Hear Tracy Briggs narrate this story:
There might not be a lot of mystery surrounding how the Civil War turned out when it ended 156 years ago this month. In the simplest of oversimplified nutshells:
- The Union defeated the Confederacy.
- The nation was restored.
- And slavery was abolished.
Cue documentarian Ken Burns for the rest of the details.
But one Civil War mystery still brews long after Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. It involves a question over who is the true owner of a Confederate battle flag seized at the Battle of Gettysburg — the original regiment who marched with it or the enemy who took it away?
In other words, Virginia or Minnesota?
Let’s start at square one with the help of documentation provided by the Minnesota State Historical Society and the 28th Virginia Infantry Regiment. After you see the evidence, you be the judge, by answering the poll at the end of the story.
Minnesota’s entry into The Civil War
Let’s start at the very beginning. Minnesota had been a state for just three years when it became among the first states (and some claim the very first state) to commit soldiers to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Just one day after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey offered up 1,000 men for national service. Within two weeks, the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was filled with 1,009 men from St. Paul and nearby towns. The Regiment was part of the Army of the Potomac and engaged in fighting at the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia and the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. But the regiment might be most remembered for its efforts at the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863.
The Battle of Gettysburg
According to Patrick Hill’s story, “Colors of Valor — the 28th Virginia Regiment’s Flag in Minnesota,” published for the Minnesota Historical Society, that summer of 1863, the Confederates were within striking distance of Philadelphia, with some historians theorizing that General Robert E. Lee was hoping to strike coal fields near Harrisburg to cripple the industrial power of the North. The rebels were on the move, consolidating their forces at Gettysburg.
“At that moment, the Army of Northern Virginia was the most successful fighting force ever assembled in the Western Hemisphere, and it was intent on delivering a decisive blow,” wrote Hill.
The First Minnesota and the rest of the Union Army of the Potomac was sent to Gettysburg, where by all accounts they faced an uphill battle. They had been defeated three out of the last four major engagements in the South, and this could be the turning point of the war.
A Minnesota house painter saves the day
The fighting at Gettysburg had been raging for two days, when the First Minnesota (at the center of the Union line) was ordered to make a diversionary charge into the Confederate line. It was costly, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, with 82% of the unit being injured or killed. But a private from St. Paul was not one of them. Marshall Sherman was a house painter by trade who had moved to the Minnesota territory from his native Vermont in 1849.
“He was a gentleman by most accounts, a small, quiet, soft-spoken man,” Hill wrote. “But it may have crossed his mind as he ran over the ridge at Gettysburg on the hot afternoon of July 3, that being a gentleman was not going to help him.”
What faced him and the others was described by Hill as “complete pandemonium” and “an image from hell.”
It was believed that whomever won this charge would prevail in the battle. When it was done, Northern forces had won, and the soft-spoken house painter from St. Paul had seized the Confederate battle flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry Regiment to prove it.
So where did the flag go after the battle?
According to records, the flag of the 28th Virginia was one of 25 flags captured that day. It was taken to the War Department and was officially recorded as property of the U.S. Government on July 10, 1863.
When the war ended, Southern states intent on rebuilding weren’t that concerned with getting their old flags back. But by 1887, with the war 22 years in the rear view mirror, talks began about returning flags to the original owners. Eighteen years later, in 1905, Congress passed a resolution stating that any flag 'now in the custody of the War Department' be returned to their original regiments. "Now" becomes the most important word going forward.
Did Minnesota’s seized prize from Gettysburg have to go back to Virginia? It depended, largely upon exactly where the flag was at the moment the resolution was passed. And by all accounts, it was clearly in the Land of 10,000 Lakes in 1905, among the lefse, loons and hot dishes.
But how did Minnesota get the flag out of the War Department in the first place? This is probably the biggest mystery and at the heart of who has a legal claim to the flag. If the flag was property of the War Department in 1905, presumably it should be returned to Virginia. However, with it being in Minnesota in 1905, was it still considered a possession of the War Department? Was it just on loan to Minnesota or was it a gift to the state, thus not needing to be returned to anyone?
Did Minnesota get the flag as a party favor?
According to the Minnesota State Historical Society, the First Minnesota always claimed to be the first three-year state regiment offered for Union service. So on February 6, 1864, with little time left in their service, the Minnesota Congressional Delegation hosted a celebration of the unit at Washington’s National Hotel. It was quite the shindig with special guest Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the banquet speaker.
However, Stanton wasn’t just at the party to have a glass of whiskey and pat Minnesotans on the back. According to historians, he had an ulterior motive. By the winter of 1864, long after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Northern forces were starting to falter a bit. Even as he was sending the regiment back to Minnesota to their farms and loved ones, Stanton knew it was in the Union’s best interest to re-enlist these veterans and recruit more. Would he be willing to resort to a little gift-giving for incentive?
According to Hill’s account, “it was common for Stanton to approve loans or grants of trophies of war, including captured Confederate flags, to increase patriotic fervor and display military accomplishment.”
He believes Stanton brought the flag to the banquet, where it eventually went home with the Minnesotans and was seen in a parade in St. Paul just a week later. It is believed then, that the man who originally grabbed the flag, Marshall Sherman, borrowed it to get his photo taken with it. It appears he never gave it back. But was he even required to?
Either way, the patriotic bribe seemed to have worked with successful recruitment in Minnesota, including Sherman himself. After reenlisting, he was later injured in a battle in Petersburg, Virginia, where he lost his leg. He eventually had this unusual photo taken of him with his prosthetic leg removed and sitting beside him.
The flag on display
It appears after taking the photo with the flag, Sherman loaned it to the St. Paul Cyclorama from 1886 to 1888. Cycloramas were popular forms of entertainment in the 1800s. For a small fee, people would walk into the huge, circular display covered in a panoramic image, thus immersing themselves in whatever event the image portrayed. In this case, it was the Battle of Gettysburg. Following Sherman’s death, the flag was most likely given to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War Veterans group, and later given to the Minnesota Historical Society, where it would occasionally come out for special events.
"Minnesota has refused to return the flag, and they ought to. I don't know why they need it."
— Virginia Legislator John S. Edwards in 2000 when asking for Minnesota to return the flag.
Virginia wants it back
For most of the 20th century, Minnesota’s possession of the flag was a non-issue. But as the 100th anniversary of The Civil War was getting closer, interest picked up. In 1960, the Virginia Historical Society asked the Minnesota Historical Society for the flag and was denied. Then, in 1965, for the centennial celebration of the end of The Civil War, one Minnesota Historical Society assistant director wanted to play "Minnesota nice" and offered to give the flag back to Virginia as a gesture of reconciliation. But he hadn’t gotten official approval before making the plan, so he was stopped dead in his tracks. It was determined that the flag was part of Minnesota history now, and it would stay there.
In 1998, the call came from a group of 28th Virginia Infantry reenactors, many descendants of men who were in the original battle, who wanted the flag back as per the 1905 Congressional resolution. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minnesota Historical Society sought the advice of assistant attorney general Peter J. Berrie, who ruled the state need not give the flag back because “the six year statue of limitations for reclaiming lost goods in Minnesota had expired. The claim was 128 years too late.”
Two years later, Virginians fought again to get their flag back with the state legislature passing a resolution requesting the return of the flag, despite the controversy over the symbol.
"It's a matter of state pride," Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) told The Washington Post. "Minnesota has refused to return the flag, and they ought to. I don't know why they need it."
"The bond between this flag and the people of Minnesota should not be taken lightly.”
— Then director of the MN Historical Society Nina Archabal on how the flag honors Minnesota soldiers' courage in the battle.
But Minnesota apparently wanted it for the same reason Virginia did — state pride — not in honor of the men who fought for the flag, but for those who sacrificed life and limb to defeat it. Nina M. Archabal, then director of the Minnesota Historical Society, told the Star Tribune, “the flag’s story clearly transcends state boundaries. Legally and ethically, the bond between this flag and the people of Minnesota should not be taken lightly.”
Hill pointed out that the flag had most likely only been carried by the 28th Virginia Infantry Regiment for 18 days. On the other hand, as of 2021, it has been in the state of Minnesota for 157 years, where it is occasionally put out for the public to see. However, Director of Research for the Minnesota Historical Society Bill Convery says it is currently in long term storage and not on display. At this moment, there are no active requests out of Virginia to get the flag back. But that’s not to say the matter has been settled for good.
What do you think?
Is Virginia right to want the flag back because:
it was originally only loaned to Minnesota from the Secretary of War to help with recruitment. Minnesota was at fault for not returning it to the War Department, where it legally would have been required to be returned to Virginia following the 1905 resolution.
Virginia is the original owner and creator of the flag. It might have been seized in wartime, but the war is over and it should be returned to the rightful owner.
The flag represents Virginia soldiers fallen in battle
It’s a matter of state pride for descendants of the 28th Virginia Infantry Regiment, who continue to participate in re-enactments of the battle
Or is Minnesota right to keep it?
The Secretary of War gave Minnesota the flag as a gift, and they didn’t need to return it.
It was not in the War Department’s possession at the time the resolution passed to return the flags currently in the custody of the War Department.
It was Virginia’s flag, but it was seized fair and square. To the victors go the spoils.
It's a matter of state pride for Minnesota soldiers who sacrificed life and limb to win the battle and eventually the war.
The original owner - Virginia 5% The state who seized it in battle - Minnesota 92% Since it's a Confederate flag and offensive, it should just be destroyed 4%
Who should get to keep the Confederate flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry?
Thank you for voting!
The original owner - Virginia
The state who seized it in battle - Minnesota
Since it's a Confederate flag and offensive, it should just be destroyed
Other stories by Tracy Briggs: