Restored Civil War flag resurrects some rebel ‘Greys’

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.

The bulk of the $21,000 cost of the restoration is being paid by retired Houston businessman B. Floyd Tyson Jr., 80, who said he grew up in Richmond hearing stories of the war and of elderly Confederate veterans.

“We hold these people very dear because of the sacrifices they made,” he said Thursday. “I am so happy for the museum because it’s something that they can present to future generations.”

A hamlet’s pride

The Caroline Greys, later Company E of the 30th Virginia Infantry Regiment, got its flag on April 27, 1861, two weeks after the war began, according to a story a few days later in a Richmond newspaper.

There were about 70 men in the company, according to the report, which was filed from Ruther Glen, a hamlet north of Richmond that still feels much like it probably did in 1861.

The Greys began as a militia group; it was formed Dec. 12, 1859, in response to the abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry two months before, the museum said.

Peatross was one of three members of his clan to join up.

The Mason brothers, Camillus, 23, a teacher, and his brother, Francis, 19, a student, also joined. Their father was a farmer who lived in a place nearby called White Chimneys, according to census records and a history of the 30th Virginia by Robert K. Krick.

Camillus was killed at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. Francis was wounded there and sent home; he died in his father’s house two weeks later.

The Turner brothers of Ruther Glen — George, 22, William, 21, and Joshua, 18 — all joined the company on the same day in 1861. Joshua died of disease a few months later. William was killed at Antietam, where George was wounded.

Antietam, one of the war’s bloodiest battles, also claimed the Greys’ Thomas W. Blunt, a carpenter who was 25 at enlistment, Albert C. Dimue, 19, Louis G. Goldsby, 21, and Edwin Jackson, 25.

“Very few of the young men who left here came home,” said Susan Sili, a Caroline County historian.

Putting pieces together

When the battered flag was delivered last year to Textile Preservation Associates in Ranson, W.Va., the company’s president, Cathy L. Heffner, rejoiced.

Despite its dreadful condition, Heffner, a veteran flag conservator, realized that almost all the pieces of the crumbled painting were there — twisted, curled and fragmented, but present on pieces of the flag silk.

All she had to do was “relax” the fragments with a humidifier, flatten them, and put the pieces back together like a puzzle.

“I could tell by the amount of folding and creasing that these pieces were going to open up and that there was going to be a substantial amount of flag left,” she said. “I was really excited.”

Once reassembled, the flag was sent for cleaning to Art Care Associates, of Frederick, and painting conservator Nancy R. Pollak.

Using tweezers and a small eraser, she began meticulously cleaning each fragment, and then painting, with water colors, small paper patches to fill the few gaps.

In the process she discovered Ruskell’s name under the grime, which prompted a debate as to whether he was the painter or the flag maker, or both.

She also stumbled upon the mysterious altered numeral. On the front of the flag, which bears the motto, “Presented to the Caroline Greys, May, 1860,” Pollak noticed that the zero in 1860 and originally been a 1, as in 1861.

The 1 had been switched to change the front date to 1860, while the date on the reverse side remained 1861.

Why?

County historian Sili believes she knows: The Greys “wanted to make it clear that they had been ready to fight a year beforehand.”

Unaware of the suffering that was ahead, she said, “they were pretty hot to fight.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.

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