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Civil War artifacts return to Minnesota

A tintype photo of First Minnesota soldier Edward Needham at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul on Thursday, June 28, 2018. A collection of Civil War items, including a battle flag was recently donated to the Minnesota Historical Society by Needham's decedents. John Autey / Pioneer Press1 / 2
Textile conservator Ann Frisina explains the preservation techniques used on the National battle flag of the First Minnesota Infantry, Company G. Carried into the Battle of Bull Run on 21 July 1861, at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul on Thursday, June 28, 2018. John Autey / Pioneer Press 2 / 2

NORTHFIELD, Minn.—When the flagbearer for Company G of the 1st Minnesota Infantry was shot during the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, a private named Edward Needham saved the handmade U.S. flag from falling into enemy hands.

Needham, 18, of rural Northfield, Minn., described the scene in a letter to his fiancee, Georgiana Holt: "I saw our flagbearer fall, a shot having broken his leg," he wrote. "He acted nobly when he fell. He raised the flag again. He motioned to me and the boys to get it. I sprang forward and grabbed it and then retreated to the rest of the company where I found our captain shot dead."

When the Civil War ended, Needham's fellow soldiers gave the flag to him as a token of their gratitude.

The tattered and frayed wool flag, featuring 34 silk stars, stayed in Needham's family for generations and found its way to Washington state, Oklahoma and Virginia.

Now, 157 years later, the flag, hand-sewn by women in Morristown, Minn., is back in Minnesota.

Relatives of Needham recently sold the flag and other artifacts to the Minnesota Historical Society for $25,000.

The Needham collection includes letters, photographs and six pocket diaries that Needham kept during the Civil War.

"It's an extraordinary gift," said Adam Scher, the society's senior curator and head of collections management. "It's just a remarkable addition to our 1st Minnesota collection. It's a credit to the family that they kept it all of these years, and they thought that it was important to come back to Minnesota. We're eternally grateful to them."

Textile conservator Ann Frisina is restoring the 42K by 82N-inch flag in a studio in the basement of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

It's painstaking, detail-oriented work. Removing the flag from its original glass frame took eight hours "because it had been sewed and tacked in various ways, and all of the stitches had to be cut and carefully withdrawn," she said.

She and an intern, Margaret O'Brien, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, spent more than 25 hours last week sewing the white silk applique stars with a Gutermann polyester thread "that is smaller than human hair," Frisina said.

Before O'Brien started working on the flag, Frisina cautioned her to handle the historic item with care.

"She said: 'This is a flag from 1861. It was in the Battle of Bull Run. There is nothing to replace it. No pressure,' " O'Brien said.

"It has so much provenance," O'Brien said. "It's a very exciting piece to work on."

Hand-sewn and frayed

Because the flag was hand-sewn, "it's different from the other Civil War flags that we have," Frisina said. "This is not professionally made. It's not made out of silk or hand-painted. This is pieced. It's made out of wool. It's just a whole different kind of construction and size."

The Morristown ladies used silk ribbon to bind the flag's edge, Frisina said.

"It's very much like a quilt almost, because that's their background, that's their context," she said. "When the guys in Company G got it, they had to reinforce the pole edge."

The flag has horizontal tears and frayed edges, indicating that it spent time "flapping in the wind," she said.

"It really documents that it was used," she said. "It got shredded along the the fly edge because it was being flapped so hard."

Stains, moth holes and darning marks also provide clues.

"They're all important pieces of information," she said. "For this reason, we rarely clean flags. We want them to maintain their history of use at all times. We want to preserve the dirt because the dirt is a part of the history of the flag."

Moths especially like dirty wool, said Frisina, who has been the historical society's textile conservator for 18 years.

"If it's dirty, it has more nutrients," she said. "They always go for the dirtiest fabric."

The men of Company G must have mended the flag at different points, she said.

"There are some very interesting darns in here, and I believe many of these were done at the period of time, probably by men in the field," she said. "Everybody had some idea how to sew and knit. You had to take care of yourself."

The flag will be mounted on a special aluminum honeycomb mount that is "extremely lightweight," but won't torque or bend, according to Frisina.

She plans to cover the mount with polyester padding and fabric and "then position the flag on top and sew it with a curved needle," she said.

"I'll sew it in a way that will allow it to expand and contract — and not do damage to the individual fibers during humidity fluctuations," she said.

At Gettysburg

Curator Scher said it is amazing the flag survived.

"So many of these flags did not," he said. "It was not a regulation flag. At the beginning of the Civil War, it was very common for women from a particular community to make flags and give them to soldiers ... to carry into battle. They really represented the support these communities had for their soldiers."

That Needham's pocket diaries also were saved is a great gift, he said.

"It's extraordinary to have that many diaries from one person," Scher said. "This is the first war where most of the participants could read or write, where most of the combatants were literate, and they weren't censored. They wrote whatever they wanted."

Needham was not in the charge at Gettysburg 155 years ago this week, Scher said.

"He had the unglamorous task of holding Lt. Col. Adams' horse," Scher said. "That's what you did as an orderly. He was on the line, though, the following day at Pickett's Charge, and he had a piece of shell tear his shirt. He had some fun there."

Here's Needham's entry from Thursday, July 2, 1863: "Wounded. Marched into the battlefield. Commenced shelling about noon. Skirmishing. 1st Minnesota went in on a charge about 5 o'clock. Tended to wounded. Sawyer killed. Total loss of company 18 of 200. Was not in the ranks."

The next day he wrote: "Our arms gloriously victorious. ... Regiment was engaged again in the afternoon. Capt Messick killed by a piece of shell. I had my blouse sleeve cut by a piece of shell."

Collection grows

Needham's flag and diaries will become part of the Historical Society's 1st Minnesota collection, which got a major boost in late 2016 from Civil War collector Wayne Jorgenson, Scher said.

Jorgenson, who lives in Eden Prairie, donated dozens of artifacts, images and manuscripts. The collection is valued at more than $125,000.

The most important photograph in the collection is a tintype of Company D, which was taken on May 21, 1861. It is the earliest — and only — known photograph of the 1st Minnesota.

"Half the guys aren't even in uniform yet," Scher said. "It was a month after war was declared, and we know exactly when it was taken, where it was taken, and it's a tintype so it is, literally, one of a kind."

The photo belonged to Lt. DeWitt Clinton Smith, who was wounded at Antietam. Smith had a photographer take the photo while he stood in command of the newly armed volunteers outside the Farmers Exchange Building on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, Jorgenson said. Smith sent the photo, which is in a small metal case lined with red velvet, to his wife.

Jorgenson, the author of "Every Man Did His Duty," a book about the 1st Minnesota, purchased the tintype in 2010 from Smith's great-great-grandchildren in Arizona after learning about it from the head of the historical society in Nicollet County, Minn.

He arranged to purchase the tintype for $4,500 with the understanding that he would eventually donate it to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Jorgenson, 68, a retired financial planner, said he became interested in Civil War history after learning that his maternal great-great-grandfather, Capt. Arthur W. Marsh, had fought in the war with the 118th Illinois infantry and was killed in the Battle of Vermillion Bayou in 1863.

"They were retreating from the Confederates, and he had gone back to see to his troops, and he was shot off his horse," Jorgenson said. "His body was later recovered."

In 1973, Jorgenson helped found the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry reenactment group and began collecting 1st Minnesota artifacts.

As he traveled around the state for his job, Jorgenson would stop in antique shops and search for Civil War-related artifacts. "Back then, it was easy to find things," he said. "Now it's virtually impossible to find them in antique shops. Anything of any value is on eBay."

Jorgenson's friend Stephen Osman, who used to run the Fort Snelling complex for the Minnesota Historical Society, introduced him to the wonders of the online auction site.

"He called me up one day, and he said, 'Are you near your computer?' " Jorgenson said. "I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'OK, you're going to hate me for this, but go into the browser and type in E-B-A-Y. Just go in and try it."

In 1999, Jorgenson bought on eBay, from an estate in Florida, a Civil War-issued canvas knapsack that belonged to Joseph Holt, Company D, 1st Minnesota.

"It came to me in a plastic protective case, and it was in beautiful shape," Jorgenson said. "I paid $915 for it. It turns out that's the only one that exists. Most of the men turned in these bags and didn't bring them home. Holt was discharged for disability, and so he brought it home with him. ... It probably cost him 25 cents or something."

Although Jorgenson is in the process of downsizing on account of his age and medical issues, he admits he's got his eye on a picture of Henry O. Fifield, who was the drummer for Company C.

"I'm monitoring it," he said. "It will be expensive. ... On the back he signed it, 'To sister, from Hank.' It's up to $1,100 now."

That's a lot more than he paid for his first 1st Minnesota photo in 1973.

"I was in an antique store on Lake Street in Minneapolis, and I saw a picture of what I knew to be a soldier because he had a little white-clover shaped (1st Minnesota) insignia on his shirt," he said. "I bought it for 50 cents, and that started my collecting career."

The name of the soldier pictured on the card?

Edward Needham.

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