Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A rare up-close look at 16th Connecticut flag

Facilities administrator Eric Connery (left)  and Bill Caughman remove the 
16th Connecticut flag from its large case...
... and carefully lay it on a table in the Hall of Flags at the State Capitol in Hartford.
The 16th Connecticut flag rarely is taken from its case, according to Eric Connery, 
facilities administrator at the State Capitol.
Massachusetts antiques dealer Harold Gordon (right) examines the 16th Connecticut flag.
The goal of solving a small mystery wasn't achieved, but I did get an up-close look at rare piece of Connecticut Civil War history recently. First, here's a little background:

Part of a hugely outnumbered Union garrison at Plymouth, N.C., most of the 16th Connecticut surrendered on April 20, 1864 and was sent to prisoner-of-war camps, including the most notorious one of the war at Andersonville, Ga. Before a white flag was waved that day, the 16th Connecticut's lieutenant colonel ordered the regimental flags ripped from the poles and torn to shreds, which were distributed to the men.  Some of the Connecticut soldiers who survived the camps kept the pieces of the flags throughout their imprisonment. After the war,  pieces of the regimental flags were gathered by veterans, sewn together to form a shield and scroll and then mounted in the middle of a new silk flag, which was created by Tiffany and Co. in New York. The story has been recounted many times, including here and here.

On Sept. 17, 1879, in one of the grandest celebrations in Hartford history, more than 8,000 Connecticut Civil War veterans marched from the old State Arsenal building with their battle-scarred regimental flags to the new State Capitol building. Nearly 70,000 people, many waving American flags, turned out for "Battle Flag Day" on the 17th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. The build-up leading up to the event was massive in the local newspaper, with story after story noting plans for the big day. The old flags, the centerpiece of the celebration, were almost treated with the same reverence given to holy relics.
Does the star from this secretary belong to the pieces of flag
 sewn  into the 16th Connecticut flag at the Hall of Flags 
in the State Capitol in Hartford?

"If the veterans of the war, whose love for the old flag brings them to the city to-day, could have looked in at the state arsenal last week and seen the tender, loving care with which the old flags were inspected and repaired by the committee of ladies selected for that purpose, they would prize them still more highly," the Hartford Courant reported on the day of the event. "The Day We Celebrate! All Honor to old flag and the heroes who defended it!" blared a headline in the Courant on "Battle Flag Day."

A lengthy six-column story in the next morning's Courant called the event a huge triumph, noting "the walks were thronged with lookers on, and with the strains of music and the blending of colors added to the moving scene, it photographed itself on the memory, never to be obliterated." After the march to the State Capitol, the regimental flags, including the 16th Connecticut's, were displayed in huge cases in the Hall of Flags, where many of them remain today.

About a year and a half ago, Massachusetts antiques dealer Harold Gordon contacted me about a piece of furniture he bought with an amazing tie to Antietam. In 1876, in honor of his brother, a private in the 16th Connecticut who was killed at Antietam, Wells Bingham was given an ornate 8-foot secretary made predominantly of walnut and oak. Spelled out in cattle bone on the ornate front are the words "Antietam" and "Sept. 17, 1862," as well as the name John F. Bingham, Wells' brother. A IX Corps badge is mounted between the "18" and "76." The knobs are bird's-eye maple with bone inset circles. A clock, crowned with an eagle and including the words "The Union Preserved" near the base, is mounted on top. When the inside right front door is opened, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" plays on a music box. On the plaque just below the bookshelf are these words:

"Presented to Wells A. Bingham by his friends. The secretary a rememberance of his brother John F. Bingham who offered up his life at Antietam, Maryland Sept. 17, 1862. The encased star a remnant of the colors carried that day by the 16th Infantry. The memory plaque made from a shard of his knife."

Ever since he bought the magnificent piece of folk art in 2006, Gordon was curious if the piece of flag inside a tin mounted on the secretary belonged to the 16th Connecticut flag in the Hall of Flags at the State Capitol in Hartford. Bill Caughman, whose wife Geraldine wrote the definitive book on Connecticut Civil War flags, arranged for our visit. The 16th Connecticut flag was carefully removed from its huge case and placed on a small table for our half-hour perusal. To our untrained eyes, Gordon's star didn't appear to match stars on the flag, but the opportunity to check out one of state's most significant Civil War relics was a treat. The flag, according to State Capitol facilities administrator Eric Connery, is rarely removed from its case.

"Antietam" appears in gold lettering near the top of the flag.
A gold eagle tops the staff of the 16th Connecticut flag.

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