Independence Day 1866
Upon mustering out or after receiving a replacement, no specific provisions were established for the receipt and care of the battle flags. As such, some flags were left in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh within GAR posts while others were taken into private collections.
On June 13, 1865 the War Department ordered the chief mustering officers to turn over all colors in their possession to the governors of the individual states. However, Pennsylvania's Civil War flags were already scattered across the state. The few flags that were already in the state's collection were not properly cared for, and many of the veterans in possession of flags were not yet willing to return the colors. By the end of 1865 it was realized that proper care for the flags was necessary, and the government-issued colors were to be formally returned to state care in a ceremony on Independence Day 1866 at Philadelphia's Independence Hall.
Adjutant-General A.L. Russell compiled a list of absent flags, researched the possible location of the colors, and wrote letters requesting them to be officially returned to state care. In the meantime, the city of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania worked hard to organize a grand parade and memorable ceremony. Major General Winfield S. Hancock was appointed as grand marshal of the parade. Children of the Commonwealth who were attending special schools established for war orphans were also invited to participate, and won the hearts of a sympathetic public. General Meade also participated, and received the loudest applause as the "Hero of Gettysburg."
At the parade's end, General Meade stood in front of Independence Hall and officially returned the colors to Governor Curtin with these words:
Sir, of all the honors that have been showered upon me for the humble services which it has been in my power to render to my country, none have been so grateful to me, and of none am I so proud, as being on this occasion the representative of these hardy and noble men who stand before you… This war is over; peace has returned to bless our happy land. By the concurrent action of the Legislature it has been determined that you should receive on this day, sacred to the memory of liberty, these battle-stained banners, that have passed through their fiery ordeals. In the name of the soldiers of Pennsylvania, I present to you these banners, which were received from the State, and which were borne through the war with honor and credit, and of which we, as soldiers, are justly proud. Receive them, sir, as mementos of the prowess and deeds of valor of the noble sons of Pennsylvania.
Governor Curtin responded by honoring the bravery and heroism of Pennsylvania's veterans. "A Commonwealth may exist without cherishing her material wealth, but no Commonwealth can worthily, or should exist, which does not cherish, as the joy of life, the heroic valor of its children." Speeches and fireworks thus concluded the official transfer of possession of the state's colors. At the time, the flag collection totaled 270 colors.
Initially, the collected flags were stored in the old State Armory in Capitol Park. It was not until six years later when action was taken to place the flags on proper display within the Capitol building. One year later, the "Battle Flag Room" was completed on the second floor of the South Executive Building, opposite the Adjutant-General's Office. The flags were installed unfurled, and in an upright position.
From 1873-1893 more colors and other civil war artifacts were given to the state, and additional room was needed to house the collection. Therefore, the collection was moved to the newly constructed Executive, Library, and Museum Building (renamed the Speaker Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building in 1999), and displayed in a new flag room directly at the head of the main stairs. The banners were placed in four long glass cases. Fortunately, they were already at this location when the Hills Capitol burned on February 2, 1897.
Flag Day 1914
On February 28, 1905 Congress approved a joint resolution to return all captured battle flags to their respective states. Pennsylvania received eleven more colors, which led to further crowding in the old cases located in the Executive, Library, and Museum Building. In 1906 the new Capitol building was completed, and included niches on the main floor of the rotunda designed to contain decorative statuary. Adjutant-General Thomas J. Steward suggested those niches be used to display the state's battle flags of the Civil and Spanish-American War. In 1913 Governor John K. Tener authorized the establishment of a commission to arrange for the transfer of the flags to the Capitol rotunda.
The ceremony occurred on Flag Day 1914. Each flag was encased in a silk chiffon sleeve because as early as 1914 the flags had begun to crumble with age. The aged Civil War veterans marched from the steps of the Museum Building down Fourth Street, to Market, up Front Street, and then up State Street into the Capitol rotunda. Many of the flag-bearers in the 1914 parade were the same flag-bearers in the 1866 parade, as well as during the war. The parade was late getting started because many of the veterans wept openly upon seeing their colors again. Thinking it unbecoming of a soldier to cry in public, the parade did not begin until the aged war heroes had regained their composure. Following the parade, the bearers placed the flags in the six rotunda display cases where they would reside for nearly three-quarters of a century.
The glass cases were designed to be airtight in order to preserve the remnants of the Civil War colors, but deterioration continued. In fact, in 1929 Governor John S. Fisher vetoed a bill for the preservation of Pennsylvania's flags of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War. In 1939, a brief investigation did prove the cases were not as air tight as planned and the flags appeared to be disintegrating with age. However, nothing further was done.
In 1981 re-enactors of Company A of the 87th Pennsylvania showed interested in having the battle flag of the 87th taken out of its case and conserved. On August 26, 1981 Case Number Two was opened, and the flag of the 87th was removed for conservation and participation in the Capitol's 75th Anniversary celebration.
The conservation effort of the 87th's color increased public attention to the collection and served as the impetus for the Capitol Preservation Committee to begin the preservation of all of Pennsylvania's Civil War and Spanish-American War colors. The Capitol Preservation Committee launched the "Save the Flags" campaign, raising money for documentation, conservation, and research on the flags.