After nearly a century in hiding, dozens of historic flags discovered at Naval Academy
By RACHAEL PACELLA | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: December 7, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Talk about a find.
This week Naval Academy Museum officials started a project to remove, preserve and place 13 flags from the War of 1812 and two Spanish-American War flags into proper storage, said museum director Claude Berube. The artifacts had remained untouched for nearly a century in the academy’s Mahan Hall.
And those were just the flags they could see.
They have the 13 flags from America’s last war with Britain, the two from the Spanish-American War — and 46 more they found hidden behind those artifacts. Those flags were captured during American military actions in Asia and the Spanish-American War. There were also some replicas of Revolutionary War-era flags.
They were put on display in five cases inside Mahan in 1913 but covered up by the larger War of 1812 flags in 1920. The cases were sealed with a single pane of glass and remained untouched until Tuesday when the glass was cut away.
Officials have long believed the artifacts were still tucked away in the cases, but no one is alive who remembers the exhibits being covered up so they didn’t know for sure, museum managing director Charles Swift said.
He pulled back a wooden structure supporting one of the War of 1812 flags and saw the items hidden behind it. The exhibit was still remarkably well-preserved inside the case, he said.
“Probably the best thing that could have happened to these, besides being in proper storage, was to be behind the War of 1812 flags. It’s one of the reasons why the colors look so good,” Swift said.
For years, guests on their way to the theater inside Mahan Hall could see the captured British flags, and those who looked closely could see a honeycomb-like pattern of preservative stitching on the aging fabric.
The War of 1812 flags once hung on the ceiling of Mahan, Swift said.
“An admiral decided, one, it was terrible for acoustics in there and also just kind of bad for the flags. So they ultimately put the War of 1812 flags on these wooden frames, and then just pushed it right in over (the other exhibits),” Swift said. “Which, of course, was great for this stuff. That’s one of the reasons why when we opened them up, they looked just like the pictures we had from 1913.”
In 1912, Congress authorized the preservation and exhibition of 172 Naval trophy flags, including the flags displayed in Mahan. For about a year and a half, Amelia Fowler and a team of roughly 40 other women worked in Mahan Hall, stitching a pattern Fowler patented into the flags to preserve the fabric. The women stitched enough to cover two football fields, Swift said.
The flags were then photographed in their exhibits, and a detailed list with a description of each item was published in a 1913 book, “Illustrated Case Inscriptions from the Official Catalogue of the Trophy Flags of the United States Navy.”
Swift had that book in his hand Wednesday and turned to the page for case 28, which included a Chinese pirate flag as well as 10 Korean flags and bannerets, some of the hidden flags officials uncovered. According to the book, those Korean flags were all captured on June 11, 1871, “at the punitive attack on the forts at Kang Hoa, Salee River, near Boisee Anchorage, Korea, by a landing force under Commander Lewis Ashfield Kimberly, from the squadron under Rear-Admiral John Rodgers.”
Naval History and Heritage Command provided the museum with the money to remove, preserve and place the War of 1812 flags in proper storage, and the hidden flags as well.
“This was sort of a twofer that we didn’t expect,” Berube said. “The next step will be to identify a plan for restoration.”
Camille Myers Breeze, director of Massachusetts-based Museum Textile Services, and her team were working to conserve a large flag from the British frigate Guerriere on Wednesday morning. Once her work is done, the flags will be rolled up and stored, she said.
“We’re so thrilled that we’re following in the footsteps of Amelia Fowler and all her stitching women. If it wasn’t for them, this collection wouldn’t exist,” Breeze said.
All of the flags should be removed from the five cases in Mahan by Friday afternoon, Swift said.
Museum Textile Services is the conservator the academy is working with for this project; to remove the glass itself, they hired a local company, All Glass & Mirror Inc. Removing the panes of glass was extremely difficult, Swift said. There was no hinge or door in the cases, just a single pane of century-old glass that might have broken into dangerous pieces if shattered. The crew cut the panes of glass out of the wall — the first pane took them about two hours, Swift said.
“They’re probably the most important part of this project,” Swift said.
The academy is responsible for more than 600 flags, including those in Mahan Hall, as part of the United States Navy Trophy Flag Collection.
“President (James K.) Polk in 1849 said, ‘Any flag captured in battle by the United States Navy will be deposited at the Naval Academy,’ so we have a responsibility from the very highest level to take care of these flags, and we’re stewards of this history,” Swift said.
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