The Origins of the Official Virginia State Flag Design in 1861
On April 30 the Virginia State Convention of 1861 (“Secession Convention”) officially defined the flag of Virginia for the first time by passing a formal ordinance. The new state flag ordinance sanctioned a previous unofficial design created by Governor John Floyd during his administration in the early 1830s. On May 2, 1861 a new state flag of the confirmed official pattern was ordered to be made for use at the Capitol. That spring the Richmond Enquirer, edited by Obadiah Jennings Wise, symbolically updated its daily masthead engraving of the Capitol to show a First National Confederate flag flying above the south portico and a Virginia state flag flying over the north end of the building.
Creation of the Virginia State Flag now Display in the Caption Extension
At some point late in the War Between The States, Governor William “Extra Bill” Smith ordered a new Virginia flag to be made as a replacement for the worn out state flag, then being flown over the Capitol. An artist by the name of “Van Buren” painted the obverse of the Virginia Seal on both sides of a circular piece of material. Two older daughters of Secretary of the Commonwealth George Wythe Munford, working from their home on 307 West Franklin Street, sewed the circular seal onto a large rectangular field of blue cloth and completed the flag with reinforced islets on the hoist end. Robert Beverley Munford described the completion of the late war Virginia flag on pages 8-9 of his Richmond Homes and Memories:
My cousin, Sallie Bradford Munford….and her sister, Margaret Munford, had been requested …to make a new state flag to take the place of one that had become sadly worn. The work was done in their home, the final stitches being taken in the old parlor, on the floor of which the flag was spread out. Younger daughters of the family obligingly sat on the borders of the flag to hold it in position, feeling rather proud to be taking some part in this patriotic commission from the Governor of Virginia.
An undated newspaper article written circa November 1927 stated that the 16 foot [high] banner was made from “bunting which ran the blockade during the closing year of the Civil War.” In the reporter’s words, Sallie Bradford Munford Talbot related “it was an imposing job, since the artist who painted the figures for the State seal daubed turpentine and oil on the bunting, making it difficult to sew.”
The Virginia Flag over Capitol becomes a War Trophy
On the morning of April 3, 1865, Major Atherton H. Stevens, Jr. led perhaps 40 trooper of the fourth Massachusetts Cavalry on to the grounds of Capitol Square. Major Stevens was one of the first federal officers to enter Richmond following the evacuation of the Capital. The major and his troopers promptly hauled down the Confederate third national flag and the Commonwealth of Virginia state flag that were flying from opposite ends the Capitol. The Confederate flag was quickly torn into pieces and distributed to souvenir hunters. Major Stephen carried away the large Virginia flag intact. This historic flag remained in the possession of the Stevens family for the next 62 years. The flag was allowed to be displayed in public only once, at a Minneapolis Bank during a Grand Army of the Republic convention in 1906, at which time souvenir hunters removed two small two seal pieces.
The Stevens family agree to return the historic
Virginia Flag to the Commonwealth
In 1925, Mrs. W. B. Newell was visiting her daughter in Arlington, Massachusetts with a friend of her daughter said, "You are a Richmond woman; you should see the Virginia State flag which a friend of mine has," Mrs. Newell was introduced to Frederick A. Stevens, a grandson of Major Stevens, and saw the flag which was then in his possession. Mr. Stevens indicated his willingness to return the flag to the Commonwealth.
On November 28, 1927 the flag was returned to Governor Harry F. Byrd by Mr. and Mrs. Stevens during an impressive public ceremony at the Capitol. After speeches in the Old House Chamber, the flag was unfurled and raised briefly over the capitol at 4:32 PM
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported: "Guns of the Richmond Howitzers roared their salute, confederate soldiers yelled and hundreds of men and women applauded as the State banner was run up the capitol flag pole, under the direction of Major Mills Neal, of the Richmond Blues. Tears were in the eyes of older citizens, and youngsters felt a lump I their throat at the beautiful sight".
The banner made by Mrs. Sallie Munford Talbott, while she was Miss Sally Mumford, daughter of Colonel Munford, at last had been returned to its own people. Mrs. Talbott was present to see this last act in a historic drama.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch issued on November 29, Noted: “ As if the gods of weather conspired to record their approval of this newest evidence of a reunited North and South, the long lost Virginia emblem straightened itself out in full view of hundreds of spectators, while another flag nearby hung limp against its pole.”
A Unique Object of Interest for ongoing Display
After being displayed in the Old House Chamber during a Confederate reunion in June 1932, the flag was placed in a glass case for long term display at the State Museum then located in the Oliver W. Hill Building. The that museum closed in 1964 the flag was loaned to the Virginia War Museum in Newport News. At the request of Mr. Stevens and various historical organizations, the “Big Flag” was returned to the Capitol in September 1966 and place on display in the north hallway on the first floor. At some point afterwards the original fragile blue bunting was evidently related with new material and the painted state seal war repaired. On April 3, 2008, exactly 143 years after its capture, the newly re-conserved flag was delivered to the Capitol extension for display in the exhibit gallery.
Saw Flag Pulled Down 62 Years Ago;
He Comes to City to See It Returned
As a boy of 10 Lewis M. Byrne, now of Washington D. C. saw two Federal soldiers pull the Virginia State flag from the Capitol Building on April 3, 1865.
He visited Richmond yesterday to see the flag returned to Virginia and again unfurled, after lapse of sixty-two years.
In the vast throug which crowded into the Hall of the House of Delegates yesterday, to witness the historic event, none felt a greater tug at the heartstrings than Mr. Byrne. As a mere lad in short trousers, he had been eyewitness to the capture of Virginia's proud banner. He probably was the only man in that assemblage yesterday who saw the flag taken down and run up again.
But it is best to let Mr. Byrne, who is in vigorous health for a man 72 years old, tell his own story.
"Richmond was on fire on the morning of April 3, 1865, and stores were being pillaged," he told the Times-Dispatch. "I was on Main Street, near Tenth, when I saw three Union soldiers coming towards me, each bent low in the saddle and riding hard. They went up Ninth Street and I followed them by going up Tenth Street, through the Capitol Square gate. I could see them at Washington's Monument as I entered the square."
"I never could forget that sight. One of the Union soldiers held the three horses, while his two companions went to the top of the Capitol building and hauled down the flag."
Mr. Byrne, who has relatives here, live on Third Street, between Broad and Marshall, during the War Between the States. While visiting here he leaned the flag captured in 1865 would be returned to Virginia.
"I simply had to be there," he concluded. Mr Byrne had a brother in the Confederate regular army, and his father and another brother served in the local forces protecting Richmond.
Flag on display at the Virginia Capital Museum