Restored Civil War flag resurrects some rebel ‘Greys’
By Michael E. Ruane
In the summer of 1862 the men of the Caroline Greys, having suffered the rigors of the first year of the Civil War, realized that their elegant silk flag was much too fine for the campfire and battlefield.
A remarkable banner, it bore a painting of the Confederate unit in fancy dress uniforms, exquisitely rendered on the dark blue fabric. It was grand, and refined, and captured the innocence of prewar pageantry.
So that July it was left for safekeeping at Richmond’s new Spotswood Hotel. If the Greys, organized in Caroline County, Va., didn’t survive the war, perhaps their flag might.
Over the next three years, the outfit was devoured in battle at places like Antietam, Drewry’s Bluff and Dindwiddie Court House. Only 11 men of the original 70 were left to surrender at Appomattox.
Their flag fared better, as they had hoped. But it, too, was eventually defeated, by the relentless assaults of time.
Last week, after a campaign waged with tweezers, tiny erasers and a humidifying gun, Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy returned the once-tattered flag to display for the first time in 35 years.
In so doing, conservators preserved one of the most striking banners to survive the war and resurrected the Greys, who march again as they did in 1861, watched over by a smiling angel painted on silk.
The conservation also uncovered a forgotten mystery of the flag — a strangely altered numeral — and the signature of the flag maker, George Ruskell, which had been obscured by 150 years of grime.
“We had an idea that it was really a special and unique flag,” museum curator Catherine Wright said Monday. “But it wasn’t until it was at the conservator and they went through the process of flattening and straightening it” that its real beauty was revealed.
The flag is 4 feet by 5 feet and is trimmed in gold fringe. On the “front,” or obverse side, the center of the flag bears the painted state seal of Virginia, with a female warrior, the symbol of virtue, standing over a fallen tyrant whose crown has toppled off.
The reverse side shows 36 men, most dressed in dark gray uniforms with gold buttons, white belts and old-fashioned military caps topped with red pompons. Many of the faces appear somewhat distinct, and curators wonder if some might be miniature portraits.
The group is being led by two musicians in red jackets and light blue pants and a bearded man with a sword and epaulettes who is clearly their commander.
Curators noted that the bearded figure resembles a photograph of the unit’s early commander, Robert O. Peatross.
Beneath a green ribbon that reads “Presented by the Ladies” in gold letters, the angel, reclining on a cloud, gazes down at the soldiers.
Underneath the portrait is a painted red ribbon that reads “To the Caroline Greys, May, 1861.”
Over the years, curators said, the paint on the flag had deteriorated, shrinking and curling and tearing holes in the center so that both sides looked like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle.
Its condition was so bad that the flag had never been displayed in the museum’s new building, which opened in 1976, Wright said.
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