Published: July 17, 2001
Rare Civil War Relic Rediscovered:
HARTFORD, CONN. – As our nation celebrates its 225th anniversary, a silent witness to a harrowing moment in America’s history has been rediscovered.
According to published period reports, this flag was in fact in the hands of Lincoln the moment he was shot by assassin John Wilkes Booth. The rediscovered flag is the companion piece to the Treasury Guard’s regimental flag, the flag which tripped Booth, now at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.
“The Treasury Guard national flag is a spectacular discovery of a missing link in a chain of artifacts associated with the assassination of President Lincoln,” said Howard Michael Madaus, chief curator at The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Penn., and flag authority. “The Connecticut Historical Society has turned up quite a relic.”
“This is an extraordinary survival,” said Dr Susan P. Schoelwer, director of museum collections at The Connecticut Historical Society. “This flag was present at one of the great turning points in history – possibly even one of the last objects President Lincoln consciously touched. It is one of those rare objects that transports us across time; in its presence we, too, stand at Lincoln’s side.”
Rediscovery of the Flag
In 1998, as part of its long-term collections development process, The Connecticut Historical Society (CHS) embarked on a systematic reassessment of its Civil War collections. The story of the assassination flags had caught the attention of the Civil War community in 1996 with the discovery of one of the other four assassination flags in the collections of the Pike County Historical Society. As a result, when former CHS Acting Head Librarian Kelly Nolin, a Civil War historian, saw the documents accompanying the flag, she immediately recognized its significance.
Preserved in the box with the flag was a separate, small strip of blue silk with gold fringe, identified as part of the flag that caught the spur of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, causing him to fall and break his leg. This strip matches the Treasury Guard regimental flag, which is displayed at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.
“The flag was donated to the CHS in 1922, and proudly announced in the annual report for that year,” observed Schoelwer. “In general, however, the institution’s Civil War collections were not until recently a major focus of attention. Unlike many Civil War era flags, this one was not placed on permanent display, but was left undisturbed, in a locked box, in dark storage. As a result, it escaped the overexposure to light that has caused many period flags to disintegrate to virtually nothing.”
The CHS Treasury Guard national flag had become very dry and brittle, causing the silk to split and shred into fragments. The flag (still in its box) was taken to Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, N.Y., for evaluation and treatment. There, conservators spent weeks humidifying the silk, then painstakingly arranged the tiny fragments in their proper positions on a supporting fabric, which was in turn mounted on a frame inside a protective Plexiglas case.
“This remarkable find is significant not only for adding to our knowledge about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, but also for demonstrating the role that historical societies can play in preserving and exhibiting significant treasures of our national heritage,” said Dr Thomas Turner, a Lincoln assassination scholar and editor of the Lincoln Herald.
The flag is an American flag, made of silk in 1864 by the Philadelphia firm of Horstmann Bros. Civil War-era flags were commonly customized with inscriptions identifying the military units that carried them. The flag appears “backwards” because it was deliberately mounted to display its reverse, which carries on the canton the distinctive inscription identifying the flag as having been “Presented to Treasury Guard Regt. by the Ladies of the Treasury Dept. 1864”
Thanks to a custom-designed mount, the front of the canton is also visible, although the front side of the flag’s stripes is obscured by the supporting fabric. The poor condition of the fabric makes it impossible to display both sides of the entire flag.
“This flag represents a virtuoso work of patriotic art of the era,” added Don Troiani, a renowned Civil War collectibles expert, artist, and historian. “Artists employed in paining these magnificent banners were often the very same who painted firemen’s hats and buckets, trade signs, and other similar icons now highly esteemed as folk art. Because their ground was fragile silk, not canvas, and of a military nature, their impelling and symbolic imagery is often overlooked today. Such artwork was intended to inspire men to proudly fight and die for their country as it led them onto the field of battle.”
History of the Treasury Guard Regiment and Its Stand of Colors
The Treasury Guard regiment was formed in July and August 1864. Confederate advances in mid-July on the capital prompted President Lincoln to issue a call for government employees to form home guard units. According to surviving muster roles, the Treasury Guard regiment numbered almost 1,000 men. Incidentally, the regiment did not see any active service and the unit was officially disbanded in October 1865.
Female employees of the Treasury Department supported the war effort by presenting the Treasury Guard regiment with a stand of colors, which designates the flag or flags carried by a military unit. At the time of the Civil War, US Army Regulations specified that each infantry regiment should carry two silk flags: a national color and a regimental color.
The Flags at Lincoln’s Assassination
On the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, April 14, 1865, the two boxes that he and his party occupied at Ford’s Theatre were decorated with flags. American flags were reportedly in short supply in the capital, and it is well established that the Theatre borrowed flags for the purpose of decorating the Presidential box. The number of flags used, their specific identity, and their sources have long been a topic of considerable controversy.
According to Lincoln assassination experts and Civil War historians, the most likely scenario is that five flags were used to decorate the Presidential boxes: four national flags (identified by their red and white stripes) and the blue Treasury Guard regimental flag.
The regimental flag is generally believed to have hung from a staff fixed to the pillar between the boxes; two American flags were draped as bunting from the balustrade fronting each box, while the remaining two American flags hung at the outer sides of each box.
A recreation of the full decoration of the box was set up on April 17, 1865, and recorded in photographs taken by the firm of Mathew Brady; one of Brady’s photographs forms the basis for the present-day reproduction of the scene at Ford’s Theater National Historic Site.
Assassination experts generally agree that it was the Treasury Guard regimental flag (now displayed at Ford’s Theatre) that tripped John Wilkes Booth. However, Schoelwer notes that an exciting new element has recently been added to the flag story as a result of a newspaper citation recently discovered by assassination historian Michael W. Kauffman.
According to Schoelwer, the story in the National Intelligencer for June 13, 1865 (page 3), identifies the Treasury Guard national flag (now at CHS) as “being in the grasp of the President when he was shot.” Eyewitness accounts from the theatre corroborate this story, with several stating that the flags obscured the view, and one witness specifically testifying that he saw Lincoln holding the drapery out of his way before the shooting.
What Happened to the Flags?
On April 15, 1865, the Treasury Guard colors had been returned to the Treasury Department, where they were displayed with great pride and a label pointing out the tear in the regimental flag, caused by Booth’s spur. At some point, according to National Park Service records, the regimental flag passed into the possession of Emory S. Turner, former Major in the Treasury Guard regiment. In 1932, it was donated to the National Park Service by Turner’s daughter.
When the Treasury Guard regimental flag entered Turner’s keeping, it effectively disappeared from public view. Popular attention shifted to the other Treasury Guard flag – the red, white, and blue national flag.
According to period newspaper accounts, the Treasury Guard national flag was placed on display in the Treasury Department beginning in 1872, after being rescued “from the machinist’s shop in the basement of the building, where it had lain since 1865, uncared for.” The individual consistently credited with this rescue was Henry A. Cobaugh, who held the position of Captain of the Watch at the US Treasury Department from 1871 until possibly as late as 1912.
Having “rescued” the Treasure Guard national flag from the basement of the Treasury in 1872, Cobaugh hung this flag in this office, located at the head of the stairs at the main entrance to the Treasury Department, on 15th Street. There it remained until the early 1880s, becoming “a center of attraction for visitors.”
Eventually, the crowds coming to see the flag became a nuisance, wearing out carpets and interfering with Cobaugh’s work. Cobaugh received permission to have the Treasury Department’s cabinetry shop make a case for the flag, which was then locked in the case and displayed on a wall of the northeast corridor of the Treasury Building.
Around 1900, the fate of this flag became the subject of heated controversy. Much to the consternation of surviving members of the Treasury Guard, Treasury Secretary Lyman J. Gage gave permission for the Treasury Guard national flag to be transferred to an unidentified private museum, in Washington, D.C., “devoted to Lincoln relics.” (The companion regimental flag was simultaneously dismissed as having “played no part in history.”)
Despite assurance from the Secretary that the situation was temporary, surviving members of the Treasury Guard objected: “Although the flag was, and still is, the property of the surviving members of the Treasury Guard, some few of whom are still in the department, they were not consulted [by Secretary Gage].” Notably, the article continued, “Some of the old members of the guard say they would prefer to have the flag in the National Museum, but they all believe it can be better cared for outside of the Treasury. There it was becoming badly moth-eaten, and no one about the building was familiar with the scientific methods of preserving such things.”
Exactly how this controversy ended remains unclear. What is clear is that by 1907, the Treasury Guard national flag had been returned to Cobaugh’s custody at the Treasury Department. In January 1907, Cobaugh sent the flag out of Washington to Edgar S. Yergason, a Civil War veteran and collector in Hartford, Conn. From 1907 until 1920, the Treasury Guard national flag was a highlight of Yergason’s extensive Civil War collection.
After Edgar Yergason’s death in 1920, the flag was inherited by his son, Dr Robert M. Yergason, who donated it to The Connecticut Historical Society in 1922.
“I’m excited to know that The Connecticut Historical Society has finally resolved the mystery of the long-lost Treasury Guard flag,” Kauffman said. “This flag is a treasured relic of America’s most dramatic episode.”
For many years, the Treasury Guard national flag has been thought lost, a casualty of time and physical decay. “This bit of misinformation has now been conclusively dispelled,” added Schoelwer. Preserved and proudly displayed at The Connecticut Historical Society, the Treasury Guard national flag is truly a national treasure, a silent witness to one of the pivotal events in American history: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The Connecticut Historical Society presents “Civil War Treasures” through January 6, 2002. Hours are Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 pm. Library research collections are available without an appointment Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. Museum and print, photographic, and drawing collections are available for viewing by appointment by calling 860-236-5621.
The Connecticut Historical Society is at One Elizabeth Street. For information, 860-236-5621.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm