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OHS - Fight for the Colors - Behind the Lines - Captured Glory: Flags and Politics

Captured Glory: Flags Lost and Recovered

Flags and Politics

In the closing decades of the 19th century, the return of captured battle flags was a controversial political issue. In the spring of 1865, just before the end of the war, the federal government decreed that Confederate battle flags in the possession of Northern states were to be turned over to the War Department. However, captured colors were cherished symbols of the bravery of Union soldiers. Ohio and many other states chose to keep the flags taken in battle. President Grover Cleveland issued a presidential order in 1887 that captured battle flags were to be returned.

Engraving of Joseph B. Foraker as a young soldier in the 89th O.V.I. From Archives/Library collection PA Box 26 17, page 6.

Engraving of Joseph B. Foraker as a young soldier in the 89th O.V.I. From Archives/Library collection PA Box 26 17, page 6.

Joseph B. Foraker, then Governor of Ohio, did not believe that the president had the authority to issue the order without action by Congress. Furthermore, President Cleveland was not a Civil War veteran. Foraker, who joined the 89th O.V.I. when he was only sixteen years old, did not consider Cleveland to be sympathetic to veterans concerns. In his autobiography, Notes of a Busy Life, Foraker asserts that he received "a perfect shower" of letters and telegrams protesting the return of captured flags. Foraker famously responded to one letter: "No rebel flags will be surrendered while I am governor."

"Take Back the Flags?" a poem published in 1887 in The Ohio Soldier, a veterans magazine, was dedicated to Governor Foraker and expressed the strong feelings that many veterans had against returning captured battle flags.

In 1905, the United States Congress passed a resolution requiring that all flags captured by Federal and Confederate troops be turned over to the War Department and then returned to the home state of the regiment. The resolution was authored by a Democrat from Virginia and supported by the Republican majority who mostly represented northern states. By then Joseph B. Foraker was serving as an U.S. Senator for Ohio and supported the resolution.

Foraker explained his change of heart in an address that he gave at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1905. He approved of Congress passing legislation to address the matter, rather than the president issuing an order. Furthermore, Foraker felt that the country had entered an "era of peace and good will" marked by improved relations between northern and southern states. He stated during his speech: "It was [also] settled that American heroism and valor were the same no matter under which flag displayed, for neither side could justly charge the other with any lack of these high qualities of vigorous manhood..."

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