Freedom’s Flag

The Atlanta History Center acquires a rare Civil War flag by African-American artist David Bustill Bowser created for African-American soldiers.

by Andrew Alexander

June 20, 2019

Featured image: Regimental flag of the 127th United States Colored Troops (All images courtesy Atlanta History Center)

The Atlanta History Center recently acquired a rare regimental flag of the 127th United States Colored Troops, one of fewer than 25 known examples carried by African American regiments during the war. Its auction price of $196,800 represents the most the institution has ever spent to acquire a single artifact.

David Bustill Bowser

The flag is the only surviving example of eleven that were created by African-American artist David Bustill Bowser (1820-1890), a noted Philadelphia sign-painter, portraitist, and anti-slavery activist. Historians identify his paintings as “the first widely viewed, positive images of African Americans painted by an African American.”

Politically active and abolitionist throughout his life, Bowser joined with other prominent members of Philadelphia’s African-American community during the American Civil War to recruit black soldiers to fight. Bowser was commissioned in early 1863 to design banners and battle flags for eleven of those African-American regiments.

His flags, most of which are now lost, depicted symbolic and allegorical scenes and were variously emblazoned with mottos such as: “Rather Die Freemen Than Live To Be Slaves,” “We will prove ourselves men,” “Let Soldiers in War Be Citizens in Peace,” and “One Cause, One Country.”

An image from the Library of Congress shows a photographic print on carte de visite mount of Bowser’s flag taken sometime between 1860 and 1870. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The fragile silk of the flag had deteriorated over the years, and fragments of the original painting, shown above in a period photograph, had to be reassembled during extensive restoration of the work in 2017.

Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the United States Colored Troops are extraordinarily scarce. Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were issued the same uniforms and equipment as white soldiers, making collecting to interpret the story of African American troops a significant challenge.

“Unless a soldier put his name on a piece of gear or it came down through the family, we will never know who used it,” notes Atlanta History Center Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones. Jones called this flag the very definition of a rare and important artifact. “It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact. Even an enlisted man’s USCT uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”

Six feet wide and nearly four feet tall, the silk banner depicts a black soldier carrying a rifle and bidding farewell to Columbia, the mythical goddess of liberty. The motto above the soldier reads “We will prove ourselves men.” On the flag’s reverse side, an American bald eagle bears a ribbon with the nation’s motto “E pluribus unum” –or, “Out of many, one.”

The 127th USCT Regiment represented by the flag originally formed at Camp William Penn near Philadelphia in 1864. Many of its soldiers were volunteers, others were drafted. It is unknown how many were previously enslaved. The 127th served during the U.S. siege of Petersburg, Virginia, and was present at Appomattox Courthouse when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered in April 1865. Afterwards the regiment was ordered to occupation duty in Texas.

For many years the 127th USCT flag was housed at the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Nearly all other USCT flags are in institutional collections in Baltimore, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, and Kansas.

The History Center rarely makes major purchases for its collections, which have grown organically over they years, primarily through donations since the Center’s founding in 1926. However, on Thursday, June 13, the History Center purchased the flag for $196,800 ($160,000 hammer price, plus buyer’s premium). The auction, conducted by Morphy Auctions, took place in Denver, Pennsylvania, and the Center participated online.

Among at least 11,000 Civil War objects in the Center’s collections are a twelve objects identified specifically with African American soldiers or regiments. These include a brass drum belonging to a drummer boy of the all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment, a knapsack used at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, by a soldier in the 8th USCT, and a recently acquired canteen bearing the stenciled mark of the 15th USCT, which guarded railroad lines in Tennessee during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

Officials at the Center say that purchasing the flag represents their continuing efforts to expand the Civil War collections, including artifacts representing the United States Colored Troops. “We want to tell the entire story of the Civil War and how it impacts our country,” Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale says. “This flag is one of those things that doesn’t need words to tell you what it is and what it represents.”

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.


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