...in 1865, Governor John Andrew officially received the battered regimental colors of Massachusetts units of the Union Army in a solemn State House ceremony called "The Return of the Flags." It had been customary since revolutionary days for the governor to present each regiment about to leave for battle with its own distinctive flag, a symbol of the regiment's honor. The units carried their colors into battle, and since the 1865 ceremony, every Massachusetts regiment returning from war has presented its flag to the governor. That historic collection of over 100 flags adorns the Hall of Flags in the State House, a memorial to all Massachusetts soldiers.
In the spring of 1861, civil war had begun to seem inevitable. Massachusetts was ready. The Massachusetts Sixth Infantry had been organized in January. When President Lincoln called for troops on April 15th, the Sixth assembled in Lowell and traveled by train to Boston. Two days later, as they prepared to leave Boston, the men gathered in front of the State House. Governor John Andrew presented them with their regimental colors.
They had no idea how soon those flags would come under fire. Within days, an anti-Union mob attacked the troops as their train passed through Baltimore. Color Sergeant Timothy A. Crowley of Lowell managed to carry the regimental flag thorough a hailstorm of bricks, cobblestones, and gunfire. The unit chaplain later recalled that "Crowley bore himself gallantly on that trying day. He might have rolled up his colors and escaped the position of prominence which otherwise would subject him to the greatest danger, But no; he unfurled them to the breeze, and bore them on, and . . . they became a guide and an inspiration. Without music, [the soldiers] could only look on that, and follow where it led." Four members of the Sixth Infantry died in the riot, but the flag would remain intact throughout the war.
It had long been customary for the governor to present Massachusetts units departing for war with their arms, ammunition, and regimental flags at the State House. As the chaplain's account suggests, a regiment's flag served more than a ceremonial purpose. Troops looked to their colors for both direction and inspiration. In the din and confusion of battle, soldiers could easily lose track of their comrades; they rallied around their unit's distinctive battle flag. Looking up to see the familiar flag unfurled also helped raise morale. Each unit appointed a color sergeant and a color guard of about a dozen soldiers whose responsibility it was to ensure that, as one historian writes, "the emblem of regimental and state honor boldly led the way into battle, yet was not captured by the enemy."
Of course, the enemy was always eager to capture such a powerful emblem, and the standard bearer was frequently one of the first to fall on the battlefield. If he did, one of his fellow soldiers quickly took up the flag and carried it forward. Soldiers equated the flags with the honor of the regiment. If it seemed as though the unit was facing defeat, soldiers would go to great lengths to keep their colors from falling into enemy hands. In one Civil War battle, men in a Massachusetts regiment, realizing that they were about to be captured, wrapped the colors around their staffs and hid them under a log, covered with leaves and grass. A month later, an exchanged prisoner told other members of the unit where to find the flags, which were recovered and returned to the Commonwealth.
Soldiers' feelings about the regiment's flag inspired acts of heroism. For example, at the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina, Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith, a black soldier in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, demonstrated "extraordinary valor in the face of deadly enemy fire." After the Color Sergeant was killed by an exploding shell, Corporal Smith took the Regimental Colors from his hand and carried them through heavy grape and canister fire. Although half of the officers and a third of the enlisted men . . . were killed or wounded, Corporal Smith continued to expose himself to enemy fire by carrying the colors through the battle. Through his actions, the Regimental Colors . . . were not lost to the enemy." In 2001 when President Clinton awarded Andrew Jackson Smith the Congressional Medal of Honor, he said "sometimes it takes this country a while, but we nearly always get it right in the end. "
There are now over 400 flags in the State House collection. For many years they hung in the Hall of Flags. In 1987 conservators determined that continuous exposure to the light in the room was damaging the fabric, so today visitors see film transparencies instead of the originals.
The collection of regimental flags at the State House includes the colors of units dating from colonial days to the present. The Hall of Flags, built of Italian marble with a mosaic floor, honors the citizen soldiers who have defended the Commonwealth for over 225 years.
"A Tour of the Massachusetts State House"
Interactive State House: "Battle Flag: The Minutemen of '61"
"Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient Andrew Jackson Smith."