Emotion crept into Ross Wilburn’s face and voice as he stood before an 1863 American Civil War battle flag that represents his great-great grandfather's Iowa regiment that hangs at the State Historical Building.
It marked the first time Wilburn saw the flag up close. He took in every detail of the hand-sewn flag – the blue canton with 35 gold stars, “Grant’s screaming eagle” and the regiment’s name: 1st Colored Regt. of Iowa.
“It’s very moving to be standing here in front of this flag – to know that it exists,” said Wilburn, a state representative, Iowa Democratic Party chair and veteran.
Wilburn has spent 30 years tracing his genealogy. His great-great grandfather Sgt. Harrison Tilford Gash, also called “General,” escaped slavery and served in the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (60th U.S. Colored Infantry). Wilburn saluted at the flag before he stepped closer to look at the flag sewn by Black Iowa women from Keokuk and Muscatine – its red and white stripes long faded.
“It’s the end – but not the end – of a journey of just trying to piece together my family history,” he said on Saturday, standing before a small group of people who were invited to the flag viewing. “I’m sorry. I’m just having a moment here.”
Wilburn said he felt a sense of pride and connection to his country because of the flag and the contributions that women and men put into fighting for the Union Army.
“There was so much done after the Civil War to really whitewash what happened with the Civil War,” he said. “It was really more about bringing the North and South together, than continuing the economic opportunity for people who were enslaved,” he said.
Gash escaped from Missouri to Quincy, Illinois, then to Galesburg, Illinois, where Wilburn was born. Gash enlisted in the Union Army on Sept. 23, 1863, in Quincy, then he was sent to Keokuk, Iowa, where he joined the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa, Wilburn said. Gash's brothers Jefferson and Frank Gash later escaped and enlisted on Jan. 12, 1864, in Chicago, Illinois, in Company D, of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops, according to Wilburn.
Wilburn said Gash’s 326-page military pension records provided a “treasure trove” of details about the veteran’s life, family and movements. The records also contained a document Gash had signed confirming he had been enslaved and the name of the people who had enslaved him and his two brothers near Palmyra, Missouri, Wilburn said.
Dwain Coleman, a University of Iowa Ph.D. candidate in history and co-director of the Iowa Colored Conventions Digital Project, said via email, pension records could contain hundreds of pages if veterans had applied for a disability pension, which resulted in lengthy depositions, or if veterans or their heirs had lived long lives. He said the last known Civil War pension recipient died last year.
Leo Landis, museum curator at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, told Wilburn and the gathering that in August of 1894, Iowa veterans, including Black veterans, marched their flags from a building on the west bank of the Des Moines River to the Iowa statehouse. The flag hung there until the 1970s, he said. Only a handful of such battle flags still exist, he said.
Light damage and hanging on a staff for 100 years hastened the flag’s deterioration, he said, which has led to conservation efforts.
The U.S. is mired in debate over critical race theory – from local school boards to state legislatures – and how history is taught and whose history is taught.
Wayne Clinton is a retired teacher whom Wilburn said was the first Black to serve as a Story County supervisor. Clinton, in attendance on Saturday, said when he grew up in Missouri, Black history wasn't really taught. He said Wilburn’s history is American history and Iowa history and should be shared widely.
The Civil War wasn't that long ago, Wilburn said. As a child, he met his great-grandmother, Gash’s daughter-in-law.
Wilburn said he is glad he can share these treasured historical details with his two children – and all Iowans. He encourages people to talk with their family members to learn more about their family history.