By Peggy Derrick
This flag is a piece of La Crosse history. It has been carried to war, hung in at least 3 different public buildings, and been forgotten and rediscovered several times over.
Often referred to as a relic of the Civil War, the flag actually predates the Civil War by about a year. In the young city of La Crosse a private militia had formed, calling themselves the Light Guard, with a quasi-military purpose, but mostly appearing at parades, balls and other social events. According to the La Crosse Tri Weekly Union and Democrat, “ladies of the city” presented the silk flag to the Light Guard at one such social event on June 27, 1860, a ball they called “the affair of the season.”
Each side of this white silk flag has a painted medallion in the center. On one side a light blue oval contains an eagle and the words “presented by the ladies of La Crosse, July 4, 1860, to The La Crosse Light Guard.” The medallion on the other side is a rendition of the 1851 State Seal of Wisconsin. Together, these two sides perfectly represent the dichotomy of the public identity being forged at that time, with state and local symbols sharing opposite sides of the same symbolic object.
The following year, the Light Guard marched off to war with their beautiful new flag. The Light Guard became Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin Regiment of Infantry Volunteers, and saw action in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the war: the first and second battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness. They fought under their regiment’s flag, while their Light Guard flag remained in Washington D.C. At the end of the three-year term, just 27 of their original 130 members returned; all the rest were dead, wounded or missing. Captain Wilson Colwell, the 6th mayor of La Crosse, was among the casualties.
From here on there are many points of conjecture and murkiness as the flag disappears and reappears in the historic record. Some years after the war it was discovered in Washington D.C. by a former Co. B member, who brought it back to La Crosse. Veterans carried it in parades for many years. Then it disappeared again, only to resurface in the effects of a deceased Co. B member, Milo Pitkin.
In 1930 we find it documented in an article in the La Crosse Tribune, when it was presented to the county board of commissioners by the daughter of Captain Colwell, to be hung in the La Crosse County courthouse. There was a public ceremony in which the flag was symbolically returned to the “ladies of La Crosse,” a role played by the members of the Wilson Colwell Relief Corps, a GAR women’s auxiliary group. Then the flag was hung in the courthouse, where it remained until the courthouse was razed in 1965. Records show it was then transferred to the La Crosse County Historical Society by the county board.
At some undetermined point after that, someone allegedly removed the flag from Society property, claiming that it had been “placed with the rubbish.” The flag then hung at the American Legion, until a group of Co. B re-enactors recognized its significance and mounted a campaign to preserve the flag, now nearly in tatters. In 1994 they raised funds to have the flag professionally conserved and stabilized. Forty percent of the funding came from a La Crosse Community Foundation grant that was acquired with the La Crosse County Historical Society acting as fiscal agent. The curator at that time, Brenda Jordan, rightly felt it was important for LCHS to do everything it could to “dismiss the image of trying to throw it away.”
For the last two decades, the La Crosse County Historical Society has overseen the flag’s care. Following its conservation, the flag went on display in the Swarthout Gallery at the main branch of the La Crosse Public Library, where it remained available to the public from 1994 until LCHS left the library. With the closing of the Swarthout Gallery at the end of 2012, the flag was in storage for 6 months, and now is available for viewing in the LCHS building at 145 West Ave.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.