1861 Ball's Bluff Flag










by Flag Historian Steven Hill

1861 Regimental Flag
The flags shown here are encased at Memorial Hall, Harvard University , and replicate those of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. Memorial Hall was built in 1875 to honor Harvard men who had served the Union cause. The original flags were carried by the regiment through some of the most famous battles of the war, as detailed below, and given to Harvard University after the war.
The red flag was presented to the regiment in 1861 to1861 Ball's Bluff Flagcommemorate the disastrous battle of Ball's Bluff in which 195 of the regiment's 300 men suffered casualties. Due to their fragile condition, the original flags were removed during the recent restoration of Memorial Hall to an off-site, climate controlled environment. The museum quality replicas now on display were constructed of silk taffeta and hand painted by Steven Hill of Boston in 1995.
See images of other flags of the 20th Mass
The first colors were presented to the regiment on August 30, 1861 at its camp of instruction in Readville. Governor Andrew made the presentation on behalf of Mrs. Caleb Chase and the committee of ladies who had procured them. The state flag, from a description in the Regimental history, is clearly the same one that is now at Harvard (pictured above left). It is approximately five by six feet in size, off-white much darkened by age, and bound by metalic gold tape. The state coat-of-arms is on the reverse, which is the side visible. On the obverse, now against the wall, is an elaborate border like that on the reverse, and the words across the center "FIDE ET CONSTANTIA". The color was originally surmounted by an eagle and had some sort of streamer or banerol. Apparently this color was carried only a short time; nothing certain is known about its use by the Regiment, but it appears in surprisingly good condition in a post-war photograph of the surviving officers of the 20th. A national color of early war style is also at Harvard (not pictured), and it is assumed that it was presented to the regiment at the same ceremony as the state color, although not mentioned in the regimental history. It too is well preserved, not much damaged by use, and appears in the post-war officers photograph. It was given to Harvard at the same time as the state color. The national is approximately four feet by six, with an eagle painted into the Union, surrounded by thirty -four gold stars. It had an eagle finial, and has no fringe. Judging from the appearance of the painted eagle union, the flag was probably made by Thomas Savory of Boston.

State and national colors from the Massachusetts Adjutant General were presented to the Regiment on September 4, 1861, just prior to its departure from the state. Judging by their ragged condition it is probably these two colors referred to in the regimental history: "we sent back to Boston [in 1862] both stands of colors that had been received in August(sic) 1861, and carried in all our fights, except Ball's Bluff." "Both stands" might mean both those from the state and those now at Harvard, but the colors received by the AG came back in tatters, while the two colors that would eventually be on display at Harvard show little damage.

The small but disastrous Battle of Ball's Bluff, fought October 21, 1861, was the 20th's first action. Of some 300 men of the 20th that were engaged, 195 were killed, wounded, or missing. As the regiment was ferried across the Potomac and fed into the battle piecemeal, it is possible that it brought no color at all into the fray. The colors returned to Boston in 1862 were specifically stated to have been in all battles except Ball's Bluff. If we take that reference to mean only the issued colors that are now in the State's collection, then it is possible that the "FIDE ET CONSTANTIA" color and the eagle national were carried in that fight.

On Christmas Day following Ball's Bluff the Regiment received a silk flag commemorating the event. This is the third of the colors now at Harvard (the red flag pictured above). The 20th apparently used this flag as its state color from Oct. 1862, when the first pair of flags from Massachusetts were returned, until mid-1864 when the much depleted and worn-out regiment began to carry only a single national color. Between Christmas 1861, when this color was presented, and October 1862, when the first set of colors from the AG were returned, the regiment may have carried three colors--the two from the Commonwealth and the Ball's Bluff flag--a practice which, while not officially approved of, was not entirely unusual.

The Ball's Bluff color was a gift of the sisters of Lieutentants Lowell and Putnam of Company E. Lowell had been wounded and Putnam killed at Ball's Bluff. It was presented on behalf of the donors by the Honorable John C. Palfrey, father of Lieutenant-colonel Palfrey of the Regiment. The flag was of red silk, about four and one-half by six feet, bound by gold tape. On one side was a pine tree, the traditional symbol of Massachusetts and New England, with the title "20th REGt Mass.[VOLS.]" above, and the motto "Stand in the Evil Day" below. On the reverse, the side visible as displayed at Harvard, was an arm grasping a sword--the crest of the Massachusetts coat of arms--with the state motto "Ense Petit Placidum sub Libertate Quietum" in a circle around it. Above this were the words "Ball's Bluff 21st Oct 1861" in gold, and below, "HAVING DONE ALL, TO STAND".

A fire-breathing letter accompanied the flag, enlarging upon the state motto and Massachusetts' expectation of her soldiers. It was read at the presentation and said in part:

For Liberty and Peace Massachusetts does not shed from shedding her own blood, and from spilling that of her enemies. Her motto, that you will carry into battle on this flag, expresses her creed...She seeks for liberty and peace, and will secure them with the sword. Yes with the sword, the rifle, or the cannon. She bids you fight. Fight in the name of your dead and for your captives... Take, then, this flag. Stand by it in the evil day. Bring it back when the sword has done its work, and let the stains of smoke and blood upon it..tell us the story of your deeds.

On May 4, 1862, the national color of the 20th was among the first to fly over the Confederate fortifications at Yorktown. This may have been either the national color given the regiment by the state or the eagle-union color now at Harvard. The Confederate trenches had been abandoned during the night. According to the regimental history, the 20th "mounted the principle redoubt" at 7:45 AM. "Colonel Lee immediately shouted for the regimental flag, and in a few minutes it waved, the first United States flag on the rebel works at Yorktown."

New colors, both national and state, were received by the regiment on October 28, 1862, as it lay at Harper's Ferry. The old colors were sent back on the 30th. This second National Flag was virtually destroyed in the great battles of the next twelve months, even the earliest post-war photographs show much of the flag itself missing, the finial gone, the pike broken off just below the silk. The accompanying state color, on the other hand, shows no wear or damage at all, suggesting that it was kept in the rear, or sent home, while the Ball's Bluff banner served in its place. This supposition is further supported by records showing that the second state color was not returned to the Commonwealth either during or directly after the war, but was given instead, fully illuminated with battle honors, to Governor Bullock on September 12, 1866.

It cannot be ascertained for certain whether the colors now at Harvard were carried much in the field. Often special presentatation colors were reserved for special occasions rather than carried into battle. Indeed the first two colors show little wear. The red Ball's Bluff color is more of a puzzle. It certainly is in remarkably good shape when compared with the national color that the regiment carried during the same period. That flag was nothing but rags when turned in, it had quite literally been shot to pieces. Could the red Ball's Bluff flag have been carried beside this flag and remained undamaged? Very few regiments carried only one color during this period of the war, however, and the second state color of the 20th, as detailed above, seems to have not been carried in the field at all. The 20th was apparently very proud of its part at Ball's Bluff (being part of a crushing defeat was not considered a mark of shame, as long as the regiment had behaved well under the circumstances, which every regiment always considered that it had) and was probably very proud of the banner commemorating the event. The flag and its presentation are described at length in the regimental history. It was saved, along with the other two, long after the war, photographed with the survivors years later, and finally presented to Harvard University for perpetual care. Even if it were not carried on a daily basis or shot to pieces in great battles, it seems safe to say that it accompanied the regiment in the field, where it was indeed presented, and was probably carried with pride on ceremonial occasions.

Copyright.The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.



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