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La Crosse side of historic flag

One side of the silk flag features a blue field recording the fact that the Ladies of La Crosse gave it to the La Crosse Light Guard on July 4, 1860.

A La Crosse flag that predates the Civil War and has been the target of several search and recovery missions will be unveiled during a private reception today at its new home in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison.

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Peggy Derrick mug

Derrick

The 5½-foot-by-6⅓-foot silk flag, which the Ladies of La Crosse presented to a private militia known as the La Crosse Light Guard during the annual ball on July 4, 1860, “is one of the most significant Civil War acquisitions for the museum to date,” according to a news release from the museum.

“The flag is way beyond just a military artifact,” said Peggy Derrick, executive director/curator of the La Crosse County Historical Society, which had displayed the flag until recently at its headquarters at 145 West Ave. S.

“The real significance of the flag is it has two simultaneous and important links to history. On one side is the blue La Crosse Light Guard, and on the flip side is one of the earliest versions of the state flag,” said Derrick, who will attend the unveiling and reception.

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State seal side of La Crosse Guard flag

This painting on the reverse side of the flag is considered one of the earliest renditions of Wisconsin's state seal.

Also attending will be Jack Turner, commander of American Legion Post 52 in La Crosse, which owned the flag and donated it to the museum.

“To the American Legion’s credit, they decided to donate it instead of selling it,” Derrick said.

Less than a year after the Ladies of La Crosse donated the flag to the Light Guard, the unit became Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin Regiment of Infantry Volunteers. Capt. Wilson Colwell, the young city’s sixth mayor, led Company B to Madison, where it answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to preserve the Union.

The 130-member company, which eventually became known as part of the Iron Brigade — along with volunteer troops from Indiana and Michigan — took the flag along, flying it at Camp Randall on May 2, 1861.

Leaving the Light Guard flag in Washington, D.C., to fight under the regiment’s flag, the La Crosse contingent saw action in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the war between the states: the first and second battles of Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg, according to a history of the flag that Derrick compiled.

“I recognized how difficult it was to decide” to donate the flag, Derrick said. “Part of me believes it is such a part of La Crosse history, and another part …” recognizes the significance to the state, she said.

“Textiles are tricky because they break down,” Derrick said, adding that the historical society is well equipped to preserve artifacts but “the Veterans Museum has better conditions.”

Helen Kelly, a La Crosse attorney who is judge advocate for Post 52, said making the decision was a two-year process.

“Initially, we wondered what could be done, whether to keep it here in La Crosse, auction to a collector or a military museum,” said Kelly, who plans to attend the Madison reception this evening.

“There were lots of different options,” she said, noting that the flag already was on display at the historical society’s museum.

“When we started to talk to the Veterans Museum, we felt that might be the best place,” Kelly said. “It was hard leaving the historical society, but for long-term preservation, the Veterans Museum seemed the most appropriate place.”

The flag’s locations throughout the decades have been scattered and sometimes mysterious.

Several years after the Civil War, a former Company B member found it in the nation’s capital and brought it back to La Crosse. Veterans carried it in parades for several years, but it disappeared, according to Derrick’s account.

It resurfaced in the belongings of deceased Company B member Milo Pitkin, Derrick found.

In 1930, Colwell’s daughter presented the flag to the La Crosse County Board for display in the courthouse, where it remained until the building was razed in 1965 and the flag went to the historical society.

“At some undetermined point after that, someone allegedly removed the flag from society property, claiming that it had been ‘placed with the rubbish,’” Derrick wrote.

Recovered again, the flag was displayed at Post 52 until members of the 2nd Wisconsin Civil War Reenactors group initiated a campaign to preserve the tattered flag. A host of La Crosse residents were involved in the quest for preservation, including Post 52, the historical society and the re-enactors, who raised $5,000 to help stabilize and preserve the flag with the help of a La Crosse Community Foundation grant.

After the preservation in 1994, the flag was displayed in the historical society’s Swarthout Gallery in the main branch of the La Crosse Public Library until the gallery was closed at the end of 2012.

Officials at the Veterans Museum, which is a Smithsonian affiliate, are greeting the addition to their gallery with open arms.

“Battle flags represent the heart and soul of our collections, and the addition of this extremely rare early example to our Civil War flag collection of 200 is perhaps one of the most important acquisitions in the last 25 years,” said museum director Michael Telzrow.

“It enhances our ability to tell the complete story of Wisconsin’s famed Iron Brigade,” Telzrow said.

Similarly, Post 52 members are happy with their decision, Kelly said, adding, “We’re looking forward to it being there for a long, long time.”

From Tribune files: Things That Matter in La Crosse County history

Each week, the La Crosse Historical Society tell us about an important item in local history. Here's a look back at the Things That Matter so far this year.

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Reporter

Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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