May 1, 2017

Circuitous Journey for 1860 Flag Reads Like Detective Novel, Back of Flag Produces Remarkable Surprise

MADISON, Wis. (April 25, 2017)
– It was the evening of July 4, 1860. During an annual ball, the Ladies of La Crosse bestowed a splendid silk presentation flag to the La Crosse Light Guard, a private militia in the young city of La Crosse, Wis. Less than a year later, the Light Guard (soon to be known as Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin Regiment of Infantry Volunteers, and led by Captain Wilson Colwell, the sixth mayor of La Crosse) would leave for Madison, Wis., answering President Lincoln’s call for volunteers to preserve the Union, and the flag would go with them, flying at Camp Randall on May 2, 1861.

Fittingly, the flag will go on permanent display at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison during a private reception on May 2, some 156 years later and after a most circuitous journey back. It is one of the most significant Civil War acquisitions for the museum to date. The flag will be available for public viewing beginning on May 3.

The front of the flag features script of the date along with an eagle and the words E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one,” the motto of the U.S. But it’s the back of the flag that produced a remarkable surprise – a painted version of the 1851 State of Wisconsin seal, making it the earliest surviving depiction of the state seal on a military flag.

Journey Back to Madison
In June 1861, the La Crosse Light Guard was mustered into Federal service, departing Camp Randall for Washington D.C., where the flag was kept along with other regimental baggage during the war. Three years later, Company B returned home with its ranks decimated from the war, having seen some of the bloodiest conflicts, including Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg. Just 27 of their original 130 members returned; all the rest were dead, wounded or missing, with Captain Colwell among the casualties. The flag returned home as well and was preserved through the efforts of many La Crosse citizens; most recently, the American Legion Post 52 La Crosse, the La Crosse Historical Society, and the Company B, 2nd Wisconsin Civil War Reenactors group, who raised $5,000 to help conserve and stabilize the flag.

Members of the American Legion Post 52 La Crosse, which donated the flag, the La Crosse Historical Society, which previously displayed the flag, and the Company B, 2nd Wisconsin Civil War Reenactors group will be honored guests at the reception on May 2.

About the Wisconsin Veterans Museum

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum dates to 1901 when it was established as the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall in the Wisconsin Capitol. It is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs and a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate which gives it access to the Smithsonian’s unparalleled collections and scholarship. For more on the Museum’s exhibits, collections and events, log on to The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, and entrance is free. It is located at 30 W. Mifflin St., directly across from the State Capitol.

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Wisconsin Veterans Museum · 30 West Mifflin Street, Madison, WI 53703 · 608.267.1799 ·