Bat­tle flag car­ried by black Union troops hits auc­tion block

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Kris­ten De Groot

DEN­VER, PA. >> A flag that was car­ried into bat­tle by a black Union reg­i­ment dur­ing the Civil War and hand-painted by an ac­claimed African Amer­i­can artist is go­ing up for auc­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia.

The 127th United States Col­ored In­fantry Reg­i­ment’s flag de­picts a black sol­dier wav­ing good­bye to Columbia, the white fe­male per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of Amer­ica, be­neath a ban­ner read­ing, “We Will Prove Our­selves Men.” It was one of at least 11 such flags painted by David Bustill Bowser, an artist, ac­tivist and son of a fugi­tive slave. It’s the only known sur­viv­ing flag, and is be­ing auc­tioned off June 13 at Mor­phy Auc­tions in Den­ver, Penn­syl­va­nia, about 60 miles (96 kilo­me­ters) west of Philadel­phia.

About 11,000 black union troops trained at Camp Wil­liam Penn, just out­side Philadel­phia, on land that be­longed to abo­li­tion­ist and women’s rights advocate Lu­cre­tia Mott. They weren’t per­mit­ted to join state troops, so fed­eral black reg­i­ments were formed, said Joseph Bec­ton, of the African Amer­i­can Mu­seum in Philadel­phia.

Bowser had a suc­cess­ful ban­ner and sign busi­ness in Philadel­phia, and was cho­sen to design reg­i­men­tal flags for those troops. Su­per­vi­sors at the camp op­posed the idea of a black man re­ceiv­ing the com­mis­sion, but he pleaded his case and was even­tu­ally granted the job.

“Bowser’s works were the first widely viewed, pos­i­tive images of African Amer­i­cans painted by an African Amer­i­can,” ac­cord­ing to the

Penn­syl­va­nia His­tor­i­cal and Mu­seum Com­mis­sion.

Reg­i­ments re­ceived such flags af­ter they had com­pleted their train­ing as badges of honor as they moved off to bat­tle or to other as­sign­ments, said Dr. John David Smith, the Charles H. Stone Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can His­tory at Univer­sity of North Carolina at Char­lotte. Smith has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about black troops dur­ing the Civil War.

“I do know that African Amer­i­can troops took spe­cial pride in these flags,” he said in an email. “Not only did they rep­re­sent their

com­mu­ni­ties, but they un­der­scored the honor and man­hood that serv­ing in the U.S. Army sig­ni­fied to them and the opportunit­y of Lincoln’s black sol­diers in blue to help de­stroy slav­ery and to pre­serve the Union.”

Bowser made flags for the 11 reg­i­ments that trained at Camp Wil­liam Penn. Seven of the flags were given to

West Point around 1900 and they were de­stroyed in the 1940s. Pho­to­graphs of the de­stroyed flags still ex­ist.

The 127th Reg­i­ment’s bat­tle flag had been on dis­play for years at the Grand Army of the Repub­lic Mu­seum in Philadel­phia, but the board re­cently de­cided to auc­tion it to help bolster the mu­seum’s fi­nances, said Dr. Andy Waskie, vice pres­i­dent and his­to­rian at the mu­seum.

“It’s such an enor­mously sig­nif­i­cant relic,” he said. “We were forced with great re­luc­tance to sell it.”

It’s ex­pected to fetch at least $250,000.

Bowser was a well-known artist, suc­cess­ful busi­ness owner and anti-slav­ery ac­tivist who be­gan his ca­reer as a sign painter in Philadel­phia.

His early paint­ings included land­scapes, por­traits and ban­ners for or­ga­ni­za­tions like fire­house com­pa­nies and po­lit­i­cal par­ties. His most noted works in­clude por­traits of Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lincoln and abo­li­tion­ist John Brown.

The images on Bowser’s reg­i­men­tal flags were de­signed to be in­flam­ma­tory to Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers, Bec­ton said.

For in­stance, the 127th reg­i­ment’s flag from a dis­tance ap­pears to show the black sol­dier and white woman hold­ing hands, but in fact she’s hold­ing a flag­pole and he’s bid­ding her farewell. The ban­ner for the 22nd reg­i­ment showed a black Union sol­dier point­ing his bay­o­net at the chest of a fallen Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier

who is toss­ing aside his sword, be­neath a ban­ner read­ing “Sic sem­per tyran­nis,” which trans­lates into “thus al­ways to tyrants.” That was also the motto of Vir­ginia at the time, so it was likely meant to en­rage the en­emy, Bec­ton said.

“When peo­ple saw these images, it was their worst night­mares,” he said.

Bowser’s civil rights work included join­ing ac­tivist Oc­tavius Catto and oth­ers in the ef­fort to de­seg­re­gate Penn­syl­va­nia’s street­cars in the late 1860s, Bec­ton said.

He painted sev­eral por­traits of Lincoln, his most fa­mous from 1865, which he cre­ated from an im­age that was later used on the postCivil War $5 bill.

Bowser also was in­volved with the abo­li­tion move­ment and his fam­ily home trans­formed into a stop on the Un­der­ground Railroad. He painted the por­trait of abo­li­tion­ist John Brown dur­ing his visit to the Bowser fam­ily home.

David Har­rower, a Philadel­phia his­to­rian who has writ­ten about troops at Camp Wil­liam Penn and is work­ing on a bi­og­ra­phy of Bowser, de­scribes him as mul­ti­fac­eted leader in the com­mu­nity: a mid­dle-class mem­ber of li­brary and or­ches­tral so­ci­eties and vot­ing rights groups; in ad­di­tion to help­ing fugi­tive slaves reach free­dom by pro­vid­ing them shelter in his home.

“Bowser’s story is im­por­tant to Philadel­phia his­tory, to African-Amer­i­can his­tory and to Amer­i­can his­tory,” he said.

MOR­PHY AUC­TIONS VIA AP

This un­dated photo pro­vided by Mor­phy Auc­tions shows a de­tail of the 127th Reg­i­ment United States Col­ored Troops bat­tle flag in Den­ver, Pa.

MOR­PHY AUC­TIONS VIA AP

This un­dated photo pro­vided by Mor­phy Auc­tions shows a 127th Reg­i­ment United States Col­ored Troops bat­tle flag in Den­ver, Pa.

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