Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
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36 EIGHT-POINTED STARS IN MEDALLION CONFIGURATION, ON AN OCEAN BLUE CANTON THAT RESTS ON THE WAR STRIPE; A SPECTACULAR CIVIL WAR PERIOD FLAG FROM THE TINCLAD GUNBOAT "GENERAL GRANT," THAT SERVED ON THE TENNESSEE RIVER IN DEFENSE OF THE MISSISSIPPI

Web ID: 36j-929
Available: On Hold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 95" X 105.5"
Flag Size (H x L): 84" x 92.5"
 
Description:
36 star American national flag with a host of interesting traits and wonderful specific history. Most prominent among its graphic feature are the stars, which have eight-pointed profiles instead of the usual five. This was fairly common in quilt-making, where it is often referred to as a "Lemoyne Star," but the use of this style in early flag-making was especially rare. Prior to 1912 there was no official legislation concerning the number of points that the stars had to have on the American flag, so anything was possible. Even so, stars with more or less than five points can be found in fewer than one percent of surviving 19th century examples.

The stars of the flag are arranged in what is known as a medallion pattern. This consists of two consecutive wreaths, with a star in the very center and a star in each corner. The stars are placed on a canton that has attractively weathered and faded to a shade of what one might call "ocean blue." Made of fine, merino wool with an iridescent cast, the canton rests on a red stripe. This is a scarce trait. When it occurs, some flag historians have referred to this as the “blood stripe” or the “war stripe”, suggesting the flag was constructed in this manner when the nation was at war. In actuality, the placement probably occurred more often by accident. Not everyone knew where the canton was traditionally placed, and because there were no official specification until 1912, there was no official standard.

The square profile of the flag is akin to Union Army battle flags of the period, which measured 6 by 6.5 feet. The length was short so that they would be less apt to drag on the ground when carried, yet simultaneously be as large as possible, so that they could be more effective in their function as signals. Because battle fields were often choked with the smoke from gunfire, the flag was a crucial rallying point. It's size and the ability to raise it above the clouds of black powder was critical.

A 7 by just over 7.5 feet, the appearance of this flag is that of a military battle flag, but a foot larger. Like the proportions of the flag itself, the canton is nearly square. This is expected on a square flag, where the union was typically shortened like this, sometimes even to the point where it became tall and narrow. All of the above lends the flag a more interesting appearance, which appeals to flag enthusiasts.

Like the canton, the stripes of the flag are made of merino wool. These were pieced and joined by treadle stitching, while the outer most edge on the top, bottom, and fly ends were bound in the same manner. The canton is pieced from three lengths of fabric, as is the wide hoist binding, which is made of heavy cotton twill and treadle-sewn. The binding is unusual because it bears both an open sleeve, at the outermost edge, with braided twine passed through, (still intact, though trimmed at the top and bottom,) and 8, hand-sewn, whip-stitched grommets, adjacent to the rope and evenly spaced. A rope hoist is often indicative of maritime use, while the long series of hand-sewn grommets would be far more likely to be encountered on a flag that was meant to be hand-carried.

If they differ at all from what a casual observer might describe as "normal," rectangular proportions, ship's flags tend to be long and narrow, as opposed to square. This allowed them to be as large as possible when flung to the breeze, and also extended their lifespan, allowing for the fly end to be repeatedly turned back and hemmed as it became whipped out by the wind. For this reason the verbal provenance doesn't seem to match up with the design. Had I been researching it at the time, I would have presumed it to be a homemade battle flag, perhaps accidentally designed a bit too large. Note that the number "62" is stenciled along the hoist binding, on the obverse. I would have intently researched the possibility of this being a regimental number, i.e., the 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, the 62nd New York Infantry, etc., though the possibilities of a match would have been little more than a shot in the dark.

Many years ago the flag was discovered and purchased by a dealer in Chatham, New York, who claimed that it had been flown on a Union gunboat on the Tennessee River. This was but verbal history, conveyed by the seller, then passed along by the dealer to a collector who acquired it. Though not typical of early museum / historical society cataloguing, and much larger than would be expected for military serial numbering, (not generally encountered during the 19th century,) both dismissed the numerical stencil as some sort of obsolete storage reference.

As chance would have it, the number gained significance when the collector stumbled upon an illustration of a Union gunboat in the April 29th, 1865 issue of Harper's Weekly, bearing the caption "Tin-Clad No. 48." It immediately dawned on him that there just might be a tin-clad No. 62. Armed with this theory, he soon discovered that indeed there was, and that this hull number belonged to the 204-ton General Grant, which, remarkably, served on the Tennessee River in the exact period from which the flag dates.

Commissioned by the U.S. Navy on the 20th of July, 1864, at Bridgeport, Alabama, the General Grant was issued into service shortly prior to the addition of the 36th state, Nevada, which entered the Union on Halloween of that same year. Lincoln ushered Nevada into statehood just 8 days before his successful re-election. The territory’s wealth in silver was attractive to a nation struggling with the debts of war and so increased support for the Republican ticket. While the 36th star wasn't officially added until July 4th of the following year, 1865, the makers of printed flags are known to have begun adding a star as early as July of 1864, several months before the entrance of the state actually occurred. This was a common practice during the late 19th century, and was reflective of both the nation's desire for Westward Expansion and the hope of flag-makers to bring new star counts to market before their competitors. I would anticipate the same thing to have occurred in homemade flags, dependent upon the inclinations of the individual maker.

After the Third Flag Act of 1818 was passed, during the Monroe administration, stars were to be officially added on July 4th each year for any states that had come in during the previous "flag year" (July 4th - July 3rd). This information was either not widely disseminated or largely ignored, and from a practical standpoint made little sense. It is reasonable to assume that the intent of the legislation may have been merely ceremonious. When the war broke out, in April of 1861, the 33 star flag was official, but Kansas had already joined the Union as the 34th state. Wartime production for military use went straight to the 34 star count, because it was unreasonable to undertake the production of thousands of 33 star flags, only to recall them on July 4th to add a 34th star.

All flag-makers would have added the 36th star after Nevada was actually in, on October 31st, with the rarest of exceptions. Interestingly enough, military production generally bypassed the 36 star count. I have yet to encounter any traditional, silk, infantry, artillery, or cavalry flags, made under government contract at the major depots, and having war-period specific history of use. This is because there was surplus of 35 and 34 star examples, and therefore no need to produce them. That said, military use of 36 star flags would still be expected if the need was urgent and existing supplies were inaccessible, or if a presentation flag, made by local individuals, was present and reasonable for the function at hand.

This 36 star example was either homemade or else produced in a cottage industry setting, by someone who did not usually make flags. The cotton stars are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides of the blue canton), but their edges are not turned under as would be expected from a professional flag-maker. Skill in doing so required expertise in appliqué work, which is difficult and not shared by everyone who can sew, even if they are good. Merino wool would have been obtainable at a dry goods store, where wool bunting--the expected fabric for long-term, outdoor use flags--would not, and would have to be obtained from a ship's chandler or Naval supply stock. The binding of the top and bottom edges of the flag would also be unexpected from a professional flag-maker, who would have selected lengths with selvedge.

The General Grant was owned by the War Department as opposed to the U.S. Navy. The Army has long operated its own fleet of boats for practical transportation and support of tactical activities. Sometimes these were chartered to the Navy and piloted by Navy personnel. Such was the case with the Grant and many of its counterparts that saw service in protection of the Mississippi River and its many tributaries. Since the 18th century, the river served as the only viable means of transporting all manner of food and supplies to the ever-growing portion of America that lay well beyond the Eastern seaboard. Considered the backbone of our nation, whomever controlled the Mississippi had a giant upper hand that could literally strangle opposing military operations from New Orleans to Minneapolis, at all points in-between, and stretching outward far in either direction. The most numerous type of Army gunboat was the ironclad, known humorously as the "tinclad," due to the light armored protection of its lower deck. Mounting of several guns allowed these vessels to served multiple purpose, propelling shells at the Confederacy when necessary, as well as goods and personnel from one point to another.

The Grant was built at Monongahela, Pennsylvania in 1863 and sold to the War Department. This was one of four similar ships that comprised what was known as the "Upper Tenneessee Fleet." Each bore the name of a significant Civil War general, the remainder including the General Burnside, the General Sherman, and the General Thomas. Each was a side-wheel steamer. According to "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1", (published by the Navy via an Act of Congress in 1894,), the Grant measured 171 feet in length, was outfitted with 5 guns that included (2) thirty-pound Parrott rifles and (3) twenty-four-pound Howitzers, and was built at a cost of $19,000. On September 29th, 1864, Rear Admiral David D. Porter placed the Upper Tennessee Fleet under the command of Lieutenant M. Forrest. (v. 26, p. 573).

In January of 1865, the General Grant was in operation in "The Eleventh District [Mississippi Squadron], above Mussel Shoals, Tennessee River," (v. 27, p.56). The commanding officer on the Grant was Acting Ens. Joseph Watson, who mustered in at New York City in 1862 with the rank of Landsman (residence unlisted) and mustered out in 1866. The acting naval commander in the district was Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, USN, who, under the direction of Ulysses S. Grant himself, aided the Army in operations against Confederate forces on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers.

Records demonstrate that the Grant was engaged in several conflicts. The following appeared in a January 17th, 1865 report of Lt. Forrest (at Bridgeport, AL):

"Just arrived. Crossed Colonel Calmon's battalion of cavalry and sent out 200 soldiers. Captured 90 prisoners, 150 horses, and one piece of artillery, and a rebel mail. Burned the town of Somerville [Ala.]. The Grant was pierced once, but received no damage." (v. 27, p. 15).

The following was recorded by Arthur Wyllie in "The Union Navy" (2007, self-published):

"General Grant constantly patrolled the upper Tennessee River from Bridgeport until close of the Civil War. In October 1864 she destroyed 22 small boats off Port Deposit and Crow Island. On 25 November she assisted in taking up pontoon bridges under guns of Confederate sharpshooters at Decatur, Ala. She hurled 52 shells into that town 12 December 1864 and joined General Thomas 15 January 1865 in the destructive bombardment of Guntersville, Ala." (p. 159).

The Grant was decommissioned from Navy service and returned to the War Department on June 2nd, 1865.

The peculiar stylistic features of this flag may sell explain its use. Union Army battle flags were typically silk with gilt-painted stars. They were light-weight because they had to be strategically carried while afoot and were brought out only when needed. Ship's flags were usually larger, especially for a 171-footer, and would have been constructed of wool. Because it sheds water, wool is more conducive of maritime use. Perhaps the square format of an infantry battle flag was combined with a fabric better suited for long-term, outdoor exposure. And perhaps both the rope-style hoist and grommets were combined so that the flag could be flow aboard ship, then taken down and carried by solders when necessary. At a time of the war when materials were especially scarce, this may have been an experimental means of conserving much-needed resources. The numerical designation would have showed where the flag belonged following a land-based engagement. Built for river use, the hull of a tinclad might only be submerged 5 feet. A shorter flag may also have made sense when operating close to shore, near islands or inlets, where there were overhanging trees, especially if the flag was to also be displayed on a skiff taking men from the Grant to shore.

Whatever the case may be, this flag is a spectacular graphic object. With interesting colors and its unusual stars and shape, these facts alone make for a Masterpiece level object on a 19th century example. The Civil War period date and the specific history augment that significantly.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.

The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The mount was placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to inquire for more details.

Condition: The flag shows much evidence of having been flown for an extended period. There are modest to moderate losses along the fly end, more significant at the top and bottom stripes. There is some soiling throughout, more apparent in the white fabric of the hoist binding, the stars, and the stripes, the most significant of which is along the fly end. There are two, small, period patches to semi-round holes in the 2nd red stripe. These may be from musket fire. There is repaired vertical tear stretching from the 5th to the 7th stripes, near the fly end. There is a square patch at the end of the 8th stripe, apparently using the original fabric and perhaps just re-attaching this section after it tore away. There is a rectangular cotton patch, situated vertically at the fly end of the last white stripe.
   
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 36
Earliest Date of Origin: 1864
Latest Date of Origin: 1867
State/Affiliation: Nevada
War Association: 1861-1865 Civil War
Price: Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281
Nautical:
E-mail: info@jeffbridgman.com


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