PROVIDENCE, R.I. — These banners once waved above battlegrounds where Rhode Island regiments sacrificed their lives to defend the nation.
Torn in war, faded by time, Rhode Island’s collection of 80 historic battle flags were placed for public view a century ago inside bronze and glass cases in vestibules at the State House.
There, exposed to sunlight, gravity and dust, the flags slowly crumbled.
So, four years ago, the General Assembly voted to begin the work of preserving and restoring the state’s historic flags. The flags and staffs were removed in early 2017, examined by a restoration expert and placed in a specialty storage facility in Massachusetts.
That’s where they still remain, indefinitely. There is no plan for when — or how —the state’s battle flags will return to Rhode Island.
The collection includes rare flags from American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Their true value is incalculable, said J. Paul Loether, the executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.
“Battle flags are an expression of memory of history. They are a symbol of those who fought and died for their country,” Loether said.
Like Rhode Island, other states are dealing with the same questions as their historic collections age and the cost of preservation competes with other needs.
Massachusetts has more than 400 flags in its collection, though not in public view. The Hall of Flags in the Massachusetts State House hasn’t been home to the originals since 1987, when they were moved to environmentally controlled storage. Transparencies are displayed where the original flags used to be.
In New Hampshire, politicians and preservationists are debating what to do about the state’s 115 battle flags still hanging in the State House, even after an expert predicted the most fragile would crumble away in the next 25 years.
The Rhode Island Department of Administration, which has responsibility for the flags, said its main goal is to make sure they are conserved and safely stored.
“While we don’t yet have a timetable for public display of the flags, the Department is committed to seeking a practical solution to the issue, said spokeswoman Brenna McCabe.
But the department must consider several variables, such as “the cost of building special infrastructure to house the flags, existing space within the state’s real estate portfolio, the general conditions of the flags, and the ongoing conversations with the Secretary of State’s Office regarding space for its archives,” McCabe said.
Rhode Island has spent more than $140,000 on the project since fiscal year 2017. The flags, their staffs and accoutrements remain in environmentally controlled storage at USArt, in Randolph, Mass., until there’s funding and decisions about what to do with them.
Attempts at repairing some of the flags back in the 1960s used machine-sewed netting that left stress holes. They were soiled from a century of exposure in unsealed cases and fragile from hanging all that time, she said.
Her studio removed the soil and prepared the flags for long-term flat storage. A burst water pipe in the studio in March 2017 caused some damage to four World War I guidons and one flag from the Spanish American War.
The artifacts have been in storage for more than a year. Transparencies stand in the place of the originals in the flags’ cases at the State House.
There are two threadbare and rare Revolutionary War flags in Rhode Island’s collection.
A Civil War flag carried by the 14th R.I. Regiment Heavy Artillery, a unit of black soldiers, was painted by David Bustill Bowser, an African-American artist, and inscribed “Presented by the Colored Ladies of N. York, Dec 1863.” Stevens said the flag is “spectacularly rare.”
Another Civil War flag, inscribed “44th Regt. Mass. Vols. To 5th Rhode Island Vols,” was painted by Thomas Savory, a Boston painter who also created flags for Vermont and Massachusetts.
Why should Rhode Island care about conserving its historic battle flags?
Loether, the historian, answered with a phrase from the last lines of President Lincoln’s first inaugural address that implored people of a divided nation to remember their bonds. “They are part of the ‘mystic chords of memory,’” he said.
“It’s like the fabric version of, why do we preserve the Constitution and the Magna Carta? It’s part of the center of our being,” Loether said. “History is what we’re made of. That’s what holds us together as a nation, and it’s what we need right now.”