Have you ever looked at the North Dakota state flag and wondered where it came from? Why is it blue? What’s with the eagle? If you thought if looks almost federal, you would be right. The North Dakota state flag was adopted from an Army regimental flag; the reason for the blue color is because blue is the color of the infantry.
In 1898, a deteriorating situation was leading to a conflict between the United States and Spain. When war came, many young men raced to volunteer. The enthusiasm was so great, recruits such as Tom Stafne and Peter Gunness walked from Abercrombie to Wahpeton to join the Company I of the 1st North Dakota Infantry Regiment. Tom and Peter felt if they waited for the train, the unit’s roster would be filled before they could get there.
On May 1, Company I of the 1st North Dakota Infantry formed up and marched to the Great Northern Railway depot. The train left with cheers and waves from the townspeople. Later, after training at Camp Merrit they would board the S.S. Valencia for the Philippines; a country up until a few months before they hadn’t known about.
The Spanish-American War had a few firsts. It was the first war the United States fought overseas. We had previously only fought wars in North America. The National Guard had participated in previous wars, especially in the American Civil War but This would be the first time we would send the National Guard overseas to fight in a foreign land. The active army had reservations about the abilities of the farmers they were now to lead into battle.
The 1st North Dakota exceeded the expectations of the active Army. They proved very quickly to be competent and capable soldiers. During their time in the Philippines, the conflict would transition from war with Spain to fighting the very people they had originally liberated. There are two very good books which tell this story, “The Boys,” by John Durand and “Never Subdued,” by Franklin Hook.
During their time in the Philippines, the 1st North Dakota would fight in the Laguna de Bay & San Isidro campaigns and at least 29 additional engagements; this includes the famous battle of the burning bridge. Members of the unit would volunteer for Young’s Scouts, an early version of what we know today as Special Forces. Ultimately, nine members of the unit would earn Congressional Medals of Honor.
Upon returning home from the war, the soldiers did their best to return to civilian life. The war, and the sacrifices of the soldiers wasn’t easily forgotten. A bill for a state flag was introduced in the North Dakota legislature in 1911; the new flag was to be a modified version of the Regimental flag. The red banner was changed to read North Dakota and the colors were later formalized to be more in line with the original Regimental Flag.
The next time you look at the North Dakota flag, think of those young men who fought so bravely in the Philippines. Think of all the men and women from our state since then who have put on a uniform and performed their duties to the highest standard.