Restored Civil War flag draws breathtaking response

WOBURN - It was the perfect ceremony for a Veterans Day.

With more than 100 packed into the main alcove area of the Woburn Public Library, Veterans Day this year was highlighted by a dramatic unveiling of a restored 1862 flag that was carried by Woburn soldiers onto many Civil War battlefields.

The flag - complete with a "SU" (the obverse of the U.S. as it got sewn into the canton wrong) - struck the crowd with awe as two students pulled strings to raise the covering. And, for the next hour, people walked slowly by and could only imagine the places the flag had been during the Civil War. The seemingly endless names of Civil War battles like Mine Run, Wilderness and Spotsylvania were emblazoned across its red and white stripes.

More specifically, the flag was carried by Company K of the 39th Massachusetts Infantry, who lost nearly one-third of the unit during the Civil War either to be killed, died from injuries or disease in Confederate prisons.

"What an amazing witness to history this banner is," said Woburn historian Thomas Smith, a featured speaker at the event.

The Civil War flag cost $10,000 to restore, including a $2,200 case, that came from institutional funds from the Board of Library Trustees budget.

The U.S. flag was presented to the unit at a Boxford encampment on Sep. 2, 1862.

The restored Civil War flag will be on display at the Woburn Public Library in the main foyer on a southerly wall through the holidays. Plans are for the displaying of the flag about three months a year due to damage from sunlight.

Last spring, members of the Woburn Public Library like Library Director Kathleen O'Doherty and the Board of Library Trustees began the idea to find a conservator to restore the flag.

The flag fell more directly under the care of archivist Colleen Couture, who said, "The flag was found wrapped in paper and we didn't want to break any of the fabric." So, a call went to Camille Myers Breeze of MuseumTextile Services in Tewksbury, who took on the daunting task.

In the end, like most restorations, the work was tedious and time consuming with chunks of the flag visibly gouged from flag itself. In turn, a mask to duplicate the flag was formed and a covering was used to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle fit back into place. The crowd, who sat through a video of the effort, applauded the detailed effort and the amazing results of the final product.

At another juncture, it was also noted several other Woburn Civil War battle flags were also housed in the Statehouse archives in Boston. The 39th flag had been placed on a top floor, historical section of the library and not touched for most the 20th century.

"This is a very special day for us," said Chairman Robert Maguire of the Woburn Library Trustees.

Maguire also introduced several relatives of men in the unit, including Duane LeBaron who came from New Jersey to see the unveiling.

"The flag was carried in many campaigns," remarked Maguire. "Colleen Couture, our archivist, has done a masterful job."

Being part of the flag's history was also very important on the minds of participants at the unveiling. "It was in brown paper and we just didn't want to touch it," said Couture. "We didn't want it to break. It was a long process and we did enjoy what we were doing. I'm hoping we can do more of this type of thing."

For one thing, she said, she had to rely on the newspaper index for guidance. "What I was most struck by was the sacrifice these people made."

© 2000 Woburn Daily Times Inc.