The Atlanta History Center in Buckhead has acquired a rare, historic flag for an African American Civil War troop, the museum announced.
The flag, which was used by the 127th United States Colored Troops, is one of fewer than 25 known carried by African American soldiers. The museum plans to put it on exhibit as soon as possible.
The artifact is “key to the story of Civil War” and helps the History Center continue its mission of increasing inclusivity, the museum said. The flag was purchased June 13 for $196,800, the most the museum has ever paid for a single artifact, it said.
The History Center rarely makes major purchases for its collections, which have grown over nine decades mainly through donations of artifacts. But acquiring the flag, which was purchased through an auction, was seen by the History Center leadership as “an important opportunity to expand its narrative about the often-forgotten service of the USCT during the Civil War.”
“We want to tell the entire story of the Civil War and how it impacts our country,” Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale said in the release. “This flag is worth it in exhibit value alone. It’s one of those things that doesn’t need words to tell you what it is and what it represents.”
The History Center has been growing its Civil War exhibits, including acquiring and restoring the historic “Battle of Atlanta” Cyclorama painting. Also part of the exhibit is a historic streetlamp from Underground Atlanta that was named for an African American barber killed during the Civil War.
At least 180,000 African Americans served in the United States Colored Troops, a special branch of the U.S. Army formed after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the United States Colored Troops “are extraordinarily scarce.”
“It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact,” Atlanta History Center Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones said in the release. “Even an enlisted man’s USCT uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”
Measuring 72 by 55 inches, the silk banner depicts a black soldier carrying a rifle and bidding farewell to Columbia, the mythical goddess of liberty. A motto above the soldier reads “We will prove ourselves men.” On the flag’s reverse side, an American bald eagle bears a ribbon with the nation’s motto “E pluribus unum” — or, “Out of many, one.”
This is the only surviving example of 11 flags painted by African American artist David Bustill Bowser, who lived from 1820-1890. Bowser was a noted Philadelphia sign-painter, portraitist and anti-slavery activist noted for his portraits of John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln, the release said.
For many years the flag was housed at the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Because much of the silk had deteriorated, the flag was carefully restored and framed. Nearly all other USCT flags are in institutional collections.