It was just days after the Battle of Vicksburg when roughly 250 men of Illinois’ 53rd Volunteer Infantry Regiment, originally formed in Ottawa, were charging alongside other Union regiments toward a fortified Confederate location on the outskirts of Jackson, Miss. At their center would have been color-bearer Sgt. George Poundstone.
Less than 70 men of the 53rd lived through that day, July 12, 1863. Poundstone, who had been raised near Grand Ridge, wasn’t among them, reportedly dying of multiple gunshot wounds while attempting to hide the regimental flag within his uniform.
“There’s only one thing worse than being routed by the enemy, it’s having your flag taken by them as a souvenir,” said David Reed of Streator.
An Illinois Adjutant General’s Report of regimental histories records, “The colors were captured, saturated with the life-blood of Sergeant George Poundstone, the color bearer.”
Now, roughly 150 years later, Reed, who has served as president of both the La Salle County Historical Society and Streatorland Historical Society, is leading a fundraising effort with both historical societies to bring Poundstone’s flag back to La Salle County.
Poundstone flag history
Following the charge on Jackson, it’s uncertain what happened to the flag. Based on his research since learning of the flag a year ago, Reed believes members of the First Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade took the flag from Poundstone’s body. Nothing is known of the location of the flag over the next two decades, but the “blood-stained, battle-worn” flag turned up in June 1885 in the War Department in Washington D.C., according to a New York Times article from that year.
From 1886 to 1922 the flag was on display in the state capitol rotunda in Springfield, but was then moved to the Howlett Building’s Hall of Flags, where it was displayed alongside other Illinois regimental flags until 2003, Reed said.
He explained that archivists eventually determined the historic flags needed to be better preserved so they were moved to a storage area in the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.
Preserving and restoring the Poundstone flag
Roughly 150 years later the flag still bears the marks of Poundstone’s blood.
“I think it’s incredibly important that this flag returns home. It gives Sgt. Poundstone the opportunity to share his story with La Salle County residents and other visitors, it gives him a voice,” said Ashley D.B. Baron, La Salle County Historical Society Museum curator. “It is a great example of how people of La Salle County have shown their support, love and duty for their country, so much so that at their last dying moments they tuck away their flag close to their heart trying to protect it from the enemy — it means that much.”
Before the flag can be brought back to La Salle County, a restoration needs to take place to preserve it for the future, but that’s an expensive program that the state is not jumping to pay.
Instead, individuals and groups are being given the chance to pay the $15,000-$20,000 needed to restore the state’s collection of historic battle flags, Reed said. Once someone can show they have raised half the cost of the process, the restoration can begin, he said.
In the case of the Poundstone flag, restoration would include cleaning the flag (although leaving Poundstone’s blood stains), re-dying to the original colors and framing the flag in an archival-quality storage case for display.
Reed said he plans to apply to have the flag returned to both the La Salle County Historical Museum and Streatorland Historical Museum. While both museums meet the basic requirements to be the future home of the flag, he said state officials will also consider display potential, which may give the La Salle County museum in Utica the advantage. In either case, the state retains ownership of the flag, Reed said.
Over the past few months Reed has begun speaking to local community groups to raise awareness of the flag and plans to begin a serious fundraising push soon. He said he hopes to raise the required funds within a year so the flag can be back in La Salle County in time for the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in 2015.
Flag fun facts
Aside from being an artifact of La Salle County’s involvement in the Civil War, it may also hint at life in the Illinois Valley in the 1860s.
“The ladies of Bruce Township when they made the flag, they made it a 35-star flag,” Reed said, noting that at the time there were actually just 34 states.
He said it might reflect the lack of information making it to the still rural, pioneer-like area, thus residents may not have been certain of the correct number of states as they made the flag. Furthermore, the women who made the flag would have lived through a period of considerable growth and development in the U.S., during which the number of states in the U.S. would have been regularly changing.
Ultimately, the women were vindicated, Reed said, because just weeks before Poundstone died West Virginia was admitted to the union as the 35th state.
Matthew Baker can be reached at (815) 220-6933, or email@example.com.