Philadelphia’s only remaining exclusive Civil War museum faces a choice: sell a jewel or a shutter


Mike Newall / The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — It’s a one-of-a-kind artifact that rings surprisingly relevant: a Civil War battle flag carried by a regiment of black Philadelphia soldiers — and hand-painted by David Bustill Bowser, the son of a slave fugitive and Philadelphia’s most acclaimed. 19th century black artist.

On dark blue silk with gold fringe, the royal standard of the 127th United States Colored Infantry depicts a soldier gone to war bidding farewell to Lady Columbia, the goddess of Liberty. An inscription captures the bitter burden imposed on black soldiers fighting for freedom: “We will prove that we are men.

In recent years, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Civil War Museum and Library in Frankford — Philadelphia’s only remaining museum devoted exclusively to the Civil War and the keeper of the flag for more than a century — were faced with a cruel choice over the relic he had recently restored: sell or shutter.

Down to nearly its last dollar and unable to display the large flag in the cramped quarters of its crumbling mansion off Frankford Avenue, the modest museum decided to put the flag up for auction in 2019. It was quickly bought for nearly $200,000 from the Atlanta History Center, home to one of the nation’s largest Civil War exhibits. The flag of Philadelphia, now so far south, is a centerpiece of the center’s famed United States Colored Troops (USCT) collection.

And just like that, another of Philadelphia’s financially strapped historical and cultural institutions gave away a treasure just to keep afloat.

Joseph Perry, a retired city librarian, who is president of GAR, founded in 1926 by Philadelphia Civil War veterans and their descendants and now run entirely by volunteers, described the sale as a ‘one-shot’ who saved the museum. while securing a home where the 6-foot-wide double-sided flag – an eagle grasps an arrow on its back – could be displayed in full.

“Selling it cut our hearts,” Perry said in a recent interview. “But our mission was preservation and sharing – and we have both. We got the money we needed, and the flag is restored and visible. It was win-win. This flag saved us.

If nothing else, it’s allowed the oft-overlooked museum — which has a 7,000-volume research library and hundreds of Philadelphia-centric Civil War artifacts, including uniforms and firearms, paintings from battle and battle swords, diaries and daguerreotypes, period diaries and manuscript inscriptions. records – live to fight another day.

Late last year, the museum used proceeds from the flag — about $135,000 after buyer’s fees — to help buy a smaller, certified historic building along Frankford Avenue near Holmesburg. Although half the size, it’s without the mansion’s expensive repairs, and far from the violence and drugs that plague Griscom Street, where the museum has resided in the John Ruan House since 1958. Closed for now, the museum is expected to open in the new space in June.

Perry said he hopes the increased visibility of the new location will attract new visitors and allow the museum to focus on educational programming, community outreach and virtual tours.

“It’s all part of the need – and the need is critical,” Perry said. “There must be an influx of new members – people who will take over the museum and see it in the future. But considering where we were, I’m one hundred percent optimistic about a better future.

Still, the loss of the flag stings, especially given Philadelphia’s singular connection to the USCT.

Camp William Penn, located just outside the Cheltenham town limits, was the largest federal training center for black soldiers during the Civil War. More than 10,000 free black men and men who had escaped slavery were trained there, including more than 8,000 from Pennsylvania – the most of any state. Even the ranks of the notorious 54th Massachusetts Infantry, made famous in the 1989 film Glory, have swelled by more than 150 black Philadelphians.

Bowser, a famous ornamental and portrait artist, painted the colors of the 11 USCT regiments in Pennsylvania. Only the restored 127th remains. It’s a physical connection to soldiers who, as the flag says, have been forced to prove themselves. Initially paid less for their service, USCT fighters were primarily regulated to grumble labor over the racist belief that they were better workers than soldiers. But other USCT soldiers suffered heavy casualties in key battles. For its part, the 127th waved its flag during the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of Appomattox Court House, where troops witnessed the surrender of the Confederate army.

Andy Waskie, a former Temple teacher and author of Philadelphia and the Civil War, who serves as the museum’s vice president and historian, said the flag’s post-war history is unclear. But it was likely donated in the early 20th century to GAR Post 2 — the city’s largest Union veterans post — by members of Post 103, one of only three city chapters open. to the colored troops, and where Bowser and Octavius ​​V. Catto had been. members. When the museum raised $50,000 to restore it, parts of the silk were held together only by paint.

Most of the flags of the USCT of Pennsylvania were tattered and destroyed according to military custom, along with dozens of other Civil War flags, at West Point just before the start of World War II. (Nationally, there are only nine USCT regimental flags, out of the original 175, said Greg Biggs, a historian who studies Civil War flags.)

Reverend Mark Tyler, pastor and curator of the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Society Hill, where Frederick Douglass and Catto recruited black Philadelphians during the Civil War, said the flag highlights the challenges black Americans have faced. always faced to preserve and tell their story.

In the turbulent years after the war, many black veterans were preoccupied with far more pressing tasks than saving artifacts, such as finding once-enslaved family members, conserving contested lands, or finding work. in hostile cities.

“Preserving and keeping things is a luxury,” Tyler said. “If you’re juggling between providing for the present and serving the future, the past will always be number three. Because of that, a lot of these things have fallen by the wayside, and that’s a huge loss.

The museum’s move comes as more historic institutions in Philadelphia sell heirlooms to stay afloat.

In 2019, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania laid off a third of its staff before selling $2.2 million worth of commemorative medals. (A library, not a museum, its officials questioned the objects’ research value.) In 2018, the Philadelphia Museum of History, mandated to manage the city’s cultural artifacts, abruptly closed. Previously, he had sold over 2,000 items to cover construction costs. (His collection, which includes many Civil War artifacts, is scheduled to be restarted through Drexel.)

While often playing second fiddle in a city whose historic mark is decidedly revolutionary, Philadelphia’s rich Civil War history – it was a vital supplier of men, money, hospitals and supplies – has was particularly affected.

In 2016, the then-homeless Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, which once occupied a stately Pine Street mansion, transferred ownership of its prized collection of artifacts to the Gettysburg Foundation, the National Park‘s nonprofit partner. Gettysburg department. His books, letters, and other two-dimensional records remain available to scholars at the Union League Heritage Center in Philadelphia.

While the Union League holds an extensive collection of Civil War artifacts and documents, including swords, paintings and research materials related to USCT soldiers – and has displayed the restored flag loaned before the GAR does not sell it – the departure left the Frankford Museum alone, and often deserted, as the last exclusive guardian of Civil War history in Philadelphia.

On a recent afternoon, Waskie offered a tour of the intimate new space, once owned by a family of Civil War veterans.

The museum’s main attractions – “Old Baldy”, the preserved head of General George G. Meade’s war horse, and the bloodstained pillowcase strip from Lincoln’s deathbed, both considered grails of Civil War – have already been installed at the new location. But small exposures also have power. A soldier’s hand-painted canteen. A flag made to fly above Independence Hall after Lincoln’s assassination, made with such haste that it included extra stars. The frills of a Victorian mourning dress, slipped into a box, like a coffin.

Waskie lamented the loss of the rare flag as a painful and painful necessity.

“We had to sell something to keep going,” he said, in the calm of the new space. “This collection of artifacts and documents – it needs to be preserved. If it’s gone, it’s lost.


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