The 20th Maine's Battle Flag

Over 30 years ago, as part of a transfer of over 1000 items from the Maine Adjutant General's Office, the Maine State Museum in Augusta, Maine acquired a national flag (stars and stripes) crammed into a small wooden box with a glass lid. The only record that came with it was: "Flag, 20th Maine Regiment (very fragile, in box)." Shrouded in mystery, the flag remained in that box for years. "Based on the historical and forensic evidence we have acquired, we believe this color to be the one used by Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment on Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863," said Douglas Hawes, Curator of Historical Collections at the Maine State Museum at the time. "How we came to that conclusion is something of a story."

After seeing the boxed flag on a private tour of the flag collection, representatives from the Army Historical Foundation agreed to fund the conservation of the flag provided the museum could do two things: (1) safely remove the flag from the box and conserve it and (2) display it at Gettysburg for the 135th anniversary of the battle on July 1-3 where one of the largest reenactments in the nation would occur. "We were strapped for funds, and although it was short notice, a tremendous opportunity was at hand, "said Hawes. "For close to thirty years, we realized we needed a professional conservator to remove the flag. The time had finally come."

Restored National Colors

Traveling in late April from Augusta, Maine, Hawes hand delivered the flag to Fonda Thomsen of Textile Preservation Associates, a leading textile conservation laboratory in Sharpsburg, Maryland. "We really had no idea what to expect, but knew it had to be special" said Thomsen. "What we unfolded was a Civil War battle flag. The colors' condition and construction were what we have come to expect of battle-damaged Union flags." Thomsen's team of conservators worked many hours painstakingly preserving the flag by hand sewing it between two layers of sheer fabric which holds the silk in original configuration. It was now ready to be presented to the public.

Photo credit: 20th Maine Battle Flag, Maine State Museum, photo by Ron Coss.

The flag used at Gettysburg was issued before Antietam in 1862 and carried through the battles of Sheperdstown Ford, Fredericksburg, and finally Gettysburg.

After Gettysburg, the flag became too tattered to continue and was retired. It was presented to Adelbert Ames, the regiment's first colonel, as a gift. Ames kept the flag and later gave it to the Twentieth Maine Regimental Association in 1881. At the Grand Reunion of Maine Soldiers and Sailors in Portland that year, the association recorded in its records that "A motion to present the colors to the State was not carried." After that, the flag disappears from the records.

20th's Flag at Gettysburg

The museum's flag appears to be the one shown in a rare photograph taken in Gettysburg in 1881 or 1882. That photograph was owned by Ellis Spear who commanded the left wing of the regiment at Gettysburg. He wrote on the back of the picture: "Position of the battle flag at time of battle and the same flag used by the 20th Maine on Little Round Top." The flag's staff was missing, and a stick was substituted. Likewise, the museum's flag came without a staff. According to Fonda Thomsen, "the similarity between the flag in the photograph and the flag itself were extraordinary. The condition is identical. There is a 99.9 percent chance this is the same flag."

Photo credit: 20th Maine Battle Flag, taken c. 1881-2, 
Maine State Archives

Forensic evidence supports this conclusion. First, particles and chemicals found on the silk and in the corded fringe of the flag were carefully collected and sent to be analyzed microscopically by McCrone Associates, Inc in Illinois. "We found that the silk of the flag was unusually clean, but had no evidence of being washed. The fringe contained sharp angular soot and ash flakes that match other samples taken from known Civil War battle flags," said Fonda Thomsen. In addition, three different types of seeds found in the fringe were identified by the State of Maryland's Department of Agriculture. All were common to Gettysburg in July, and one type does not generally occur north of Rhode Island.

The fact that the silk itself is unusually clean corresponds with history. On July 4, 1863 torrential downpours soaked the armies that were too exhausted to fight and Robert E. Lee began the retreat south. The red dye in the stripes bled heavily into the white stripes, suggesting the flag was in a heavy downpour. "The flag appears to have been stored shortly after, suggesting it was retired soon after being soaked," said Thomsen. "In conclusion," said Dougles Hawes, "we believe this is the color used by the 20th Maine Regiment at Gettysburg."

The flag was on display at the Maine State Museum in 1998.