This summer I wrote a series of stories on the experiences of three local Civil War soldiers in the 10th Michigan Infantry during the last year of the war. On August 19, 2021, I was fortunate to be invited along with Randy Fulton to witness another step in the journey of the regiment’s battle flag. It is because of Randy’s third great-grandfather, Levi Clark, that we gathered in the historic rotunda of the state Capitol in Lansing. Levi kept a journal in which he mentioned his fellow neighbors who were now his comrades on the battlefronts in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. My great-grandfather, Owen Nolin, and David Norris’ great-grandfather, Talmon Owen, were among those mentioned on picket with Levi.
David Norris, a member of the Fellowship Lodge #236 F & AM, Flint, spearheaded the drive to raise funds to save the 157-year-old flag. Years of improper handling, dirt, light exposure and simple age have deteriorated the fabric of the 230 battle flags that were in glass cases that surround the walls of the rotunda. In 1990, after decades of being on display, they were removed and the “battle” to save the flags began.
Imlay City native Randy Fulton and members of his family also adopted the battle flag of the 8th Michigan Cavalry. Fulton’s third great-grandfather on another ancestral line, Stephen Harvey, served in the 8th with his four brothers: James, Sylvester, Coridon and Henry. All but Sylvester survived the war and returned home to Almont from where they enlisted. Sylvester died of disease at Florence Stockade, a prisoner of war camp in South Carolina. A descendant of each of the five brothers donated to save this particular battle flag, donating over $1,000 to earn a sponsorship title of the 8th Michigan Cavalry.
These battle flags had been carried by Michigan Union volunteers during the Civil War (1861-1865). At the war’s end in 1866 the flags were returned to the state but the Capitol in Lansing was not yet built. The design of the rotunda was created partly so the flags would have a dignified place to be honored and seen by the people of Michigan. Over the years flags carried in other wars were added to the collection. The Capitol was completed in 1878 after the initial groundbreaking in 1872.
Most Civil War flags are made of silk and trimmed with gold fringe. Often painted on the flags are designs such at the state’s coat of arms, stars and stripes, and names of battles—names we learned in history class or from family lore: Bull Run, Gettysburg, Mission Ridge, Tunnel Hill, Antietam and many more.
Silken folds are very fragile and with age they will turn to powder, meaning these treasured, gallantly earned mementoes will be lost forever. Fortunately, the flags can be saved. Safe storage, proper staging and skilled textile conservationists applying their skills are helping to preserve these flags for the next generation of Michiganders. The work is expensive as the cost of conserving just one flag can easily exceed $10,000. Because of the expense few states have properly cared for their historic flags. Michigan has a program in place but funds are needed. The program urges clubs, businesses, schools to “adopt” a flag by donating a minimum of $1,000. That’s what Norris and his fellow Masons did. Back in May of this year, Norris contacted Matt VanAker, co-chair of Save the Flags. Norris explained the personal connection with the 10th Regiment’s flag through his great-grandfather Talmon Owen. Talmon, who hailed from Almont, was wounded in battle at Peach Tree Creek, Georgia under that flag. Another reason the Lodge #236 wanted to adopt this particular flag was Talmon’s son-in-law was a charter member of the Lodge. As Norris tells it, the Fellowship Lodge is also his family.
Norris not only convinced the lodge to adopt the flag, he also went to work researching how the tattered flag must have looked when Colonel Lum presented it to his war weary veterans in 1864 to replace the first flag that had been retired from field.
The flag in its current condition is quite deteriorated. The star configuration presented quite a challenge. Norris came up with a 7-5-5-5-5-7 alignment of stars. As Norris explained, his greatest dilemma was whether the canton would have had 34 or 35 stars.
“It is doubtful that a battle flag would have been created that late in the war that did not have the inclusion of at least Kansas, the 34th State. I find it equally unlikely that the flag did not have 35 stars because West Virginia was admitted to the Union in June, previous to Col. Lum’s presentation of the banner to his troops,” Norris said.
“I think the remaining 21 stars help tell the story. When I examined the flag to determine the number of stars I noted the far right hand line was clearly offset from the horizontal alignment of all the other rows. It is believed that the left vertical line of stars, missing from the remnant would likely have been seven. It seems to me that the missing portion may have been taken as souvenirs because of how clean it appears cut.”
Norris, in his researching for information on the flag’s design contacted fellow historian Randy Fulton and myself. At that time Randy found out that not only did the 10th flag still exist but also the 8th Calvary’s flag, inspiring him to contact siblings and cousins.
Throughout the summer we texted each other, sharing our knowledge about the 10th regiment, sending photos of our soldiers and finding out that both my and Norris’ great- grandfathers were wounded in the same battle and that Fulton’s third great-grandfather Levi faithfully recorded that battle in his journal. Norris graciously offered to pay respect to Levi Clark and Owen Nolin at their gravesites by flying a replica flag at their final resting sites. Norris had commissioned the replica of the battle flag that lies in the archives in Lansing so that it may once again be flown for the men that sacrificed so much to defend it. Last June he did just that at the Webster and Imlay Township cemeteries. He then went beyond any ancestral duty and invited Randy and myself to the ceremony to honor the Fellowship Lodge for their contribution to save the original 10th Michigan flag.
The regimental bond of Levi, Talmon and Owen was revived generations later at the first face-to-face meeting of all three of us inside the Capitol rotunda on August 19. The 10th Michigan Infantry Reenactors marched in with the replica battle flag and the Pledge of Allegiance was made by attendees. The song “Ballad of Brothers,” sung by Dan Hall, soothed us and the soldier spirits that gathered unseen around us, their presence only felt. The Director of Save the Flags, Matt VanAcker, explained the commission’s goals and how sacred these flags were to not only the men that followed them to battle but to the many generations that have viewed them.
After a presentation and reading of the Legislative Tribute to the Fellowship Lodge and remarks by Mr. Norris and Mr. VanAcker, we proceeded over to the Michigan Historical Museum and Library. We entered into the climate-controlled room in the State Archives to see the original flag that Colonel Charles Lum presented to the Veteran Regiment in 1864. It felt like we were entering sacred ground. The air felt cool as if the heat of battle was gone and purified by the spilt blood of 157 years ago. A silent of group of about 20 gathered around the white padded sterile table as the curator and his assistant slid out a large 7’x7’ tray. The flag was settled gently onto the table, shrouded with delicate white tissue. It was as if its wounds were going to be presented to medical interns in a hospital room. The tissue lifted up ever so gently as not to tear the delicate remaining threads. At last, its silk, paint, stars and stripes revealed to the mixed crowd of reenactors, Masons and descendants of Civil War veterans.
Norris said, “I felt as if I were in church seeing a sacred silk.”
Fulton, had this to say. “Seeing the war-torn flag for the first time, the very flag that my third great-grandfather (Levi Clark) and so many of his brave comrades fought and died under, left me with a sense of awe and wonder. I have read Levi’s journal numerous times. Standing next to the flag triggered many memories of the words he wrote about his journey and sacrifice during the Civil War. I doubt I will every fully grasp what those men endured.” He continued, “Going behind the scenes to see the flags in person was an awe-inspiring experience.”
For myself, I was thinking of Great-Grandfather Nolin looking up at that flag from a prone wounded position near Peach Tree Creek, Georgia; wondering if he ever thought his descendants would behold the same sight. Did he even think he would survive the war in that stifling July heat? What would he think of the cool air being pumped into a sterile room to protect a flag, a 6’ x 6 ½’ flag he gave blood to? Now air was as vital to protect it as was the split blood of his comrades. The flag back in 1864 required the ultimate sacrifice, the wounded, the sanity of many to continue to fly. Now air, tissue paper and white gloves protect it. It’s so clean and antiseptic, everything war is not.
Finally, I hope—no, I know—Grandpa Nolin would be bursting with pride that he had something to do with getting this flag home, safe. The fact it’s still here and with people like Norris and Fulton contributing, it will still be here for us to “rally around.”
To contribute to this worthwhile project, check or money orders may be made out to State of Michigan: Save the Flags and sent to Michigan State Capitol, P.O. Box 30014, Lansing, MI 48909-7514.
Contact Lynn at firstname.lastname@example.org.