Old Flag Gets New Life
In spring 1861, five women in Sparta, Illinois — Mrs. Mary Ann McHenry, Mrs. James Ward, Mrs. Barbara Gordon, Mrs. Ann McLaughlin, and Mrs. Mary McLaughlin — gathered to hand-piece and stitch a unique American flag with 34 stars, the stars themselves in the shape of a large star. Making a flag may seem like trivial work, but soldiers placed great importance on regimental flags and sacrificed their lives defending them from enemy capture. Those flags symbolized pride and honor. Moreover, regimental flags had an important practical use: identifying a unit’s place on the battlefield.
Officers used the Sparta-made flag to recruit Union troops in Belleville, Illinois; and it traveled with various units throughout 1861. James McHenry carried the flag while recruiting for Company H of the 22nd Illinois, and it then went to Belleville, Illinois, with companies H and I in May 1861. The flag returned to Randolph County and was carried by Henry McDonald with Captain Alexander Wybus’s company to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. The company disbanded there, some men going into the 10th Missouri and others into the 5th Illinois, but most into Company C of the 30th Illinois. Then the flag was carried by McDonald with Companies C and E of the 30th Illinois to Belleville, thence to Birds Point, Missouri. At Birds Point, flag owner James McHenry presented the flag to Charlie E. Brown of Blaire.
Charlie E. Brown used it to recruit for Company G of the 80th Illinois. Although he took it with him to Centralia as the company flag, it was so striking and effective that Col. Thomas G. Allen decided to use it for the entire 80th Illinois regiment until the unit received an official flag from the government at Louisville, Kentucky.
After the war, Mr. Brown presented the flag to the high school museum at Sparta, Illinois. The flag now belongs to the University Museum at Southern Illinois University. The museum expects to stabilize, preserve, and share the flag with the public.