As New England historic flags age, civil war brews over preservation

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Eighty-eight Civil War flags, some tattered, some stained in blood and ripped by bullet holes, capture the attention of visitors to New Hampshire’s State House.

Since the 1860s, the banners have hung in the Hall of Flags at the state Capitol’s front entrance. New Hampshire men once carried the flags as they marched into battle from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

Flags from the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II and Vietnam joined the collection over the years, bringing it to more than 100 battle flags.

“The old standards, pierced by shot and shell, dyed with the blood of our bravest and best, and hallowed by associations with the glorious fields and the noble dead, are priceless relics of the great contest,” New Hampshire’s adjutant general wrote in 1864, adding that the flags should be permanently displayed for all to see.

But as time wears on, lawmakers and historians are debating the flags’ futures: If left as they are, how long will they last? And what can be done to preserve them without removing them from public view? Statehouses, museums and libraries nationwide are grappling with similar questions as they seek to preserve historical relics.

Maine moved flags from its Capitol to the state museum about a decade ago, placing the flags on special panels for preservation. Rhode Island is now exploring flag preservation and Connecticut recently completed a project.

“Many states in our country have these collections, they’ve very challenging,” said Gwen Spicer, a conservator who has restored flags across the country and created a preservation plan for New Hampshire’s flags.

But New Hampshire has been slow to act. A legislative historical committee scrapped Spicer’s plan several months ago to sew the flags to netting to keep them from falling apart. Republican House Speaker Shawn Jasper opposed it, and said he wants the Hall of Flags to remain as is until after the State House celebrates its bicentennial in 2019. He is skeptical of any plan that would remove the flags from the State House. His great, great grandfather marched in battle under two of the flags now on display.

“That’s pretty moving and pretty meaningful,” Jasper said.

Advocates for preservation say leaving the flags as they are could accelerate deterioration. State Rep. David Welch, a Republican, has served on a committee on flag preservation for two decades. Money was initially an issue; the latest proposal to put the flags on netting would cost $20,000 to $40,000 each, Spicer said. The sale of New Hampshire-themed bottles of vodka at state liquor stories brought in nearly $90,000 since 2013 and is expected to bring in about $70,000 more.

Perhaps greater than money is the fear of potentially damaging the flags or changing the current display. The Hall of Flags is the first stop for thousands of New Hampshire fourth graders touring the State House each year, and lawmakers say seeing the real flags in their original condition make the lessons more compelling.

“They see real blood stains on there, real smoke, real bullet holes, and then they hear the story and they’re absolutely thrilled to see them,” Welch said.

But Spicer, the conservationist, cautions against doing nothing. She says the way the flags hang now creates stress on the old material, and that the silk and cotton will eventually deteriorate by exposure to light and temperatures. But more than that, Spicer says key historical facts are missing if the flags remain as they have been for more than a century.

Removing the flag and spreading them out — even if it means displaying them outside of the Statehouse — could show new battle honors or other tidbits of information that tell a richer history.

“Part of doing nothing, letting them fall to dust, is that there is no documentation of this collection,” Spicer said. “We’re not able to actually tell the full story that they have the potential to tell.”