The regimental colors of the Twentieth Maine return to Gettysburg

For ninety minutes the men from Maine held their precarious position against repeated Rebel attacks

The regimental colors of the Twentieth Maine return to Gettysburg

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain knew his men were in trouble. Sent to secure the left flank of the Union army at Gettysburg, his regiment, the Twentieth Maine, manned the wooded slope of a small hill called Little Round Top just as the Confederates attacked. For ninety minutes the men from Maine held their precarious position against repeated Rebel attacks.

So intense was the fighting that Chamberlain soon received word that his regiment was running out of ammunition. With one third of his men killed or wounded and little or no ammunition, but with orders to defend his position at all costs, Chamberlain ordered "fix bayonets." The young colonel from Maine then ordered his men to charge down the hill. His men crashed into the charging Confederates and routed them. Chamberlain's daring charge saved Little Round Top for the Union and possibly prevented a Confederate victory at the battle.

Among the Union defenders of Little Round Top that day was Andrew Tozier, the colorbearer of the Twentieth Maine. Tozier had carried the unit's six-by-six-and-a-half-foot United States flag throughout the battle.

One hundred thirty-five years later, Brig. Gen. Harold Nelson, president of the Army Historical Foundation, stood in the Gettysburg National Military Park and gave the order, "Color guard, please post the color company." The Maryland company of the re-created Twentieth Maine Regiment marched forward and stood before the flag that Tozier carried so bravely in that heroic charge on Little Round Top and presented arms. The flag, with all its battle scars and bright colors, was encased in protective glass and would be on display at the park's visitor's center until July 31, 1998, when it was to be returned to Maine.

The flag carried by Tozier during the battle was issued to the Twentieth Maine shortly before the Battle of Antietam in 1862. It served as the regiment's rallying point in the Battles of Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, and finally Gettysburg, where it endured so much punishment on July 2 that it was retired a few days after the battle. The flag was then given to Adelbert Ames, the regiment's first colonel, who in turn gave it to the regiment's veterans' association in 1881. Then the flag disappeared. The mystery of the flag's whereabouts remained unsolved until members of the Maine State Museum began examining a flag it had held in its collection for almost thirty years.

The Twentieth Maine, like most Civil War regiments, used several flags throughout its service. In 1969 the Maine State Museum received the flag that they believed Chamberlain's men may have carried at Gettysburg. Maine's adjutant general's office had delivered the flag to the museum in a wooden box with a hinged glass lid, marked "20th ME Color-Fragile." Museum personnel at the time suspected the flag could have been used at Little Round Top. However, without the funds required to verify its authenticity or restore it, the flag remained in the box until late 1997.

It was then that Douglas Hawes, curator of the Maine State Museum, while giving a tour of his facility to Tom Sinclair, a member of the Maine branch of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), rediscovered the flag. Following his visit to the museum, Sinclair contacted AUSA to underwrite the flag's identification and restoration. The association, in turn, passed the idea to Colonel Raymond Bluhm (U.S. Army, Retired), executive director of the Army Historical Foundation, a nonprofit group in Arlington, Virginia, whose mission is to build a national Army museum and assist in projects designed to preserve the Army's history.

Bluhm believed the flag held national significance. Historians have argued that if Chamberlain had failed to hold his position on the second day of the battle, the Confederates could have captured Little Round Top and used the elevated position to fire down on the Union lines along the Emmitsburg road, perhaps changing the outcome of the battle. Bluhm discussed researching and preserving the flag with foundation President Harold Nelson, who had experience in flag preservation as the previous chief of military history for the U.S. Army. Nelson believed that the suspected Twentieth Maine flag, untouched and still in its original box, was an ideal candidate for preservation.

The U.S. Army holdings of Civil War flags is limited because the Army did not take preservation seriously until the twentieth century." To Nelson this was an opportunity to see the process through correctly.

With Nelson and Bluhm in agreement, on March 14, 1998, the foundation forwarded an initial nine thousand dollars to the Maine State Museum to begin the preservation of the flag. Work could now begin to determine if it had actually been with the Twentieth Maine on Little Round Top.

With the effort underwritten, Hawes took the flag to Fonda Thomsen of Textile Preservation Association, Inc., of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Thomsen had been involved in restoration projects involving American Revolutionary War flags as well as the suit that Abraham Lincoln wore the night of his assassination.

At Thomsen's lab, Hawes witnessed the unfolding of the flag for the first time in more than thirty years. It had all the damage and wear he expected, but he was still unsure if it was the flag Tozier had carried.

Samples of material found on the flag were sent to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. On May 15, 1998, they reported to Hawes that seeds of plant species found at Gettysburg in July 1863 were discovered in the fringe of the flag. Additional samples were sent to McCrone Associates in Westmont, Illinois. McCrone's forensic analysis found flakes of ash on the flag that were common to Civil War-era flags. They pointed out, however, that the flag was extremely clean. How could a flag that had purportedly been through the heavy smoke of one of the Civil War's greatest battles emerge so clean? Further research provided the answer.

Thomsen and her company dropped all of its other projects to finish the flag restoration in time for the 135th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg. To help Thomsen in her work, Hawes sent her a photograph of the flag taken sometime in 1881 or 1882. The flag's condition in the photo was identical to that of the flag in their lab. The experts were now 99 percent certain that this was the same flag around which Union troops rallied on Little Round Top 135 years ago.

But why was the Twentieth Maine flag so unusually clean after such a catastrophic battle? The answer to this last riddle came not from a laboratory, but from history books. On July 4, the day after the battle, torrential rains soaked Gettysburg as Confederate General Robert E. Lee retreated. Upon closer examination, the flag's red stripes appeared to have bled into the white before it had been put away.

All the important players of the battle flag saga converged at Gettysburg on June 30, 1998, for the ceremony. General Nelson and Hawes spoke about the flag's history as well as their pride in being part of such an important endeavor. Thomsen and Bluhm were recognized for their work, and all received miniatures of the Twentieth Maine flag.

The flag was to be on display in Gettysburg until the end of July, and then to be returned to Augusta, Maine, where it was to be presented to the Hall of Flags in the state capitol. It will then return to the Maine State Museum for a special exhibit.

The project is far from completed. The Army Historical Foundation still has to raise approximately ten thousand dollars to complete the funding for the restoration.

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