SOUTH PORTLAND — A Civil War flag that was carried by a Maine regiment into battles in Louisiana and Texas and later passed down by a family in Colorado completed a 156-year journey through history last week when it arrived back in Maine.

War-torn and tattered but protected in a wooden frame, the flag was delivered to the doorstep of the Maine Military Museum in South Portland. It will be on display to tell the story of the soldiers in the 15th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment who first carried it into battle in 1863.

The Union battle flag bears 35 stars and was the one most flown by Union forces during the Civil War, said Lee Humiston, director and curator of the museum. Examples are rare and this one has a story all its own.

“This flag is as unique as it’s going to get,” Humiston said.

The flag was delivered by truck on March 9 to the museum, which is located off Broadway on Peary Terrace, near Cash Corner.

The flag had been stored for years in Nancy Meshko’s home in Denver, Colorado. Meshko, who is in her 90s, was married to the Maine regiment commander’s great-grandson, George Meshko.

Humiston was contacted by Meshko and others about the family’s desire to return the flag to Maine. He didn’t hesitate to accept.

“She told me she wanted the flag to come home,” Humiston said.

After the Civil War ended, Maj. James H. Whitmore returned to Maine to live for a time with his father in Bowdoinham. He died in North Carolina in 1896 at the age of 61.

According to Humiston, Maj. James H. Whitmore of Bowdoinham, who was a commander of Company B of the 15th Maine, kept the flag after the Civil War ended. The flag was passed down through his family until it came into George Meshko’s possession.

It was George Meshko who first decided the flag should return to Maine, a wish his widow would ultimately fulfill.

The 15th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment was organized in Augusta in December 1861 and consisted mostly of soldiers from Aroostook County. The regiment initially traveled to Ship Island, Mississippi, and then Florida, before getting assigned to Louisiana.

During its first year of service, the 962-man regiment did not go into battle, but lost 329 men through disease, desertion and discharge. In June 1863, the regiment joined a Union expedition to Texas, where it fought the Confederate Army at the battle of Fort Esperanza. Whitmore told his family that the flag was the first Union flag to be flown over Texas shores during the Civil War.

In March 1864, the regiment returned to New Orleans, where it joined Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ Red River expedition. Regiment members marched more than 700 miles in two months, participating in the battles of Sabine Crossroads, Pleasant Hill, Monett’s Ferry and Mansura Plains. Banks’ campaign failed and he was forced to retreat in May 1864.

After the Civil War ended, Whitmore returned to Maine to live for a time with his father in Bowdoinham, according to Joyce Huntley of Dunedin, Florida. Huntley is the great-granddaughter of Whitmore and is regarded as the Meshko family historian based on her genealogical research.

“It’s become an addiction,” the 93-year-old Huntley said.

Whitmore eventually married and moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, where he and his wife raised three daughters. He died in North Carolina in 1896 at the age of 61, passing down the flag to a daughter. Eventually, that daughter presented George Meshko with the flag, which he cared for until his death five years ago, Huntley said.

Before his death, George Meshko paid to have the flag framed and preserved behind glass. Huntley told him about the Maine Military Museum and its reputation for preserving military history, and he ultimately decided that the small South Portland museum would be the ideal place for the Civil War artifact.

“George had planned for years and years to put the flag in his truck and drive it to Maine, but it never happened,” said William Ottenweller, a son-in-law of George and Nancy Meshko who lives in Denver.

Lee Humiston of the Maine Military Museum is reflected in the glass of a framed flag from the Civil War that he says was the first to fly over Texas in 1863. The flag belonged to Maj. James H. Whitmore of the 15th Maine Regiment. Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After her husband died, Nancy Meshko asked Ottenweller to figure out a way to honor her husband’s wishes by making arrangements to have the flag donated to the military museum. Ottenweller said Meshko never considered giving the flag to anyone else.

Ottenweller, who is retired from the moving business, hired someone to build a crate around the flag to protect if from being damaged. The entire package weighed around 400 pounds. When Ottenweller approached Federal Express to see how much it would cost to have the flag flown to Maine, the company quoted him a price of $52,000, he said.

“I told them I was not interested in buying an airplane,” Ottenweller joked.

Instead, he arranged for the flag to be driven more than 2,000 miles to Maine by an interstate freight carrier, a journey that took eight days to complete. It cost Nancy Meshko nearly $3,000 to have the flag crated and shipped to South Portland.

She also donated a framed photograph of Maj. Whitmore to the Maine Military Museum.

For Humiston, an Air Force veteran who lives in Old Orchard Beach, the Union flag is a welcome addition to a growing collection of military artifacts and stories, all of which have been given to the nonprofit museum by people who want to preserve and share the state’s military history.

The museum has become a treasure trove of information, history and exhibits about the role Maine soldiers, sailors and pilots played during world wars and regional conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Every single piece is donated and original. I buy nothing,” Humiston said.

The museum lists its winter hours as being Nov. 12 through May 26 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday the rest of the year.

filed under: