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State House Ceremony Marks 150th Anniversary Of Return Of Civil War Battle Flags

Secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Urena welcomes flag bearers to the State House Tuesday to commemorate 150 years since the return of the state's Civil War battle flags. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Urena welcomes flag bearers to the State House Tuesday to commemorate 150 years since the return of the state's Civil War battle flags. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
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The front doors to the State House were opened on Tuesday — a rare occurrence — as officials marked the 150th anniversary of the return of the state's battles flags at the end of the Civil War.

Reenactors marched from Boston Common to Beacon Street and the steps of the State House carrying more than 100 regimental flags of units that fought for the Union in the Civil War. They were led by the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Volunteer Infantry — two African-American units from that era.

"This is the first time we've done this in 150 years," said Dexter Bishop, commander of the Massachusetts Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which organized the event. "On this date 150 years ago, the original flags were returned to the State House to Gov. [John Albion] Andrew on the stairs, then they brought them inside. They marched I think it was something like five miles through the city before they came in."

Gov. Charlie Baker was unable to attend Tuesday's event and accept the flags. Standing in for the governor — greeting the participants on the steps of the State House and speaking at the ceremony — was Francisco Urena, Baker's secretary of veterans' services.

Paul Parisi, of the 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, holds a flag outside the gates of the State House Tuesday, during a reenactment commemorating the return of the state's battle blags at the end of the Civil War. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Paul Parisi, of the 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, holds a flag outside the gates of the State House Tuesday, during a reenactment commemorating the return of the state's battle blags at the end of the Civil War. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Marita Rivero, executive director of the Museum of African American History, said during the ceremony that the history of the Civil War is important to acknowledge and celebrate.

"It's important for us to remember our history," Rivero said. "Having the Massachusetts 54th and 55th lead all the flags into this hall for this historic celebration is part of saying that we as a commonwealth, we as a people, we as a city and I hope we as a country are beginning to work harder to integrate the real history of America and tell the whole story. I'm very pleased to be part of this today."

One of those marching and carrying a flag was Kevin Tucker, of Wakefield. He's a descendant of Charles Elwell, of Dorchester, who was injured fighting for the Union.

"It's important for us to acknowledge it because what they fought for we're still fighting for today," Tucker said. "And the peace that they were looking for we're still looking for today."

Charles Lewis holds the Civil War battle flag of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry outside the State House Tuesday. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Charles Lewis holds the Civil War battle flag of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry outside the State House Tuesday. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Charles Lewis, a Vietnam War veteran, was carrying the flag of the Massachusetts 54th. He says he's a descendant of slaves who worked on the Jefferson Davis plantation in Mississippi. He says he's concerned about continuing economic inequality in America.

"History seems to be repeating itself. Back then it was slavery. Today it's economic disparity — we have the upper class, the lower class. There's almost no middle class," Lewis said. "The conditions of African-Americans have greatly improved, but I don't want history to repeat itself."

The ceremony inside the State House took place in Memorial Hall — where a huge mural depicts that day 150 years ago when the battle flags were returned, some of them stained with the blood of Union soldiers. While the flags used in Tuesday's ceremony were replicas, the originals are kept in a climate controlled vault in the State House.

This mural, which hangs in Memorial Hall in the State House, depicts the return of the state's battle flags from the Civil War. (malegislature.gov)
This mural, which hangs in Memorial Hall in the State House, depicts the return of the state's battle flags from the Civil War. (malegislature.gov)

This segment aired on December 22, 2015. The audio for this segment is not available.

Delores Handy Twitter Reporter
Delores Handy was formerly a host and reporter at WBUR.

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