ALBANY, N.Y. – Some of New York’s 2,200 battle flags – the largest collection of its kind in the country – are now featured in a virtual video tour of the New York State Capitol.
The six-minute video outlines the history of the flag collection, which the New York National Guard has maintained since 1863.
The Flag Room in the statehouse is one of the most popular stops for the 30,000 people who take guided tours of the statehouse in a normal year.
But 2020 hasn’t been a normal year. The Capitol was closed to the general public in March and guided tours have not been offered since, according to Joseph Madeira, the director of curatorial and visitor services at the New York State Capitol.
To continue its mission of sharing the 140-year-old structure with the public, Madeira and his team decided to produce a virtual video tour of the building, with separate videos for each major stop on the tour.
The Flag Room video was produced in October and posted just before Veterans Day. The Flag Room houses 570 flags, with the oldest dating from the War of 1812.
Most of them are the colors of New York Civil War regiments. Some flags went to battle with Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill, and served with the 369th “Harlem Hell Fighters” Infantry Regiment in World War I, according to Chris Morton, assistant curator at the New York State Military Museum.
The museum in Saratoga Springs, run by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, is responsible for the flags.
Morton, whose responsibility includes the battle flag collection, narrates the virtual video tour.
The collection dates back to the Civil War when New York Gov. Edwin D. Morgan directed the adjutant general of New York to create the Bureau of Military Statistics to record the history of New York in the Civil War.
That history included housing the flags of New York regiments fighting the Confederacy. On April 23, 1863, the first seven flags from New York regiments were presented to the governor.
By 1867 the collection housed 811 flags.
The collection, which includes both unit flags and American flags or “national colors,” was moved to the State Capitol in the early 1880s.
When former general and President Ulysses S. Grant visited the flag collection in 1881, newspaper accounts noted it was not well maintained, Morton said. The Legislature voted funds to house the collection in the Capitol, which was then under construction. Large, oak cases with glass fronts were constructed to house the furled flags and their staves.
In the video, Morton explains that while the flags were displayed in the Capitol they were standing vertically, exposed to sunlight, and tightly rolled around their poles, or furled. All of this, he says, causes damage.
Since the late 1990s, the Division of Military and Naval Affairs has worked with the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation to preserve the flags.
Since then, 500 especially historic flags have been unfurled, conserved, and stored in flat cases protected from light. The ones still sitting upright in the cases are wrapped in special tissue to help preserve them.
In the video, Morton narrates the history of the flag collection. He discusses a flag used by the 20th United States Colored Troops, a unit composed of African Americans from New York, and a battle flag carried by French immigrants who volunteered for the Civil War.
The webpage also includes interesting facts about the collection.
There are 16 videos in the virtual tour, focusing on the Ornate State Senate chamber, the Assembly and stories of ghosts in the Capitol, among other subjects.