Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
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Dimensions (inches): 9.25" x 23.25" x 2.5"
It's difficult to imagine how the carver of this particular Federal eagle plaque, made from a block of solid mahogany, could have improved on its execution. Rendered in a voluptuous fashion, with expertly formed elements, such as the rolling billow of the flag, the gently twisting vines, leaves, and olives, and the bird’s arching wings, crowned with a serpentine, scrolling banner, everything from stars to tassels to feathers was treated with great care and detail. All of these are executed such that the background appears in exceptionally deep relief.

Given the mahogany employed, the scale and style of the carving, and its similarity to pairs of ships’ gangway boards with which it was found, I expect that the work served as part of the decoration of a nautical vessel. This may have adorned a ship’s interior, such as a captain’s quarters, officers’ galley, or special quarters of some sort intended for important guests. Although the position of the eagle, facing the arrows or olive branches to indicate a time of war or peace, respectively, cannot always be counted upon with certainty, the imagery presented here does weigh heavily in favor of a disposition of war. Note how the eagle not only faces the arrows, but that they are also presented on top of the shield, as if placing the idea of defense on hold in favor of attack. When there are not 13 arrows, or an uncountable cluster of many, a trio of arrows is most often seen. Here there are three together, with a fourth on top that displays a larger head. Aimed in a direction rather distinct from the others, this is directed outward and upward, toward the same point as the spear shaped finial on the staff of a battle flag, adorned with the usual tassels. Also note how the “E Pluribus Unum” motto (out of many, one) is so heavily emphasized, prominently protruding above the eagle’s head, in an almost crown-like fashion. On its own this might convey nothing, but in a Civil War period carving of this nature, it may serve to emphasize both the strength of the Union and the overall goal of returning the nation to its former stature.

The count of 22 stars may reflect a removal of those states that the carver felt were presently loyal to the Confederate cause, creating what I have termed a Southern-exclusionary count. It is of interest to note that these appear in the precise three-dimensional format of the metal insignia used to display rank on military uniforms. Because the number of states in the Union fluctuated over the course of the war, and because certain states were on the fence with regard to the loyalties within its respective population, the number of stars on exclusionary flags can differ from one to the next, dependent on the views of the maker, even if working in the same local at the same precise point in time.

When the war broke out, in April of 1861, there were officially 33 stars on the American national flag. Though Kansas had already entered the Union as the 34th state, in January of that year, the flag would not officially receive a 34th star until Independence Day. Since the passing of the 3rd Flag Act, in 1818, July 4th had become the official roll-over of the “flag year.” Since no one seemed to care what was official, however, not even the military, wartime production generally went straight to the 34 star count for military production, as well as for civilian use.

There was no official star pattern for the American Flag until 1912, no official number of points on the stars, no official proportions, and no official shades of red or blue. Though Lincoln urged northerners not to remove stars for the seceded states, his goal being to keep the Union together, there were no flag police and people did what they wished. Since anything was possible in the 19th century, it’s hard to guess what any given artist or flag-maker might do. In this light, a count of 22 might reflect the official count of 33 stars when the war broke out, less the 11 Confederate States that had seceded by July 4th. Another possible way that a total of 22 might be achieved fell between the addition of West Virginia as the 35th state in June of 1863, and the addition of Nevada on Halloween of 1864. By this time the Confederacy had officially recognized 2 of the Border States (Missouri and Kentucky), for a total of 13. Since most Confederate Battle flags in the Army of Northern Virginia style displayed 13 stars, so the subtraction of that number from 35 to arrive at a count of 22, in the war’s closing years, is very feasible. While other additions and subtractions involving the disposition of other Border States and Western Territories is possible, the above two scenarios reflect the most likely scenarios.

The black-painted molding around the outer edge was added. I suspect that the carving was cut from a ship being decommissioned and disassembled, or else salvaged from a wreck. The previous owner, legendary militaria dealer and expert Norm Flayderman, was in possession of similar objects, including gangway boards with eagles, salvaged from the USS Tallapoosa, a Civil War double-sided gunboat. Constructed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by C.W. Booz of Baltimore, the Tallapoosa Eagle launched during the war, in 1863, and was commissioned in 1864, but also saw post-war use. In 1884, it collided with a schooner off the coast of Massachusetts, in Vineyard Sound, and sunk. Subsequently raised, it underwent repairs and briefly returned to service, before being sold at public auction in Uruguay in 1892. If this carving also came from the Tallapoosa Eagle, that information has sadly been lost to time. Although terrific, the level of workmanship and depth are not as strong on the gangway planks as they are in the carving that is the subject of this narrative, nor do I believe them to be by the same hand. That said, the Navy employed many carvers and commissioned outside work as needed. Private individuals often funded the building of ships, as they did the raising and outfitting of regiments. Displays of wealth within the means by which these things were accomplished varied widely.

Whatever the case may be, the work here is simply exceptional. While similar in a very generalized sense to other nautical carvings, I have never seen anything quite like it. I have never seen this particular hand and the degree to which the relief is rendered by the artist has so much forethought, texture, and depth, that it is absolutely striking.

Condition: It seems probable that the ship from whence this likely came was well-kept. Likely it was cleaned and varnished at some point. That said, the surface has great color and is very attractive. There appears to be a glued repair in the last arrow. There are two circular-shaped repairs to the face, done with dowels, trimmed flat. These do not extend through the back. They were possibly done at the time of the carving, and maybe indicate where the carver’s knife nicked the surface that was intended to be left flat.
Primary Color: brown
Earliest Date: 1861
Latest Date: 1865
For Sale Status: Available
Price $35,000
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