A legislative maneuver fit for Memorial Day

The Battle of Fort Donelson, where Iowa troops fought in February 1862.
The Battle of Fort Donelson, where Iowa troops fought in February 1862.

Fittingly, on the doorstep of Memorial Day weekend, Iowa’s battle flag preservation effort won a small but important victory.

Gov. Terry Branstad signed an Economic Development budget bill Friday that directs the historical division of the Department of Cultural Affairs to spend $90,000 next fiscal year on continued work to stabilize and conserve dozens of battle flags. These are the banners carried, or in some cases, captured by Iowans fighting in the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I. Some bear the marks of bullets and stains of battle.

The funding, on the other hand, was unscathed, thanks to the some strategic legislative maneuvering.

Senators who want preservation to continue added a provision in April to the broader bill that made the division’s entire $3.1 million budget conditional on providing $90,000 for battle flags work. It cleared both chambers.

“Knowing the Gov. could veto the line, I wrote it so he would have to veto all funding in the division,” state Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said in an email. “The flags still need much work and I am dismayed that they continue to say are stabilized in the face of science.”

Dotzler is talking about an announcement by the Department of Cultural Affairs in April declaring the battle flags preservation program complete, so it would no longer need a legislative appropriation.

Dotzler, preservationists and others aren’t buying the department’s line. It wasn’t all that long ago, as late as 2013, that the department’s numbers showed that at least 150 banners still needed work. Cultural Affairs Director Mary Cownie told a legislative panel in 2014 that only about eight flags can be painstakingly conserved annually.


But now the department talks only in terms of “stabilization,” not conservation. A Legislative Services report explains the difference:

Stabilization is defined as the effort made to maintain the flags in their present condition and minimize the rate of change. This does not address any damage already incurred. It also establishes basic identification within the collections system. These flags are not in suitable condition for exhibition, loan, or travel.

Conservation involves all actions that will prepare a flag for exhibition and creates an understanding with respect of the aesthetic and historic significance, as well as its physical integrity. It is the goal of conservation to preserve the original object and uphold the maker’s original intent.

So what started in 2000 as a well-funded effort to both stabilize, conserve and exhibit these hard-won historic relics for future generations morphed into a bare bones effort to simply stick them in storage. And now the department has simply declared mission accomplished.

The Associated Press shed some light back in April:

After the longtime project conservator left the job in 2014, the department didn’t hire a replacement, but Morgan said one full-time employee and part-time employee continue to work on the flags.

In 2013, the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency reported about 150 flags had been stabilized, and a similar number needed to be conserved.

Most Civil War-era flags have polluted material attached to them from outdated conservation treatments dating back a century. Stabilization would not include removing that material, said David Lamb, a department volunteer from 2011 to 2013 who helped conserve Civil War flags. More than 90 Civil War era flags had not been conserved by the fall of 2013.


Those flags are “in danger of being turned to powder,” he said.

But who cares? They’re just a bunch of old flags, right?

Whenever I write about this issue, and I have periodically over the last decade and a half, I think about Voltaire P. Twombley of the 2nd Iowa Regiment in the Civil War.

This is what I wrote in 2001:

Cpl. Voltaire P. Twombley was not the first man to hoist the Second Iowa Regiment’s silken battle colors on Feb. 15, 1862 — the day plowboys, shopkeepers and assorted volunteers stormed Fort Donelson, Tenn.

First to clutch the standard was Sgt. Harry Doolittle of Davenport, who was hit three times during a withering exchange of fire. Cpl. Solomon Garfield Page, also of Davenport, was killed with the colors in his hands. Cpl. James Churchill of Clinton was then wounded as he hauled the banner forward to within just yards of the entrenched Confederate defenses.

Twombley, from Keosauqua, snatched up the flag, only to be smacked down by a stray shot. But he scrambled to his feet and pushed through the rebel line. The key outpost fell into union hands and Twombley won the Civil War equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

“The unfaltering onset of those gallant men is written in the sleepless memory of a million freemen,” said Iowa House Speaker Rush Clark as he received the flag in Des Moines weeks later.

There are many more compelling stories like this one tucked among those faded flags. So, yeah, I’m not so eager to see banners Iowans fought under and for turn to powder. It’s true $90,000 isn’t a princely sum in a $7.4 billion budget, but it’s better than zero.

I hope you have a great Memorial Day weekend.

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