Battle flag carried by black Union troops hits auction block
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 post-Civil 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.