During the Civil War, the flags carried by military units had intense emotional significance for the men who fought and died under them. The flags not only symbolized the nation or state, but also stood for the units that carried them and the men who bled in their defense. At the end of the War hundreds of captured Confederate battle flags were held by the Federal government and the victorious Union states. Objects of pride for the men who had fought for the Union, their treatment as war trophies by the victorious North was a sore point in the vanquished South.
In 1887 Grover Cleveland was President. The first Democrat elected to hold the office since the Civil War, Cleveland was also the only non-Civil War veteran to hold the office since the end of the War. During the War he had hired a substitute to fight in his stead, a perfectly legal, albeit unheroic, method of not having to fight one’s self in the conflict.
In 1887 the Secretary of War mentioned to Cleveland that the Adjutant General of the Army had suggested that the return of the battle flags to the Southern states would be a graceful gesture that would be appreciated in the South. No doubt thinking that after more than two decades wartime passions had subsided, Cleveland ordered the return of the captured flags to the Southern governors. This was a major blunder.
The most powerful political organization in the land at this time was the Grand Army of the Republic, the huge association of Union Civil War veterans. They reacted with white-hot fury and besieged the White House with bitter letters and telegrams. Republican politicians swiftly condemned Cleveland. Shocked by the whirlwind he had created, the normally stubborn Cleveland swiftly backed down. Too late. In 1888 Cleveland lost a very narrow election, indeed he won the popular vote by 100,000, and the Union veteran vote cost him several crucial Northern states in the electoral college.
The return of the battle flags would await a future Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt. After his election in 1904, a bill he sponsored to return the Confederate battle flags passed both houses unanimously in February 1905. By this time the passions of the War had truly cooled after four decades, and the Spanish-American War in which Roosevelt had become a national hero had witnessed troops from the North and the South shedding their blood in a common cause. The long Civil War era in American history was now completely at an end.