Navy captured flags, hidden almost 100 years, rediscovered

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The curator of the U. S. Naval Academy Museum was not exactly what the would be found: records indicated five windows long used to exhibit the captured British flags from the War of 1812 actually hidden under more banners.

But not before all 61 banners were carefully removed in December for a conservation effort did curator Charles Swift, who is also the museum, the director, actually, to see what was hidden. And he was happy to learn that conservationists had discovered dozens of other flags — many captured by the Navy in other conflicts of the 19th century.

The 46 newly discovered flags, including banners of battles in Asia and one of the Spanish-American War — had originally been exhibited in 1913. But seven years later, they were covered by the 15 flags from the War of 1812 and sealed for almost a century.

No one alive had seen the flags hidden.

“More important than seeing them, was seeing the colors,” says Swift. “It is what struck me immediately. It was quite dark, but you could see the colors of the vibrant colors of them do not have it in the light for 100 years, so it was exciting.”

The flags, which is covered by the other flags in the boxes with the large plate-glass lids, speak to an earlier era of AMERICAN intervention abroad. They feature a taken from a Chinese pirate fort of Macau dates back to 1854 and another captured in a military action in Korea in 1871, according to Swift. There were even a number of replicas of the Revolutionary War-era flags among them.

He said that no one had tried to open the boxes until the time was needed for maintenance in 2017.

“It was mostly the recognition that after 100 years, these things really need to be demolished, because hanging as this places stresses on the flags,” said Swift. “It can tear. They can be damaged. So, they get a well-deserved vacation.”

In 1849, the then President James K. Polk appointed the academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the repository of flags captured in battle by the Navy. The museum is now the home to about 800 flags and trusted with their preservation, Swift said. About 250 of them are trophy of flags, or those flags which have been captured in the battle. The museum also houses the nautical instruments, naval uniforms, medals, photographs, art, and items recalling the past, naval expeditions and discoveries.

“We are ultimately the keepers of these objects that are important stories to tell,” said Swift, of which the museum boasts more than 100,000 visitors per year.

Amelia Fowler, a well-known flag preserver, who restored the original Star-Spangled Banner in 1914, was closed in 1912 to the preservation of the academy in the collection of the trophy of flags. She has worked with dozens of other women in the museum, Mahan Hall, using a patented stitching pattern to help in the conservation of substance. All told, they stitched enough flags to cover two football fields, Swift said.

Camille Myers Breeze is working on a new preservation process for the flags as a director of an independent conservation studio, Museum Textile Services, based in Massachusetts. She said Fowler’s work has enabled her crew to the processing of the flags without the risk of damage.

“For us to save a collection of flags like this, that the historically — not only for usage, but for how it was preserved and how it is installed here 100 years for the Naval Academy students and visitors to appreciate and learn from,” she said. “It is really our favorite kind of project.”

Swift said that the funding for the conservation, about the $40,000 came from the U. S. Naval History and Heritage Command, which is tasked with the preservation and protection of artifacts, art and documents from the military branch.

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