One of prized holdings of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison is the flag presented to the regiments of the Iron Brigade 150 years ago this month. The new flag was the effort of a group of citizens. They were proud of the brigade’s record at Gettysburg and elsewhere (“one of the most glorious organizations in the entire army,” a New York Times correspondent called it), raised $1,000, and commissioned Tiffany & Co. of New York to produce a banner of the richest construction “as a testimonial of the appreciation in which the Brigade is held for its bravery, gallantry and valor.” The flag carried the names of the five regiments and the various battle honors. It was mounted on a special staff with a massive silver spear head. It was to be presented on September 17, 1863, the one year anniversary of Antietam, with a great flourish. Before the event occurred, however, orders put the brigade on the march.
Nevertheless, on the appointed day, W. Yates Selleck of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s military agent at Washington caught up with the brigade at Culpepper, Va. The regiments were drawn up in a square. The presentation had “no splendid bower nor distinguished guests,” said one officer, but the “victuals” were on hand and “the liquors.” Selleck gave a brief speech and presented the flag to Col. William Robinson of the 7th Wisconsin, then the brigade commander. As fitting, the oldest regiment, the 2nd Wisconsin, served as the official escort for the new colors. One of the highlights was the reading of a letter by Selleck from the army’s old commander, George B. McClellan: “My heart and prayers are ever with them, and that, although their new colors can witness no more brilliant acts of patriotism and devotion than those which the old torn flags have shared in, I know that on every future field, they and the whole Army of the Potomac, will maintain their part, and the honor of their country and their colors.”
Afterwards, the officers made for the full tables and a Wisconsin officer noted for his temperance views wrote his sweetheart that it soon turned into “an affair that conferred little honor on the brigade, as gentlemen. I feel glad to say there were a few exceptions.” He also reported that the brigade officers and visiting generals “and staff officers within any convenient distance of us were almost unanimously drunk last night. We will see an account of the presentation in the New York Times, as I saw the ‘graphic and reliable’ correspondent of that paper guzzling champagne and wine with the rest of them.”
One Badger called it “a most disgraceful thing that spoiled the whole.” The officers had secured several barrels of whiskey and “most all got drunk.” A guard was posted by the whiskey barrels, the soldier said, but ‘the guard got drunk and the tables kicked down and the result was that most of the whole Brigade was drunk and the supper that was prepared for us was spoiled.” It was a spree of such epic proportions that it went on for two days and disturbed the sleep of the enlisted men. The rank and file, one private said, “got what they could swipe, which was not a small amount.” Another private called it “a gala day.” The new glorious flag had no official place with the brigade, however. Unable to keep it because regulations forbad all but official banners, the officers of the five regiments resolved to send the flag to Washington with Wisconsin Agent Selleck.