WHEELING - A long journey brought the first battle flags of West Virginia from the seamstress through the storm of battle, and nearly 150 years later some of these flags have come to rest in a quiet exhibit in Wheeling in the ideal place - the building where the state was born.
It is hard to figure out which flag deserves the distinction of being the first West Virginia battle flag of the Civil War because many of the flags on display at West Virginia Independence Hall actually saw military service representing western Virginia regiments years before the Mountain State even existed, according to Travis Henline, site manager for Independence Hall.
"It was not until June 20, 1863, that there could be a West Virginia regiment," said Henline.
As he walked through the hall's permanent exhibit of West Virginia's Civil War battle flags, Henline said each flag carries its own story of West Virginia's early days of statehood and the wartime period that gave it birth.
"The majority of them saw actual battle," Henline said. "There are a few that were made more to be commemorative after the war. These flags have been part of the West Virginia State Museum collection since the 1890s."
According to Henline, the flags were collected from different places and displayed at intervals across the state before finding their permanent home in Wheeling, where they rest behind glass in dim light where visitors can look at them and learn their stories even while they are being preserved.
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Among the most revered of the flags on display is one that belonged to the 7th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, originally the 7th Virginia.
Henline said the regiment saw action at such crucial battles as the Valley Campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and finally Appomattox. Nicknamed "the Bloody Seventh," Henline said the regiment suffered more casualties than any other West Virginia regiment throughout the Civil War.
Legend has it that one of the flags on display in Independence Hall boasts a stolen star, according to Henline. He said the flag originally had only 34 stars on it, but the soldiers in the regiment snuck off and stole a star from another regiment's flag to sew onto theirs in celebration of West Virginia's birth as the 35th state in 1863.
Another flag in the collection came from a Confederate Virginia regiment, captured during the Civil War. Henline said a visitor from Virginia once expressed a great deal of interest in the flag and how to possibly get it back to Virginia. Henline said he promised the man that taking the flag back to the South would be just as difficult now as it would have been in 1863.
"We've done a lot of conservation work on them," Henline said as he looked over the battle flag collection. "We had to put them in sealed, climate-controlled casings to protect them. They're home for good. They live here."