Reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 2022
It’s a once-in-a-generation artifact that rings strikingly relevant: a Civil War battle flag carried by a Philadelphia regiment of Black soldiers — and hand-painted by David Bustill Bowser, the son of a fugitive slave and Philadelphia’s most acclaimed 19th-century Black artist.
On deep-blue silk with gold fringe, the regal regimental standard of the 127th United States Colored Infantry regiment depicts a soldier off to war, bidding adieu to Lady Columbia, the goddess of Liberty. An inscription captures the bitter burden set upon Black soldiers fighting for freedom: “We will prove ourselves men.”
In recent years, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Civil War Museum & Library in Frankford — Philly’s only remaining museum dedicated exclusively to the Civil War, and the flag’s caretaker for over a century — confronted a cruel choice over the once-tattered relic it had recently restored: Sell or shutter.
Down to nearly its last dollar and unable display the large flag in the cramped quarters of its crumbling mansion off Frankford Avenue, the modest museum decided to put the flag up for auction in 2019. It was promptly purchased for nearly $200,000 by the Atlanta History Center, home to one of the nation’s largest Civil War exhibitions. The Philadelphia flag, now so far south, is a centerpiece of the center’s lauded United States Colored Troops (USCT) collection.
And like that, another of Philadelphia’s financially strapped historical and cultural institutions surrendered a treasure just to keep afloat.
Joseph Perry, a retired city librarian, who serves as president of the GAR, founded in 1926 by Philadelphia Civil War veterans and their descendants, and now operated entirely by volunteers, described the sale as a “one-time shot” that rescued the museum while also securing a home where the 6-foot wide, double-sided flag — an eagle clutches an arrow on the back — could be displayed in full.
“Selling it cut us to the core,” said Perry, in a recent interview. “But our mission was preservation and sharing — and we got both. We got the money we needed, and the flag is restored and being seen. It was a win-win. That flag saved us.”
At the very least, it allowed the often overlooked museum — which boasts a 7,000-volume research library and hundreds of Philly-centric Civil War artifacts, including uniforms and firearms, battle paintings and battle swords, diaries and daguerreotypes, period newspapers and handwritten enlistment records — to live to fight another day.
Late last year, the museum used the proceeds from the flag — about $135,000 after buyer fees — to help purchase a smaller, certified historic building along Frankford Avenue in nearby Holmesburg. Though half the size, it’s without the costly repairs of the mansion, and away from the violence and drugs that plague Griscom Street, where the museum has resided in the John Ruan House since 1958. Shuttered for now, the museum is set to open in the new space in June.
Perry said he hopes the increased visibility of the new location will attract new visitors and allow the museum to focus on educational programming, community outreach, and virtual tours.
“It’s all part of the need — and the need is critical,” Perry said. “There needs to be an influx of new members — people who will take control of the museum and see it into the future. But considering where we were, I’m a hundred percent optimistic of a better future.”
Still, the loss of the flag stings, especially given Philadelphia’s singular connection to the USCT.
Camp William Penn, located just outside the city limits in Cheltenham, was the largest federal training facility for Black soldiers during the Civil War. More than 10,000 free Black men and men who had escaped enslavement were trained there, including more than 8,000 from Pennsylvania — the most from any state. Even the ranks of the renowned 54th Massachusetts Infantry, made famous in the 1989 film Glory, swelled with more than 150 Black Philadelphians.
Bowser, a celebrated ornamental artist and portraitist, painted the flags for Pennsylvania’s 11 USCT regiments. Only the restored 127th’s remains. It is a physical connection to soldiers who, as the flag says, were forced to prove themselves. Initially paid less for their service, USCT fighters were mainly regulated to grunt work over the racist belief that they were better workers than soldiers. But other USCT soldiers suffered heavy casualties in key battles. For its part, the 127th waved its flag at the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of Appomattox Court House, where troops witnessed the surrender of the Confederate Army.
Andy Waskie, a former Temple professor and author of Philadelphia and the Civil War, who serves as the museum’s vice president and historian, said the flag’s postwar history is unclear. But it was likely donated early in the 20th century to GAR Post 2 — the city’s largest Union veterans post — by members of Post 103, one of the city’s only three chapters open to Colored Troops, and where Bowser and Octavius V. Catto had been members. When the museum raised $50,000 to restore it, portions of the silk were held together only by paint.
Most of the Pennsylvania USCT flags were in tatters and destroyed according to military custom, along with scores of other Civil War flags, at West Point just before the start of World War II. (Nationally, there are only nine USCT regimental flags, out of an originally 175, said Greg Biggs, an historian who studies Civil War flags.)
The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor and curator at historic Mother Bethel A.M.E Church in Society Hill, where Frederick Douglass and Catto recruited Black Philadelphians during the Civil War, said the flag highlights challenges Black Americans have always faced in preserving and telling their story.
In the turbulent years after the war, many Black veterans were concerned with much more urgent tasks than safekeeping artifacts, like finding formerly enslaved family members, holding onto disputed land, or finding work in hostile cities.
“Preserving and holding onto things is a luxury,” Tyler said. “If you’re juggling between providing for the present and ministering to the future, the past is always going to be number three. Because of that a lot of this stuff just dropped by the wayside, and it’s a tremendous loss.”
The museum’s move comes as more Philadelphia historical institutions hawk heirlooms to stay afloat.
In 2019, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania laid off a third of its staff before selling $2.2 million worth of commemorative medals. (A library, not a museum, its officials questioned the items’ research value.) In 2018, the Philadelphia History Museum, charter-mandated to steward the city’s cultural artifacts, abruptly shut down. Previously, it had sold more than 2,000 items to cover construction costs. (There are plans for its collection, which includes many Civil War artifacts, to be rebooted through Drexel.)
While often playing second fiddle in a city whose historical brand is decidedly Revolutionary, Philly’s rich Civil War history — it was a critical supplier of men, money, hospitals, and supplies — has been hit particularly hard.
In 2016, the then-homeless Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, which had once occupied a stately Pine Street mansion, transferred ownership of its prized collection of artifacts to the Gettysburg Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the National Park Service at Gettysburg. Its books, letters and other two-dimensional materials remain available to researchers at the Heritage Center of the Union League of Philadelphia.
While the Union League contains an extensive collection of Civil War objects and documents, including swords, paintings, and research materials connected to USCT soldiers — and displayed the restored flag on loan before the GAR sold it — the departure left the Frankford museum standing alone, and often deserted, as Philly’s last exclusive Civil War history keeper.
On a recent afternoon, Waskie offered a tour of the intimate new space, once owned by a family of Civil War veterans.
The museum’s main draws — “Old Baldy,” the preserved head of Gen. George G. Meade’s warhorse, and the strip of blood-stained pillowcase from Lincoln’s deathbed, both considered Civil War grails — have already been installed at the new location. But smaller exhibits hold power, too. A soldier’s hand-painted canteen. A flag made to fly over Independence Hall after Lincoln’s assassination, made with such haste it included extra stars. The ruffles of a Victorian mourning dress, tucked in a box, like a coffin.
Waskie lamented the loss of the rare flag as a painful and sorrowful necessity.
“We had to sell something to keep going,” he said, in the quiet of the new space. “This collection of artifacts and documents — it has to be preserved. If it’s gone, it’s lost.”