Behind the high barbed wire of Camp Lincoln in Springfield, in a nondescript brick building and sealed in a row of large, white metal cabinets sits a delicate, tattered silk flag bearing familiar gold stars on a field of blue with red and white stripes. Part of the lower right corner is missing, the edges tinged with blood that long ago turned brown from oxidation.
It’s the battle flag of the 53rd Illinois Infantry Regiment, a volunteer regiment that served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The blood is believed to be from a Union soldier who wadded the flag up in his coat to save it from capture by the Confederate Army, but who was later shot and killed by the enemy.
This six-by-six-foot regimental flag and many others like it are preserved by the Illinois State Military Museum, 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd., which is operated by the Illinois National Guard. Though the flags were long ago removed from public display, William Lear, the museum’s curator, says the flags still belong to the public. In fact, these incredible pieces of Illinois history can be viewed at Camp Lincoln, and some groups are even working to restore the flags.
In the late 1980s, the Civil War regimental flags of Illinois were removed from the Hall of Flags in the Howlett Building – known then as the Centennial Building – at the Illinois Capitol Complex. They had sat in the Hall of Flags for decades, along with flags from the Spanish-American War and World War I, Lear says, and many had become brittle from time and too much sun. During the 1920s, the flags were sewn between pieces of black silk netting meant to prevent further deterioration, but that didn’t save them completely. Lear says flags are best preserved when laid flat, but the Illinois regimental flags were hung from poles, allowing gravity to slowly tear them apart.
“If you were at the Howlett Building while the flags were hanging, there was dust at the bottom,” Lear says. “That was part of the flags.”
The flags are now stored flat in a climate-controlled building at Camp Lincoln. The Military Museum is just north of the base, and at least one regimental flag is on display there. Besides the Civil War battle flags, the museum preserves flags used by Illinois regiments in other wars, as well as hundreds of artifacts collected by Illinois military servicemen abroad.
The museum’s role is only to preserve the flags, not restore them, Lear says. Besides, the museum operates on a miniscule $7,400 annual budget, says Stewart Reeve, the museum’s director. By comparison, restoring even one flag can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“Based on the cost, it’s just out of the realm of possibility that we as an agency could do that,” Reeve says.
But private groups can raise money for restoration, Lear says, and the museum is happy to send the flags for restoration. One recent example is the flag of the 95th Illinois Infantry, which is on display at the Old State Capitol after the Boone County Historical Society and the McHenry County Civil War Round Table raised $40,000 to conserve it.
The museum also preserves numerous pieces of Illinois military history that can’t fit in its limited display area. One of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes pieces is a “hate belt” taken from a German soldier during World War II. The wide leather belt is covered in pins and emblems the German soldier probably collected off of Allied troops who died in battle.
Other items include a shining, tasseled helmet worn by a Mexican soldier during the Mexican-American War, a collection of Soviet-era military pins, several Nazi relics collected by Illinois soldiers during World War II and even a series of Confederate battle flags captured by Union troops during the Civil War.
The public can view the flags by visiting the museum between 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, or by calling 761-3910 for appointments outside of museum hours. Admission is free, and visitors are not required to pass through security at Camp Lincoln.