The Hot Bid: Civil War Black regiment flag bound for glory at Morphy’s

The 127th Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT) Civil War battle flag measures 72in. x 55¼in., excluding the fringe. It has a $150,000-$250,000 estimate. Morphy Auctions image

What you see: The battle flag of the 127th Regiment of the USCT (United States Colored Troops), from Pennsylvania, which fought in the Civil War in 1864 and 1865. It was painted by African-American artist David Bustill Bowser.

The expert: Craig D. Womeldorf, chief executive officer, Morphy Auctions.

How rare are battle-used Civil War regiment flags of any kind? It’s such a wide range. There are battle flags from many regiments, Union and Confederate. They had to have flags in battle to identify the regiment. As you can imagine, they were used heavily. Some got lost and destroyed. They’re very rare.

How rare are United States Colored Troops (USCT) flags, and how rare are USCT flags made by an African-American artist? There were 11 African-American regiments raised in Pennsylvania, and there was one flag per regiment. Of the 11, this is the only one left. Seven [of the other 10] are known from photographic images. USCT flags were not issued by state or federal governments. They were created by supporters. After the war, [military officials] didn’t need to send them back to government entities. They went back to the USCT. Several went to the archives at West Point in 1906, and they were removed and destroyed in 1942. This one happened to go back to the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans] and survived.

And it went back to the artist, David Bustill Bowser, after the war? It’s believed, but not confirmed, that Commander Louis Wagner of Camp William Penn transferred the flag to Bowser after the war. [Camp William Penn, in what is now LaMott, Pennsylvania, was the state’s training camp for African-American Civil War soldiers.] Bowser transferred it to GAR Post 2, which is where we got it.

And that GAR post collection, which morphed into the GAR Civil War Museum and Library, is deaccessing the flag? What is your definition of deaccessing?

A museum releasing objects from its inventory by selling them or giving them to another institution. Yes. They went through the first stage of restoring the flag. We took it to the next step. We took it to someone who specialized in antique flag restoration, preserving it for posterity forever.

How prolific was David Bustill Bowser? We think he was prolific in certain commercial categories, but his paintings and Civil War banners are rare and unique.

Do we know how Bowser was chosen for the Pennsylvania USCT flag commission? He was a prominent Philadelphia artist. We didn’t research how he was chosen, but we know there was opposition, and how it was pushed back. [From the lot notes: When opposition to the choice of Bowser as the artist to paint the flags developed within the Supervisory Committee of the camp, Bowser persuaded John Forney, a powerful Republican Philadelphia politician and newspaper owner, to argue that “he is a poor man, and certainly professes very remarkable talent. He has been active in the cause and is himself a colored man, and it seems to me there would be peculiar hardship in taking away this little job from him and giving it to a wealthy house.”]

Did Bowser fight in the Civil War? He did not.

Could you talk a bit about Bowser’s importance to African-American art history? He studied with the best artists of the era, and he inspired Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the best African-American artists of the 19th century.

Could you discuss what the 127th Regiment did during the war? The lot notes say that it was “in battle once” at Deep Bottom, Virginia, a week before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, but the notes also say the regiment “saw action” at several points in 1864 and 1865. What does “saw action” mean here, and how is it distinct from formally being in battle? “Action” can mean additional activity in battle and campaign support. Most battles are a logistical supply chain issue. Bringing up food, water, rifles, and material is as critical to the battle as the actual battle.

How does this flag match the iconography of other Civil War battle flags, and how does it depart from it? UCST regimental flags generally had a similar motif, usually involving a soldier and Columbia [a female personification of America], but with different text. Each had its own motto. This one says “We Will Prove Ourselves Men.” It’s different from other [Union] regimental flags, which are variations on the American flag. You find variations, different orientations of the stars, the eagle, the stripes, the regimental number, but you don’t see pictorial representations.

Would the makers of USCT flags have had more freedom with their designs because they weren’t government-issued? I don’t know about regimental flag distribution, but they [the UCST regiments] were not considered regular troops. Maybe they had more latitude, maybe they didn’t, I don’t know.

And is the phrase “We Will Prove Ourselves Men” unique to this flag? It’s unique in the Pennsylvania group.

The flag depicts a black male soldier with a white woman, Columbia, who symbolizes America. Would this have been a controversial image in mid-1860s America? Clearly, the flag depicts race consciousness, and we can imagine it would have had an element of controversy at the time, although we have no specific indications or stories associated with any controversy. Battle flags needed to be identifiable for their purpose. If you’ve seen a Civil War reenactment or a movie, it’s smoky, it’s mayhem. A lot of regimental battle flags are similar and can be confused [in the heat of battle], but this would stand out. And it shows the pride of the unit – We Will Prove Ourselves Men. You don’t see that on other flags. We can imagine the uniquely painted, colorful banner met its intentions well.

What condition is the flag in? Does it show signs of having been in battle? It shows signs of wear, for sure, because it was in pieces and had to be restored. It was probably worn from use in battle, and at the end of the war, [veterans from the regiment] took pieces as souvenirs.

I think I see a hole near the word “Men” in the motto, and I think I see paler blue spots at the lower left, which might be thin spots. Is that, in fact, what I see? If you blow up the image so that the word “Men” is in the middle of the screen, you’ll see fine mesh netting and lots and lots of tiny stitches that match the color of blue. [Click on the main shot of the lot and then click the area once or twice.] They were extremely meticulous about that. Those are original sections and restored sections attached to a support net, and that is attached to an acid-free cotton batting. And that is inside a UV-protected enclosure.

How did you arrive at an estimate for this, especially with it being the only survivor of the 11 Bowser Pennsylvania regimental flags, which has never gone to auction before? We got a team of experts together. We looked at other flags…

Did you look at other works by Bowser? There’s nothing like this that survives, so there’s nothing else to compare it to. In the last Edged Weapon, Armor, and Militaria sale, we had a North Carolina [Confederate] battle flag, a pretty basic flag, captured on the retreat from Gettysburg. It sold for $96,000. It was not as pictorial, with a different legacy, a different significance, a whole different genre of flag. We believe this, in many ways, is more significant and rare.

How many different audiences of collectors will fight for this flag? Military historians, art historians, African-American, Civil War, Grand Army of the Republic enthusiasts – a pretty wide group. We hope it will generate a lot of interest.

What is the flag like in person? I’m kind of a Civil War buff. I look at it, and to me, it’s suspended in time because it’s preserved so well. If you’ve been to Gettysburg or the museums in Virginia, you get a weighty feeling. Emotionally, it’s intense, but somber at the same time, because you know what these people dealt with.

What’s the auction record for a UCST flag, and for any Civil War battle flag? I don’t know about UCST. I looked, but couldn’t find any. The most expensive flag I could find was Confederate general JEB Stuart’s personal battle flag. It sold for $956,000 in December 2006. But I think this has the opportunity to be more important than that. It’s got a different combination of factors. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I think it’s worth at least the estimate.

Why will this flag stick in your memory? It connects to so many elements of the Civil War and American history. It’s astounding and unique. I haven’t seen or heard of anything like it. People say something is unique – this is the definition of unique.

How to bid: The 127th Regiment USCT flag is lot 2161 in Day 2 of the Edged Weapon, Armor, and Militaria sale taking place June 12 and 13 at Morphy Auctions. It will come to the block on the second day of the sale.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Morphy Auctions.