The days seem like weeks for Anthony Waskie, Ph.D. But the wait, he said, is well worth it.
“It’s an incredible project,” Waskie said. “The important thing is that it’s being done right. It will be well worth the wait.”
What Waskie and some of his colleagues at The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library locate in Frankford are waiting on is the tedious restoration of the regimental battle flag of the 127th U.S.C.T (US Colored Troops).
Tattered and torn, the flag is believed to be the last remaining battle flag of a colored Union regiment from the Civil War. Approximately 180,000 Blacks fought for the Union.
The 6-by-6-½-foot silk flag, completed in 1864, was shipped to an art restorer in Chicago about six months ago in special packaging. There are pieces of it that will never be replaced because some were taken by soldiers at the end of the war.
Much of the flag is held together just by its original blue paint. The cost of restoring the flag, some of which is covered by grants and private donations, is anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000.
However, George Turak, owner of Turak Gallery of American Art and a Viet Nam veteran who earned a Purple Heart, believes it is all well worth it.
“I think the flag is worth a million bucks,” said Turak, a friend of Waskie’s also helping with the restoration effort, when asked what the flag might bring at auction. “There have been flags that have gone for more than that. With this being the only one and the history associated with that, it’s a very attractive item.”
The flag was painted by Black Philadelphia Artist David Bustill Bowser, who painted all of the flags for the 12 Black regiments that came out of Camp William Penn, which was located on the outskirts of the city.
The flag depicts a fully equipped soldier bidding farewell to the Goddess of Liberty. The background shows a military camp, while a motto printed above the painting reads, “We will prove ourselves men.”
The 127th was assigned to the Army of the James (Virginia). The regiment was primarily used to construct fortifications and perform guard duty. However, it came under fire on April 2, 1865, when Union forces captured Petersburg and Richmond, Va. They suffered one casualty of war. More succumbed to disease.
After the Appomattox Campaign, the regiment was transferred to Texas, where it remained on duty until it was discharged on Oct. 20, 1985.
Flags that were issued by either the state or the federal government had to be returned. However, it is believed that many of the flags of the Black regiments were made through donations from friends, family, abolitionists and others. Most if not all of the U.S.C.T flags came into existence this way. As a result, when the war was over, many of the troops took pieces of flags as souvenirs.
When the restoration is complete, the G.A.R. Museum intends to return the flag to its museum home, where it will rest under a glass encasement for display. It will not be completely restored because all of the pieces simply no longer exist.
However, the flag will not remain the secret it has been moving forward. The Union League has expressed an interest in an event marking its restoration. And Waskie has been in touch with the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., and says it has expressed interest in displaying the flag.
“You can’t put a value on it because it is priceless – it’s one of a kind,” Waskie said. “It’s like Babe Ruth’s rookie card. How much is that worth?”