The Return of the Colors to the Custody of the Commonwealth

December 22, 1865

By Edward Simmons, 1902

Oil on canvas, 175 x 162 in.

Unveiled May 29, 1902.

By General Order No. 94 of the War Department, issued May 15, 1865, the colors of the volunteer regiments and batteries mustered out and discharged after the Civil War were to be transferred to their home states. On December 22, 1865, 166 national, state and presentation colors representing units of infantry, light battery, and heavy artillery were paraded up Beacon Street, passing by more than 2,000 veterans. On the steps of the State House they were presented to Governor John Andrew, the "War Governor," who had personally issued many of them to the units on their way to the south.

The importance of the flags to the troops and their safety cannot be exaggerated. Beyond symbolizing the union they fought to preserve, the flag served as a beacon in the chaos of battle, guiding them above the din and smoke back to their unit, and in countless cases, saving their lives. The flag also served as a marker for the enemy, however, pinpointing a unit’s position. Thus the color bearers, always in the front line, held one of the most dangerous jobs. It was also one of the proudest.

The emotional scene of the return of the battle flags, still vivid in many minds at the turn of the century, was a logical choice for the fourth mural in Memorial Hall. If Simmons' depiction was overly decorative, as some argued at the time of its unveiling, the artist, by subordinating all detail, captured the monumentality of the event. Red, white, and blue dominate the artist's palette. The diagonal line of soldiers and flags carries the eye up the stairs, past the governor, into the State House&8212;the flags' final resting place.

Originally installed in Doric Hall, they were moved to the large marble niches in Memorial Hall in January 1900. Over the years, the tattered and stained flags remained symbols of steadfast devotion and reminders of the heroic service and sacrifice of 140,000 dead and living sons of Massachusetts, as well as allegories of the fragility of life. They were kept on display for eighty-seven years until placed in archival storage in the State House, along with flags of other military engagements, where they continue to be monitored and preserved.

mural of The Return of the Colors to the Custody of the Commonwealth