September 9, 2008
Special exhibition ends Jan. 9, 2009, when war trophies of the American Revolution return to their private owner
Museum guests of Colonial Williamsburg have only a few months to see four rare and prized battle flags of the American Revolution before they return to the hands of their private, anonymous owner. The spectacular exhibit, “Captured Colors: Four Battleflags of the American Revolution,” at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum of the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg will close Jan.9, 2009.
The flags may never be on public view again. Opened in December 2007, “Captured Colors” is the only extended exhibition of the battlefield banners since their return to America more than 225 years after being taken to British soil as trophies of war.
Little more than two dozen Revolutionary War flags are known to exist in museum and other institutional collections. Most consist only of fragments with scarce historic documentation available. By contrast, the four flags in the exhibition are in good condition and their histories are well documented.
“As silent witnesses – indeed participants – in the epic conflict that gave birth to this nation, these rare and important flags tell a story that is compelling and vital to our national character,” said the exhibition’s curator, Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg curator of mechanical arts and numismatics. “It is significant that these flags have returned finally to American soil, and it has been our privilege to share these remarkable artifacts with our museum guests.”
The dashing – and sometimes despised – firebrand British cavalry officer, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, captured the flags in two battles nearly a year apart and the flags had remained in the Tarleton family’s possession until their sale at auction at Sotheby’s New York on Flag Day, June 14, 2006.
During the past 225 years, the flags adorned the walls of Tarleton descendants’ homes in Great Britain They were never publicly displayed until late May 2006 for four days at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.—a few short weeks before their sale at auction.
Three of the flags represent the 3rd Virginia Detachment led by Col. Abraham Buford, whose unit surrendered the banners in a 1780 clash at Waxhaws, S.C. The Buford standards – a main regimental flag and two divisional flags – are the only intact set of Continental Army battleflags surviving from the American Revolution.
The first of the flags—measuring 35 inches high by 39 inches long with 13 red and white stripes and a field with a painted thundercloud—was captured in 1779 when Tarleton led his unit, known as the British Legion, in a surprise attack on the Continental Army's 2nd Light Dragoons, also known as Sheldon's Horse, at Pound Ridge, N.Y.
The trio of Virginia flags is constructed of silk. The main flag is gold in color and depicts a beaver gnawing on a palmetto tree and the Latin legend, “Perseverando,” meaning “by perseverance.” The others are gold and blue silk, bearing the word “Regiment” on a scrolling ribbon. The three flags were probably made in Philadelphia about 1778.
Controversy surrounds the capture of the Virginia flags. In the clash at Waxhaws, later known as Buford’s Massacre, some accounts allege that Tarleton ordered the slaughter of the Virginians after they hoisted a surrender flag. Tarleton maintained that the patriots had been offered quarter and declined, and he attributed the bloody aftermath to his troops’ angry reaction to false rumors of his own death earlier in the battle.
Entrance to The Museums of Colonial Williamsburg is through the Public Hospital of 1773 on Francis Street between Nassau and South Henry Streets. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Admission is by any Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, Annual Museums Pass or Good Neighbor Pass.
Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture – stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic trades people research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution for its guests, it also invites them to interact with history. “Revolutionary City®” -- a dramatic live street theater presentation -- is a 2008 Rand McNally Best-of-the-Road™ Editor’s Pick. Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at www.history.org.