New York’s 2,200 battle flags—the largest collection in the country—is now featured in a virtual video tour of the New York State Capitol which was launched in October.
The six minute video outlines the history of the flag collection, which the New York National Guard has maintained since 1863.
The Flag Room in the statehouse, where much of the collection is housed, is one of the most popular stops for the 30,000 people who take guided tours of the statehouse in a normal year.
But 2020 hasn’t been a normal year. The Capitol was closed to the general public in March and guided tours have not been offered since, according to Joseph Madeira, the director of curatorial and visitor services at the New York State Capitol.
With the capitol closed to the public and tours suspended, his team wanted to continue their mission of sharing the 140 year old structure with the public, Madeira said.
They decided to produce a virtual video tour of the building. But instead of doing one long video, they decided to break it up into separate videos for each major stop on the tour, Madeira explained.
The Flag Room video was produced in October and posted just before Veterans Day.
The goal was to honor veterans by adding the military-themed virtual tour, Madeira said.
Located at the now-closed East Entrance to the Capitol, the Flag Room houses almost 1,000 flags. The oldest dates from the War of 1812.
The bulk of them—800 flags-- are the colors of New York Civil War regiments, but there are also flags that went to battle with Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill, and served with the 369th “Harlem Hell Fighters” Infantry Regiment in World War I, according to Chris Morton, assistant curator at the New York State Military Museum.
The museum in Saratoga Springs, New York, which is run by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, is responsible for the flags.
Morton, whose responsibility includes the battle flag collection, narrates the virtual video tour.
The collection dates back to the Civil War when New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan directed the Adjutant General of New York to create the Bureau of Military Statistics to record the history of New York in the Civil War.
That history included housing the flags of New York regiments fighting the Confederacy and on April 23, 1863 the first seven flags from New York regiments were presented to the governor.
By 1867 the collection housed 811 flags.
The collection of flags – which includes both unit flags and American flags or “national colors” – was moved to the State Capitol in the early 1880s.
When former general and President Ulysses S. Grant visited the flag collection in 1881, newspaper accounts noted it was not well maintained, Morton said. The legislature voted funds to house the collection in the Capitol, which was then under construction, and large, oak, glass front cases were constructed to house the furled flags and their staves.
In the video, Morton explains that while the flags were displayed in the Capitol they were standing vertically, exposed to sunlight, and tightly rolled around their poles, or furled. All of this, he says, causes damage.
Since the late 1990s the Division of Military and Naval Affairs has worked with the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation to preserve the flags.
Since then 500 especially historic flags have been unfurled, conserved, and stored in a flat case protected from light. The ones still sitting upright in the cases are wrapped in special tissue to help preserve them.
Along with the stored flag display cases exhibit other flags and tell their stories. The flags are rotated on a regular basis, so the collection is always changing.
In the video, Morton narrates the history of the flag collection, while the camera illustrates his talk and interesting facts pop-up in the corners.
He discusses in depth a flag used by the 20th United States Colored Troops, a unit composed of African-Americans from New York, and a battle flag carried by French immigrants who volunteered for the Civil War.
The webpage also include interesting facts about the collection.
There are currently 16 videos that form the Virtual Tour, Maderia said.
Videos focus on the Ornate State Senate chamber, the Assembly, and the Million Dollar Stair Case inside the Capitol. Other videos deal with stories of ghosts in the Capitol, the art collection of the Empire State Plaza—the downtown Albany government complex—and the Governor’s Mansion.
The virtual video tour of the Flag Room can be seen here: https://empirestateplaza.ny.gov/virtual-visit-flag-room.
The entire series of virtual video tours can be seen here: