I STILL have not seen a Mexican War Flag!
I have worked at the Virginia Historical Society for a little more than three years, and what I love most about my job are the hidden treasures I come across as I learn more about this amazing museum collection. I am the museum registrar responsible for loans and traveling exhibits and am also responsible for textile conservation projects. Before coming to the VHS, I was the flag curator at The Museum of the Confederacy and have a lot of experience with historic textiles. I have seen a lot of Civil War flags in my career, but I have never seen a flag that was carried during the Mexican War (1846–48) . . . in person. Imagine my surprise when I came across a database record of a painted silk flag donated in 1903 and identified by the donor as a “Mexican War Flag” carried by her late husband. The flag was repaired in 1926 by adding fabric inserts under the splits in the painting and folded so only the repaired canton (the upper left corner of the flag) and a small amount of the silk field was exposed. None of the current staff members had ever seen the flag, and because the flag was too fragile, it had never been displayed.
The VHS contracted with a textile conservator to survey some fragile silk Civil War flags, and because of its fragile condition, we added this Mexican War flag to the list. Plus, remember, I have never seen a Mexican War flag. . . . When we unfolded this flag, the first thing I saw was a Virginia state seal on the blue canton, and immediately I knew the flag was NOT from the Mexican War, but from the Civil War! Although Virginia had a coat of arms as early as July 1776, it did not have a state flag until 1861, when the Civil War began. This flag was further unfolded to reveal the red and white bars of a Confederate first national pattern.
The widow of Lt. Fletcher H. Archer donated the flag in 1903, and because Archer led a company of Virginia volunteers during both the Mexican War and the Civil War, it is understandable that the information may have been confused. After the Civil War Archer served as the mayor of Petersburg in 1882. He died in 1902.
This flag, formerly thought to be from the Mexican War, is the silk flag of the “Petersburg City Guard,” which was a militia unit organized in 1857 in the City of Petersburg, Virginia. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the “Petersburg City Guard” became Company A of the 12th Virginia Infantry. The silk Confederate First National pattern flag, which would have been made in mid-1861, has an oil-painted Virginia state seal on one side and thirteen stars on the other.
The “Petersburg City Guard” flag, which was chosen to be conserved for exhibition along with three other flags in the museum collection, was conserved through a generous donation by the Cecil R. and Edna S. Hopkins Family Foundation. The flag required cleaning and treatment of the silk fabrics by a textile conservator and cleaning and treatment of the oil-painted seal by a painting conservator. The conservation treatment took more than 176 hours to complete.
This flag has not been seen by the general public since 1903! In February, you will get to see this beautiful silk flag in the VHS exhibition An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.
Rebecca Rose is the Registrar at the Virginia Historical Society.