The Atlanta History Center, which in the past seven months has opened permanent exhibitions devoted to the “Battle of Atlanta” Cyclorama painting and the Texas locomotive from the Great Locomotive Chase, has secured another Civil War artifact.
The Buckhead venue has purchased the regimental flag of the 127th United States Colored Troops. According to a news release, the center bought the rare flag for $196,800, including a $160,000 hammer price plus the buyer’s premium, which is the most it has ever paid for a single artifact. Also, the center rarely makes major purchases for its collections, which have grown organically over nine decades mainly through donations of artifacts.
At least 180,000 African Americans served in the Colored Troops, a special branch of the U.S. Army formed after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Though these were segregated units commanded by white officers, the Colored Troops represented a revolutionary shift from slavery to freedom and beyond. It is estimated that three-fourths of the soldiers were formerly enslaved men.
The flag is one of fewer than 25 known examples carried by African American regiments during that war.
Given the center’s ongoing mission of increasing inclusivity, the organization’s leadership viewed the chance to acquire the flag of an African American regiment as an important opportunity to expand its narrative about the often-forgotten service of the Colored Troops during the Civil War.
“We want to tell the entire story of the Civil War and how it impacts our country,” center President and CEO Sheffield Hale said in a news release. “This flag is worth it in exhibit value alone. It’s one of those things that doesn’t need words to tell you what it is and what it represents.”
Measuring 72 by 55 inches, the silk banner depicts a black soldier carrying a rifle and bidding farewell to Columbia, the mythical goddess of liberty. A motto above the soldier reads “We will prove ourselves men.”
On the flag’s reverse side an American bald eagle bears a ribbon with the nation’s motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of many, one.”
This is the only surviving example of 11 flags painted with similarly inspiring scenes by African American artist David Bustill Bowser, a noted Philadelphia sign-painter, portraitist and anti-slavery activist perhaps best known for his portraits of John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln.
For many years the flag was housed at the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia, the release stated.
Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the Colored Troops are extraordinarily scarce, and this one is especially rare, said Gordon Jones, the center’s military historian and curator.
“It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact,” Jones said in a news release. “Even an enlisted man’s (Colored Troops) uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”
Among at least 11,000 Civil War objects in the center’s collections are a dozen objects identified specifically with African American soldiers or regiments. Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were issued the same uniforms and equipment as white soldiers, making collecting to interpret the Colored Troops story a significant challenge.
“So unless a soldier put his name on a piece of gear or it came down through the family, we will never know who used it,” Jones said.