 1861-1865
By Howard Michael Madaus
Sixth Wisconsin National Color
... We moved on to battle, and soon the
whole ground shook at the discharges of artillery and infantry. Gainesville, Bull Run,
South Mountain were good respectable battles, but in the intensity and energy of the fight
and the roar of the firearms, they were but skirmishes in comparison to this of
Sharpsburg. . . About twenty stands of colors were captured by us, - two by the 6th Wisc.
1 Lieut. Frank A. Haskell, letter September 22, 1862, originally published October 4, 1862, in the Portage Wisconsin State Register
LIEUTENANT Frank A. Haskell of Portage, the author of this passage, is better known for his firsthand account of the battle of Gettysburg. He saw action on some of the bloodiest battlefields of the Civil War, and he was not given to exaggeration. When he posted this description of the battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) to his brothers and sisters during the autumn of 1862, he had been serving for four months on the staff of Brigadier General John Gibbon.
The shot-torn flags Haskell made note of - those of the
Sixth Wisconsin and the Second Wisconsin - represented two of the regiments comprising
Gibbon's Brigade, a unit that had won the nickname "Iron Brigade" for its action
at South Mountain, just three days before the appalling slaughter at Antietam. In
succeeding months at Fredericksburg, Chancellorville, and above all on the first day at
Gettysburg - the Midwesterners of Gibbon's Brigade amply justified their claim to being
the bravest of the brave among all the regiments of the Union Army.
Indeed, the loss of its colors in combat could seriously jeopardize the morale of that unit. After the regimental color of the Sixth Wisconsin briefly fell into the hands of the Eightieth New York at the battle of Antietam, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward S. Bragg felt it necessary to explain... that the regiment conducted itself during the fight so as to fully sustain its previous reputation; that it did not abandon its colors on the field; that every color-bearer and every member of the guard was disabled and compelled to leave; that the State color fell into other keeping, temporarily, in rear of the regiment, because its bearer had fallen; but it was immediately reclaimed, and under its folds, few but undaunted, the regiment rallied to the support of the battery. The color lance of the National color is pierced with five balls, and both colors bear multitudes of testimony that they were in the thickest of the fight.
But beyond these transcendental factors, flags served at least three practical purposes on the nineteenth-century battlefield.
At the beginning of the Civil War, colorful uniforms were
adopted or adapted from pre-war militia service by the belligerents of both sides to
enhance unit morale or state pride. Such uniforms were not always conducive to
distinguishing friend from foe. Indeed, the Second Wisconsin, outfitted by Wisconsin in
gray uniforms, found itself under fire from both friend and foe during the first battle of
Bull Run! The thick gray-white smoke that clung near the ground on battlefields of the
black-powder era further complicated the problem. In such circumstances, flags were often
the only means of distinguishing the identity of the combatants. Unit flags also served as
the focal point for maintaining
Because the colors drew an inordinate share of enemy fire and were the object of capture, the color-party of the period was large and more than ceremonial. The national color was carried by a sergeant, while the regimental or state color was carried by a corporal. Anywhere from four to seven other corporals were selected to form the color-guard (2) whose sole duty in combat consisted of protecting the unit's flags. Only after the flag was removed from a functional combat role did military tacticians reduce the size of the color-guard.
2 U.S. War Department, U.S. Infantry Tactics,
for the Instruction, Exercise, and Maneuvers of the United States
The importance of flags to military units during the mid-nineteenth century was not limited to the military tacticians who prepared the drill manuals that officers studied for the rudiments of marching and maneuvers. Patriotic groups and individuals throughout the country answered Lincoln's initial call to arms by presenting flags to the militia and volunteer companies that answered. Loyal Wisconsinites were no different than their compatriots throughout the North.
Wisconsin's quota under Lincoln's initial call was for but
a single infantry regiment of ten companies.
The enthusiasm that led to the formation of' the First Wisconsin Active Militia brought offers for service from far more companies than there were positions available. Although Washington did not authorize it, Governor Randall organized the overflow into a second regiment of "State Active Militia" for three months service and established its rendezvous at Madison. The militia companies volunteering for this Second Regiment soon flocked to Camp Randall, many encumbered with flags that had been presented by the communities whence they had departed.
Presentation color of the Miners Guard, Company I, Second Wisconsin Infantry, 1861. Line drawing by, Robert D. Needham.
The La Crosse Light Guards (Company B of the Second
Regiment) arrived with a "white silk flag, with blue fringe and inscribed on an oval
ground in the centre: 'Presented by the ladies of La Crosse, July 4th, 1860, to the La
Crosse Light Guards.' " The Portage Light Guards (Company G) arrived with a silk
national flag presented by the ladies of the city prior to the company's departure. Both
companies arrived in the predominately gray uniforms adopted prior to hostilities.
Janesville Volunteers (Company D) arrived without uniforms, but boasted "a superb
national flag of silk" carried by Ensign Dana D. Dodge. Similarly, the Miners Guard
(Company I) arrived only partly uniformed. Nevertheless, the ladies of Mineral Point had
completed a "handsome merino United States flag" presented by G. W. Cobb before
the company departed on its stormy ride to Madison
The most impressive flag, however, was that brought to
Camp Randall by the Belle City Rifles (Company F). The young ladies of Racine had
presented a color to this company in impressive ceremonies at Titus Hall prior to its
departure. The local newspapers described it in some detail:
ONCE the regiment had assembled at Camp Randall, there was little use for these patriotic company gifts. In the absence of regimental colors, the colonel may have occasionally selected one or two of the company colors to accompany regimental drill, and they undoubtedly decorated the tents of the respective captains. The drill manuals and the Army Regulations, however, permitted only one set of colors per regiment, and the company flags were accordingly relegated to the captains baggage.
The Revised United States, Army
Regulations of 1861 ordained that each infantry regiment was to have a set
of colors consisting of two flags. Each was supposed to measure seventy-two inches on its
hoist (staff) by seventy-eight inches on its fly. The national color of this pair was
loosely described as conforming to the design specified for the large (twenty by
thirty-six foot) garrison flag. In the description of the garrison flag, the canton (the
section of blue in the upper staff corner which encloses the stars) was specified to
extend from the top through the seventh stripe and form the staff to a distance equal to
one-third of the length of the flag. On the garrison flag, these proportions resulted in a
canton that was nearly twelve feet square.
3. U.S. War Department, Revised United States Army Regulations of l861... (Washington, 1863), 461, paragraphs 1464 and 1466. This description was copied unchanged from the similar regulations printed in 1841, 1847, 1857, and 1861 (unversed). Although several contractors to the New York Quartermaster's department depot consistently provided national colors with square cantons during the Civil War, the literal oversight was not corrected until 1884, when the width of the canton on the fly was officially specified as thirty-one inches on national colors.
Colonel S. Park Coon, commander of the Second
Wisconsin, did not trust the patriotic fervor that had furnished the First Wisconsin and
so many of the volunteer companies with colors during the first few months of the war.
Instead, on June 7, 1861, he assigned a nebulous "Captain Sanders" to he task of
providing colors for the Second and asked the state's quartermaster-general for
cooperation in the venture. Three Madison business concerns furnished all that Sanders
would require for the Second's national color. By June 19 he had obtained a staff for the
color from Church and Hawley for $8. On the next day an oilcloth cover to protect the flag
when furled and a belt with a carrying socket for the color-bearer were purchased from
Thomas Chynoweth, for $2.25 and $1.50 respectively. The more significant work, however,
was delegated to Mrs. R. C. Powers, who secured the necessary materials ($5.38 for silk,
$1.25 for a silk cord to secure the flag to its staff,
4. Wisconsin National Guard,
Quartermaster Corps, General Correspondence of the Quartermaster General
Although the flag was provided with cords and tassels, the requirement that its edges be fringed was neglected. There is evidence that the desired fringe was not available in Madison. As it was the flag was completed only hours before the Second Wisconsin entrained for Washington, precluding even a brief presentation ceremony.
National color of the Second Wisconsin Infantry, 1861-63
The Second Wisconsin Active Militia had been called to its
Madison rendezvous on April 23, 1861.
IN the battle of Bull Run, Sherman's brigade was committed piecemeal. In the confusion, the Second Wisconsin (clad in gray uniforms) was fired upon from both front and rear, causing the regiment to retreat hastily. The Second was rallied near a field hospital. While attempting to reform, the color-sergeant of' the Second took time to assist acting corporal George L. Hyde, who had been wounded, to the hospital. Private Robert S. Stephenson held the national color for the color-sergeant during his absence.
Before the regiment had fully reformed, an ill-advised order caused the Second to break again, this time in a panic for Washington. While retreating, Stephenson was beset by elements of confederate cavalry. An intervening fence offered temporary haven. Rescue came, however, when two of the regimental bandsmen, Richard Carter and his brother George B. Carter, discarded their instruments for muskets and succeeded in uniting approximately fifteen Union soldiers around the threatened color. (5) Thus guarded, Stephenson and the color safely retreated.
5 "The Colors of the Second Regiment/The Retreat." published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, August 9, 1861.
Regimental color of the Second Wisconsin Infantry 1861-1863 (obverse).
Regimental color of the Second Wisconsin Infantry, 1861-1863 (reverse).
While the Second Wisconsin was recuperating from its
losses at Bull Run, another flag was being prepared for it in Madison: its blue regimental
color. This new flag was unique to the early Wisconsin regiments. Composed of two layers
of dark blue silk, the new flag was bound on three sides with a heavy gold fringe. In full
accord with regulations, the obverse (the side viewed when the staff is to the viewer's
left) bore a nearly exact representation of the Great Seal of the United States, painted
in gold and browns, and copied directly front the 1861 Army Regulations. (6) A crimson-edged gold scroll
6 Revised United States Army Regulations of
1861 ...(Washington, 1863), 460. The only significant
On August 2, 1861, Governor Randall visited the Second
Wisconsin and presented this new regimental flag to the regiment. Of the original nine-man
color-party, only two had survived to receive the new flag. Joining these two individuals
with the other replacements was Robert S. Stephenson (Stevenson). For saving the national
color of the regiment at Bull Run, Private Stephenson had been promoted to carry one of
the two colors of the Second. He continued in this capacity through the Second Bull Run
campaign of 1862. Convalescing at a field hospital at the beginning of the Maryland
campaign, Stephenson roused himself from his sick bed and rejoined the Second Wisconsin on
Prior to (and later as a result of) the attack upon Fort
Sumter, the Wisconsin legislature had adopted several measures to enhance the preparedness
of the state militia. One hundred thousand dollars was appropriated for uniforms and
equipage, and a war loan of twice that amount was eventually authorized.
Presentation color of the Sauk County Riflemen, Company A, Sixth Wisconsin Infantry, 1861.
The companies of the Sixth Wisconsin had been organizing
since April. As the Second Wisconsin prepared to depart Camp Randall, the companies of the
Fifth and Sixth regiments were called to rendezvous at the Second's former barracks. The
Sauk County Riflemen (soon to become Co. A of the Sixth) had completed their recruiting by
June 6. When the Sixth's Lieutenant-Colonel, Julius P. Atwood visited Baraboo to
officially swear the company into state service, the ladies of the town presented the
company with a small, silk United States flag bearing a painted eagle in its canton.
Possibly remembering the delay that had occurred between
the delivery of the Second Wisconsin's national and regimental colors, Wisconsin's
quartermaster-general, William W. Tredway, evidently sought a source that could deliver
regimental colors in a short period of time. Army Regulations nonchalantly described an
infantry regiment's "second, or regimental color, to be blue, with the
arms of the United States embroidered in silk on the centre. The name of the regiment in a
scroll, underneath the eagle." Given such a vague description, the only
complexity lay in the rendition of the arms of the United States, either in embroidery or
the traditional substitute, oil paint. Hence, on June 27,
Three days later Tredway forwarded S. F. White an order for six and a half yards of flag fringe and badgered White to know when the colors would be completed. White, however, was not a flag manufacturer, and he had let out the work to Gilbert Hubbard & Co., also of Chicago. Gilbert Hubbard & Co. acted swiftly on the order, and by July 16 had shipped the two flags via express to Madison. (7) Two days later, the Sixth Wisconsin was drawn up for review in their newly issued gray uniforms, and the blue regimental color was entrusted by Colonel Lysander Cutler to Sergeant George W. Reed of Company G. (8)
7. WiS. QMG, Gen. Corr., Box 4 (July
23-25,1861), Gilbert Hubbard & Co. to Q. M. Gen. W. W. Tredway,
Regimental color of the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry, 1861-1863.
Composed of a single layer of pieced, dark blue
silk, the regimental color of the Sixth Wisconsin was fringed in yellow on three sides.
(9) On each side, the artist for
Gilbert Hubbard & Co. had executed in oils a full-color rendition of the seal of the
United States - the eagle predominantly in brown tones and grays, the shield in red and
white stripes under the blue chief and bordered in gold, the arrows in gold and the laurel
in green in opposing talons, the sky behind the eagle's head a sunburst fading to a
9 The flag measures sixty-eight inches on its
staff by seventy-five inches on its fly, exclusive of the
ON July 28, 1861, just four days after the Fifth Wisconsin had departed for Washington, the Sixth Wisconsin followed her sister regiment. The Sixth left with but a single flag, the blue regimental color presented by the state ten days earlier. The national color had failed to materialize. However, with the organization and equipage of the Seventh and Eighth regiments, the state would rectify its failure to furnish that national color.
On July 23, 1861, the U.S. War Department authorized Wisconsin to complete the organization of the two additional active militia regiments that the Wisconsin Legislature had established at Governor Randall's urging. Although the governor had not planned to call the Seventh and Eighth regiments into camp until after the fall harvest, the Union defeat at the battle of Wilson's Creek in Missouri prompted the War Department to press Governor Randall for an earlier rendezvous. Wisconsin's Quartermaster-General therefore began to arrange for the equipping of these two new units. On August 20, 1861, an order was confirmed with Gilbert Hubbard & Co. that provided flags not only for the two new regiments, but also for the Sixth regiment's lack of a national standard as well. Deputy Quartermaster-General Means's order was succinct, stating in part: (11)
Please send us at as early a day as
possible one Regimental color (blue Silk) for 8th Regm't Wis. Vol., army regulation in all
National Color of the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry, 1861-1863.
Apparently these flags were delivered by the sixth of
September. Rather than ship the national color of the Sixth via express, General Tredway
devised a less expensive shipping procedure.
The national colors provided by Gilbert Hubbard
& Co. under Means's order conformed to the regulations with but a single deviation:
the use of gold paint where silver embroidery was officially specified. This gilding was
used in both the application of the unit name, "6TH REGT WISCONSIN
VOLUNTEERS.", to the center stripe and the thirty-four stars in the canton. These
gold stars were arranged into six horizontal rows, the topmost and the bottom rows
containing five stars each, the four center rows six stars each. Like the regimental
colors provided by Gilbert Hubbard & Co. up to this time, the flag was secured to its
staff by means of silk ties that passed through four small brass
In placing the order with Gilbert Hubbard & Co.
on August 20, 1861, for the colors required for the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth regiments,
no mention was made Regimental color for the Seventh Wisconsin. For reasons not clear, the
state had decided to have that flag made in Madison. On August 1, 1861, a voucher was
issued to Mrs. R. Powers of Madison for one "Regimental color" and the
"Silk & Trimmings for Regimental color for 7th Reg't." Audited twenty days
later, Mrs. Powers' payment included $15.00 for actual sewing of the flag, $20.00 for the
painting on the color, and $19.61 for "Silk & trimmings for same." The last
amount did not include the six and a half yards of fringe or the cords and tassels. These
had been ordered from S. F. White & Bro. of Chicago on July I 1, but
13 The Return of Property Purchased and Issued by the Quartermaster-General for the Year Ending August 1, 1862, cited above (Record Group 1163), Abstract A, indicates a receipt date of september 28, but Abstract E lists an issue date of September 21. The latter date is undoubtedly correct, since the Seventh departed Madison on that date.
Regimental color of the Seventh Wisconsin Infantry 1861-1863.
National color of the Seventh Wisconsin in Infantry, 1862-1863.
Although conforming to the vague specifications of
Army Regulations, the painted U.S. seal and the scroll beneath it on the regimental color
of the Seventh were unlike any design heretofore provided by either Gilbert Hubbard &
Co. or any of the other suppliers of flags to Wisconsin during the Civil War.
Originally believed to be of regulation size, no
more than two-thirds of the national color of the Seventh Wisconsin survives. Any
fringe it may have had has been torn away. The canton, which originally bore
thirty-four gold stars (thirty set in a double ellipse - probably ten in an inner ring
surrounded by twenty in a concentric outer ring - with one other star set in each corner
of the canton) is badly damaged. (16) Surprisingly, no evidence of a unit abbreviation appears on the center stripe or
any of the other surviving fragments. (17) The star pattern (so different from those upon the national flags of the Sixth
and Eighth regiments ordered August 20, 1861) as well as the absence of any painted unit
abbreviation indicates that the national flag of the Seventh carried from at least
mid-1862 until November of 1863 was not the color ordered from Gilbert Hubbard & Co.
and delivered on September 5, 1861, with the regimental color of the latter. Instead, the
flag exhibits the characteristics of several eastern flag manufacturers who served the
Philadelphia U.S. Quartermaster's Depot and several eastern states.
SINCE it is convincingly
established that the pair of colors secured for the Third Wisconsin was purchased by
Colonel Charles S. Hamilton in Philadelphia (18), all a strong possibility exists that the Seventh may have turned to the
Philadelphia market for a new color in early 1862.
On September 17, 1861, the state's Military Store Keeper
recorded the receipt of two "Belts for Color Bearers"
for the Seventh regiment. These belts had been ordered on the sixteenth from Thomas
Chynoweth of Madison at the cost of $4 by Assistant Quartermaster N. B. Van Slyke.
After the Seventh Wisconsin entrained for the East on September 21, a brief stop was made at Stoughton, home of the Stoughton Light Guard, the Seventh's Company D. The state papers reported that the ladies of that town "had made a fine banner to present to the Stoughton company, but finding that under the regulations it would be only an encumbrance if carried, did not present it.
On the other hand, this had not deterred the Grand Rapids
Union Guards (Company G)
Presentation color of the grand Rapids
Union Guards, Company G, Seventh Wisconsin Infantry, 1861
For example, at the battle of Perryville, Kentucky (also
called the battle of Chaplin Hills by the Union participants), on October 8, 1862, the
First Wisconsin Infantry suffered staggering casualties protecting the left flank of the
Union Army of the Ohio from wave upon wave of Confederate assaults. The colors of
the First were riddled, and its staff was struck twice. Of the color-party, only three
were unscathed when night ended the battle. When the color-sergeant fell, grievously
wounded, a private, James S. Durham of' Company F, grasped the flag and kept it aloft.
Despite its losses, at one point the First
Starkweather's account struck a chord in the patriotic
spirit of State Senator Benjamin F. Hopkins, a Republican representing Wisconsin's
Twenty-sixth Senatorial District. On February 16, 1863, Hopkins begged the
indulgence of the senate to suspend the rules in order to introduce a resolution
establishing a joint committee commissioned with the responsibility of establishing a
state flag and preparing legislation that would permit Wisconsin regiments to substitute
this new flag for their worn-out colors.
Next page 1863-1865