Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Tricolor in the canton of a Civil War National Color

It's Flag Day, June 14, and there is interesting history to go with an artifact being conserved this summer at Spicer Art Conservation. We going to be mounting an unusual Civil War National Color from the collection of the New York State Military Museum, soon to be going on loan for an exhibit in Germany.

On the obverse side of the flag are 34 embroidered stars in the grand luminary design in the canton. On the reverse side is a tricolor of black, red and gold, a German National flag (the black and red fields are comprised of solid pieces of fabric, while the bottom gold field is comprised of four ribbons stitched together horizontally.)

It is unusual to have another national flag in the canton of a US National flag. These were tumultuous times in Europe, with the widespread 'revolutions' of 1848, and the black-red-gold tricolor became the symbol of those advocating a German Republic. Following the disturbances, many Germans emigrated to the United States, and, having lost their bid to establish a republic at home, these immigrants became whole-hearted Americans, and some of them enlisted to preserve our Republic.

The reverse-side of the canton, a tricolor of
black, red and gold strips.
The four ribbon rows used to create the
yellow strip of the German flag.

"The large German-American population of the North was among the first to rally to the defense of the Union in 1861. In all, over 200,000 of these immigrant Americans would enlist in the Federal armies. Some of them were not only eager volunteers, but distinctly dressed as well. Two New York City German regiments, the 8th and the 20th Volunteer Infantry, wore uniforms reflecting the Germanic tradition of marksmanship and the use of rifles." (*Don Troiani's Regiments & Uniforms of the Civil War (Stackpole Books 2002).

(Learn more at  the New York State Military Museum's webpage about the 8th Infantry https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/8thInf/8thInfMain.htm )

It may be a bit of a shock to some to recognize the tricolor in the US national flag canton to be the modern German flag--it looks like something from an editorial cartoonist's pen. This flag has a long history, and it has specific meaning. Wikipedia ("Flag_of_Germany") tells us that there have been two tricolors competing to be the German national flag: black-white-red (imperial colors) and the current black-red-gold (republican colors). The black-red-gold flag appeared first in 1778, and was prominent during and after the 1848 revolutions. It was proposed to be the flag of a constitutional monarchy for united Germany. Black-white-red was the imperial flag until the end of World War I. The black-red-gold flag again returned during the Weimar Republic, giving way to the imperial colors during the Nazi regime. Following World War II, the republican design was revived to represent Germany, what we referred to as 'West Germany' during the Cold War. During that time 'East Germany' included a field of 'socialist heraldry', the latter dropped upon reunification in 1990.

The grand luminary star pattern.

If you look carefully below the nylon net,
the star is embroidered as a circle with a
chain-stitch outline, with five-points.

The flag that SAC is treating was made for the 8th NY Volunteer infantry, a regiment composed of the German-Americans. The 8th was referred to as the 1st German Rifles, commanded by Ludwig Blenker. They were issued M1842 Muskets rather than rifles, but still chose to wear the green trim associated with rifle units. They were one of many Union regiments wearing gray in 1861.

After some brief searching and asking around, I have not yet been able to locate any other examples of a flag from a different nation being combined into the US flag for any of the other immigrant troops. There are examples of troops carrying a flag representative of their home nation along with a US flag, but nothing where the 2 flags are combined into 1 flag like this one is. We would be interested in learning more about such flags.

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