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Preservation of historic battle flags at the State House is a battle in itself

State House Bureau

June 02. 2018 10:12PM
Duncan Roff, 7, of Concord takes a picture of the Civil War flag display while on a tour with his mother, Jennifer, at the State House in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
More events planned this summer for State House bicentennial
CONCORD - The run-up to the 200th anniversary of the State House in 2019 continues this summer with several events, including a July 14 “Toast to the Eagle” with a special beer brewed according to a 200-year-old recipe.

“There were 13 toasts made that day in 1818 as they raised the eagle to the top of the capitol,” said state Rep. Renny Cushing, R-Hampton, chairman of the Bicentennial Commission. “So we are going to replicate those 13 toasts again on July 14, with a special bicentennial beer brewed to commemorate it, in a family-style event.”

The special brew will be created and delivered by Henniker Brewing Company.

Events associated with the bicentennial have been underway since fall 2016, when the commission re-enacted the laying of the cornerstone. In 2017, and again this year, the commission hosted essay and poster contests involving schoolchildren.

Winners were feted by Gov. Chris Sununu, Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, Cushing and other dignitaries at the State House on May 15.

Wordy toasts - and many of them - were all the rage in the 1800s, and in July 1818, when the eagle was first hoisted and set above the State House, those present toasted the soldiers, the president, the women of our great state and many other honorees recorded for posterity.

“We've tracked the 13 toasts that were done and will replicate them to the extent we can,” Cushing said. Whether that will be done by 13 individuals in period garb remains to be seen.

This fall, the Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in the Senate chambers where it met in the 1800s and will repeat the process in 2019.

A multimedia art contest will begin taking submissions this fall, with judging taking place in April 2019.

That's all just a prelude to the big celebration week from June 2 to 8, 2019, honoring the actual dedication of the state's new capitol building during the same week in 1819.

The events planned for that week include Governor's Day, when all living governors are invited back for a roundtable, and Old Home Day, when all former legislators will be honored at a homecoming on the State House plaza.

And, of course, there will be fireworks.

“That's probably around conference committee time, in a budget year no less,” Cushing said. “That should be interesting.”

Patty Nugent-Mullarkey of Nottingham and her son, Billy, look at the historic battle flags in the State House's Hall of Flags in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD - Every class of elementary students that tours the State House starts with the Hall of Flags, where 115 historic battle flags, encased in glass, line the walls of the main lobby.

Once the banners that brave soldiers followed into battle, the flags are now the focus of a fight over whether they should be preserved or left alone.

Preservationists, organized by the New Hampshire Battle Flags Preservation Committee, say an agreement to begin a lengthy and expensive process was put on hold and now may be permanently shelved, with opponents misrepresenting their intentions.

Opponents of the idea, like former House Speaker Shawn Jasper and key lawmakers, say the flags should be left alone, given the cost of restoration and potential loss of public access to the historical artifacts.

One side fears that much of the irreplaceable collection will turn to dust in the next 25 years if nothing is done, while the other worries that opening glass cases that have been sealed since 1900 is a leap into dangerous and unknown territory.

At stake is the fate of the most extensive collection of silk and cotton battle flags from the Civil War, two world wars and the Vietnam War currently on public display.

A call for action

In 2015, the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance included the collection of the bloodstained and bullet-riddled banners on its "Seven to Save" list, noting that "Concerns are mounting that the flags are deteriorating and action is needed by legislators to ensure their long-term preservation."

Going back to the late 1980s, efforts have been underway to preserve the flags, and a consensus appeared to be evolving around that goal.

In 1989, a commission appointed by then-Gov. Judd Gregg hired a flag preservationist to analyze the condition of each banner, with results that ranged from "pretty good to not so good," according to David Nelson, chairman of the Battle Flags Preservation Committee.

"The thrust of all that was those in the worst condition probably had 50 years remaining before they fell from the staffs and disintegrated," he said. "And 25 years has passed since then."

The glass cases that house the flags, while not air-tight, were covered with a protective coating to block the damaging effects of light. In 2013, the State Liquor Commission began selling commemorative bottles with the proceeds benefiting the restoration project, with close to $100,000 raised so far.

The Joint Legislative Historical Committee in 2015 requested bids from professional flag preservationists, and agreed to a contract with Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation in Albany, N.Y. Her company has worked on the preservation of several battle flag collections, including one in Maine.

Committee reversal

Just as the effort was about to get underway, the committee reversed itself and shelved the project at least until after the celebration of the State House bicentennial in 2019.

"They were ready to hire her, offered her a contract, and then all of the sudden the decision was made that any money to be spent (by the Historical Committee) would be spent on the bicentennial," said William Minsinger, a member of the Battle Flags Preservation Committee.

"There's no question people can have different opinions about what should be done. But what's so frustrating for us is that there was a consensus two years ago about how to proceed and that got wiped off the map somehow," he said.

State Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, current chairman of the Historical Committee, said the change of heart was due in large part to Jasper, who as House Speaker at the time held considerable influence over the project.

"I worked very hard to develop a plan for the flag preservation, and we secured funding in the capital budget for new cases," said Watters, who also sponsored the legislation creating the commemorative bottle program at the state liquor stores.

"We walked right up to the beginning of it, and I think a note of caution was sounded by Speaker Jasper," Watters said.

Jasper raised concerns about how the plan would work, and whether all the flags would be rehung for viewing after preservation.

"I do support their preservation, and I think it needs to be done," Watters said, "but I think it was wise to pause. The other important thing is that we decided that it wouldn't be appropriate while the bicentennial celebration is underway."

Cost substantial

For the next two fiscal years, at least, money from the commemorative bottles will now go to fund events associated with the bicentennial of the State House, raising more concerns among preservationists like Nelson and Minsinger.

The cost involved in preservation is estimated at $10,000 to $25,000 per flag, or $1 million to $2 million for the Civil War flags that are most at risk. The process involves sewing a fine mesh backing on the flags to forestall the effects of gravity, with the weight of paint on the fabric literally tearing the cloth apart as the fibers deteriorate.

"The thought was that (Spicer) would sew the flags to a backing and rehang them in the cases, much as the Smithsonian had done with the original Star-Spangled Banner" from the War of 1812, Minsinger said.

A tour group walk past the Civil War flag display in the lobby of the State House in Concord on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

He accused opponents of the project of misrepresenting its goals. "There is misinformation that we want to restore the flags, sew the bullet holes up, or remove them from public view," he said. "That is not anything we are interested in."

Sympathetic to concerns

State Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, who serves on the Historical Committee, is sympathetic to the concerns of the Battle Flag Preservation Committee, but said the costs are daunting.

"They are very anxious to get started, but we can't start the project until we have the money to finish it," he said. "If we open up those cases, we are going to open up one whole side of the Hall of Flags, about 35 or more on each side, and we have to do them all at one time. It's an expensive project."

Welch said the bicentennial was a "convenient excuse" for the delay, but expressed skepticism about the preservation project.

"My personal opinion is, I don't want to touch them, but I am only one person on the committee, and if the committee votes to do it, it will get done," he said. "I am fearful of opening up those cases because if one of those flags gets destroyed because we don't have the expertise to handle it properly, I'd be devastated."

Raising awareness

Jasper, now the state's commissioner of agriculture, stands by the committee consensus he engineered in 2015.

"There's a legitimate school of thought, which I share, and ultimately the majority of the committee shared, which is they are better off left alone because we'd probably do substantial damage to them by taking them out of the cases," he said.

The approach the committee currently favors is to begin comparing digital photos of the flags over several years to see if damage is taking place.

"Why not, as long as possible, leave them alone?" Jasper said. "But if over the course of the next five years we can see in high-resolution photos that those flags are deteriorating, then we need to act."

Nelson said members of the Battle Flag Preservation Committee don't intend to stand by while that process unfolds.

"As a group, we plan to continue our campaign of public awareness," he said. "Most people aren't even aware there's a problem, including many legislators."

The NHBFPC can be reached at

A tour group walks past the Civil War flag display in the Hall of Flags in the lobby of the State House in Concord on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

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