Trust but verify: looking at a fragment of Civil War history

At some point in our lives most of us pass through that phase where we believe “if you see it in print, it must be true.” In the world of Special Collections, this can also mean that when an object has a handwritten note identifying it, you accept the note as factual. Unfortunately, real life is rarely so reliable.

Take for example, a set of reprints we found of the Ulster County Gazette dated January 4, 1800 and reporting the death of George Washington. Accompanying several obvious reprints was a very nice copy on rag paper in a folder marked “Original.”  Was this in fact an incredibly valuable original? Had we discovered a long lost treasure hiding in the archives? Our hearts beat a little faster until we determined that, no, it was a reprint too. Someone creating that folder (in the days before internet access) had been mistaken.

But even with all the resources of scholarship at your fingertips, authentication remains a tricky business. Consider the framed bit of cloth pictured above and its two captions. The first, handwritten on the paper to which the cloth is attached, reads

Ft. Moultrie (S.C.)

Garrison Flag ““ size about 15 ft. by 18.

It flew while Heroic Sumter was bombarded April 12th – 13th 1861.

C.H.

The second note is on a separate sheet at the bottom and says:

Piece of bunting from the flag

that floated above Ft. Sumter

during its bombardment  April 12-13, 1861.

It was 15 ft. by 18 ft.

Sent to Hon. Geo. Clark in a letter.

R.E. Pare, Macon, GA

So where did the flag fly and whose flag was it? The original object indicates that this flag flew over Fort Moultrie–a position from which the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter.  The second caption says the flag came from Fort Sumter–which would mean it was a Federal flag. And, while it seems likely that this second note is an error made by a descendant or a later owner, if this is a Confederate artifact, what do the words “Heroic Sumter” mean?

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share with us on our latest puzzle, we hope you’ll leave us a comment below. By the way, there is a Texas connection to the Battle of Fort Sumter: a completely unauthorized surrender was arranged with the Union troops by Texan Louis T. Wigfall who rowed out to the fort in a skiff. Wigfall, a one-time U.S. Senator, went on to lead the Texas Brigade until his fondness for whiskey and hard cider made it necessary for him to resign his commission. He was replaced by John Bell Hood.

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