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Donated Stars and Bars

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Civil War flag to be donated to a museum

Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 4:14 AM CST
Midlands News Service

NORFOLK - Bill Stafford remembers wanting to see the flag in the box when he was a little boy around age 6.

The 89-year-old Norfolkan's maternal grandmother, Clara Tracy, was the keeper of the rare Civil War flag.

She would spend about six months of each year living with his mother and the rest of the family in Oxford in south-central Nebraska.

Stafford said he remembers looking forward to his grandmother's arrival each year. He would always pester her - "Show me the flag."

Tracy kept the flag in a box inside a wardrobe trunk. The flag would be folded up, but the stars and bars were visible, Stafford said.

There was also a man's cuff with a bullet hole in the sleeve that was kept with the flag, Stafford remembers.

Stafford said he also remembers his grandmother telling him the story of her uncle, Col. William S. Brooks, and how he had acquired the flag.

Brooks was a soldier for the Union Army in the Civil War, eventually ending up as a colonel in charge of a regiment of black soldiers.

As Stafford's grandmother used to tell the story, during the battle, Brooks had secured the flag from the enemy and, in doing so, was shot in the arm. That explained the hole in the cuff kept with the flag.

Before she died, Tracy gave the flag to Stafford's older brother, Edward. He died in the late 1980s.

Over the years, Bill Stafford had forgotten about the flag. Then in late 2007, he heard a story on the radio about the treatment of white Union officers who were in charge of black soldiers. The treatment was especially brutal for any white officers who were captured by the South.

"Immediately I thought of the flag," he said.

Stafford said he then called his brother's widow, Dorothy Stafford. They met in Kearney and he saw the flag for the first time in decades.

"It was unfurled, which was the first time I had ever seen it outside of the box," he said.

Stafford said he asked his sister-in-law about the cuff with the bullet hole in it, but she didn't know anything about it.

After that, Stafford said, he started thinking about the flag and who should own it.

He told his brother's widow that he thought the flag belongs to posterity and no family, including the Staffords. He encouraged her to donate it to a museum.

On Stafford's 89th birthday last November in Norfolk, however, Dorothy presented the flag to her brother-in-law.

Stafford keeps it locked in a safety deposit box at his bank. Although Stafford said he was pleased to receive it, he still thinks it belongs in a museum.

"It is so rare and historical that it should belong to everyone," he said.

The story took another unusual twist recently when Stafford and his son, Dick, learned of another descendant of the Brooks family in Bellevue. Those family members were unaware that the flag even existed.

That family, the Robinsons, also had done considerable research on the Civil War but was doing it out of their own interest in the war. They were excited to learn about the flag and also shared their research and some contacts.

While Brooks is noted for having obtained the Confederate flag and passing it down in his family, he also had another historic incident with a Union flag.

At Prairie Grove, Ark., he was known for holding on to the Union flag despite a tremendous onslaught from rebel soldiers. Prairie Grove Battlefield is now a state park.

The park spans a large amount of land and contains a visitor center and museum. That museum is among the places Stafford is considering donating the flag.

A letter from then-Lt. Brooks was published in the Burlington (Iowa) Weekly Hawkeye on Jan. 17, 1863, detailing the Prairie Grove battle.

After describing intense fighting, Brooks writes about his group of Iowa 19th Volunteers losing their lieutenant colonel, along with half of the regiment.

"I was hit at the commencement of the retreat, and was near being captured, as I would not run. When more than halfway to our battery, our color [flag] sergeant fell, and I received the colors [flag]. The pursing rebel colonel shouted: 'G-d d-n -em, take their colors!' This enraged me and I hollowed back, 'You can't do it.' The cowardly s-s of b--- did not dare to close on me but let go a volley which left nine holes in the flag and 18 in my clothes. Four bullets passed through the cuff of my shirt sleeve, but they would not wound the hand that held the old flag."

The Staffords said they do not know what happened to that old Union flag that Brooks held, nor whether it even exists today.

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