The Atlanta History Center announced today its acquisition of a rare artifact key to the story of the Civil War, the regimental flag of the 127th United States Colored Troops (USCT). The flag is one of fewer than 25 known examples carried by African American regiments during the war.
Given the History Center’s ongoing mission of increasing inclusivity, the organization’s leadership viewed the chance to acquire the flag of an African American regiment as an important opportunity to expand its narrative about the often-forgotten service of the USCT during the Civil War. The History Center rarely makes major purchases for its collections, which have grown organically over nine decades mainly through donations of artifacts. However, on Thursday, June 13, 2019, the History Center purchased the flag for $196,800 ($160,000 hammer price, plus buyer’s premium), the most money the History Center has ever paid for a single artifact.
“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. “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.”
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 with similarly inspiring scenes by African American artist David Bustill Bowser (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.
For many years the 127th U.S.C.T. flag was housed at the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Because much of the silk had deteriorated, the flag was carefully restored and framed. Nearly all other USCT flags are in institutional collections: The closest USCT flag to Atlanta is on display at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore; others are located in New York, Connecticut, Ohio, and Kansas.
The Atlanta History Center is home to one of the most comprehensive Civil War collections in the nation, including the Beverly M. DuBose Family Collection and the George W. Wray Collection. These collections encompass the entire national conflict, not just Atlanta. The Atlanta History Center is also home to the 9,200-square-foot signature exhibition Turning Point: The American Civil War. In February 2019, the History Center opened a new exhibition around The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting. Purchasing the flag of the 127th U.S.C.T. represents the Center’s continuing and concerted effort to expand its Civil War collections, including artifacts representing the United States Colored Troops.
Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the United States Colored Troops are extraordinarily scarce. Atlanta History Center Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones called this flag the definition of rare. “It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact,” Jones said. “Even an enlisted man’s USCT uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”
Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were issued the same uniforms and equipment as white soldiers, making collecting to interpret the USCT story a significant challenge. “So unless a soldier put his name on a piece of gear or it came down through the family, we will never know who used it,” Jones noted.
Among at least 11,000 Civil War objects in the Center’s collections are a dozen objects identified specifically with African American soldiers or regiments. These include a brass drum belonging to a drummer boy of the all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment, a knapsack used at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, by a soldier in the 8th USCT, and a recently acquired canteen bearing the stenciled mark of the 15th U.S.C.T., which guarded railroad lines in Tennessee during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.
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. Though these were segregated units commanded by white officers, the USCT represented a revolutionary shift from slavery to freedom and beyond. It is thought that three-fourths of the soldiers were formerly enslaved men.
The 127th USCT Regiment formed at Camp William Penn near Philadelphia in 1864. Many of its soldiers were volunteers, others were drafted. It is unknown how many were previously enslaved. The 127th served during the U.S. siege of Petersburg, Virginia and was present at Appomattox Courthouse when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered in April 1865. Afterwards the regiment was ordered to occupation duty in Texas.
The Atlanta History Center allocated special acquisition funds for the purchase of the 127th USCT flag from Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania, and plans to display the banner as soon as possible.