New Jersey's Archives in Trenton hold a wealth of state-related documents dating back over 350 years, but few realize that the collection also contains notable non-document items worthy of viewing. In a darkened room off the main lobby, the Archives displays a rotating collection of Civil War battle flags carried by the citizen soldiers who fought in the War Between the States.
It's not commonly known to those who don't study the war, but Civil War infantry regiments were generally issued a number of flags, including a US flag and state flag, as well as other marker flags. Cavalries also got flags, but they were much smaller, given the difficulty of riding a horse with a full sized banner. After the war, many of the flags were kept by soldiers or ripped apart for regimental members to share as keepsakes, but several were returned intact to the state. Those formed the nucleus of the New Jersey State House flag collection, which was displayed in the capitol building until 1885, when the building suffered a fire. Fortunately, the flags survived and were placed in fireproof storage.
Today, only a few flags are displayed at any given time, due to their advanced age, but the Archives room contains photos of some of the more interesting ones not on display. One of the flags in storage, for instance, has a lovely silk butterfly on it, reflecting the 36th Regiment of the Third Cavalry and the colorful silk linings of their jackets.
When I visited the Archives last week, the four flags on display were largely designed on the theme of the American flag, but with lettering that designated the regiment that carried it, and, perhaps, the list of battles they'd fought in. The one I was most curious about was the "Yahoo" flag carried by the 23rd New Jersey Infantry. Long before internet search engines, the definition of 'yahoo' was derived from the book Gulliver's Travels, whose Yahoo characters were described as vile and uncouth. Who in heck would carry a banner designating themselves by a derisive term?
The 23rd, as it turns out, was mustered from Burlington County in the summer of 1862 to help replenish the First New Jersey Brigade, which had been exhausted by continual service. The 1000-strong 23rd, however, wasn't, well, all that military in demeanor, especially when you consider that its first commander resigned to avoid a court martial for drunkenness. When their new commander inspected the troops and found them less than attentive to protocol, he dubbed them Yahoos, and the name stuck. In fact, many of the veterans of the 23rd proudly declared themselves Yahoos for the rest of their lives. They may have served only nine months, mustering out just before the Battle of Gettysburg, but through their flag, their name lives on.