A Battle Will Soon Be Fought in New York Over Four Flags of the Continental Army
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CHARLESTON, S.C. – South Carolinians and New Yorkers are gearing up for a heated battle on June 14, when four flags of the Continental Army go up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York.
The flags are considered some of the most significant relics of American history. Only 30 Continental Army flags are known to exist – most damaged and of unsure provenance – while these four flags are in pristine condition.
The first lot, estimated at between $1.5 million and $3.5 million, contains the earliest surviving American flag with a field of 13 red and white stripes, captured in Pound Ridge, N.Y., on July 2, 1779. The second lot, estimated at between $2.5 million and $6.5 million, consists of the only intact set of flags of a Revolutionary War regiment, captured in Waxhaws, S.C., on May 29, 1780.
While Sotheby’s has divided the lots, historians and vexologists would like to see the flags kept together, as they have been for more than 200 years by the descendants of the lieutenant colonel who captured them, Banastre Tarleton, who became a general and went on to write a definitive history of the Revolutionary War. A compelling reason to keep them together is that one flag contains the 13 stripes and another the 13 stars, the elements that came together to form the American flag.
“I’ll do everything I can to make sure that these flags have a rightful place of honor in South Carolina, and that is for the public to be able to see them. They are a rich part of American history,” a state legislator of Beaufort, S.C., who is leading the effort to raise the funds to purchase the flags for South Carolina,
Catherine Ceips, said. “I’m surprised that we haven’t stepped up. We might never get this chance again,” she said.
At the request of several state legislators, a police calvacade today will transport the flags to the state capitol in Columbia from Charleston. A press conference will be held to inspire government and private support of a purchase. This follows a four-day exhibit over the Memorial Day weekend in Charleston and a resolution passed in the state assembly requesting that the budget office appropriate funds for the purchase.
New York politicians have not yet publicly supported the purchase of the flags, but they will have their chance when the flags come to New York for public display starting June 8. New York City has strong claims on all four flags, even though only one was from a battle that took place in New York. In fact, the account of the losing general in the battle at Waxhaws, Abraham Buford, resides in the collection of the New York Public Library. Furthermore, Tarleton earned his independent commands at Pound Ridge and Waxhaws by distinguishing himself in the captures by the British of New York City, Fort Washington, and Fort Lee, and at the battles of White Plains, Brunswick, Princeton, and Trenton.
“The most obvious place for them in New York is the New-York Historical Society,” the director of the sale for Sotheby’s, David Redden, said. The society already has two Revolutionary War flags, but one is a fragment and both are in poor condition. Two other Revolutionary War flags in New York State are in Schenectady and Albany.
The flags are distinguished because of the information available on them. They are described in a war inventory made in Philadelphia. It indicates that they were likely made by Betsy Ross, Mr. Redden said. The stars on one of the flags are five-pointed, which is a Ross signature.
Bringing the flag to South Carolina first has clearly inspired the state’s patriots – on the 226th anniversary of the bloody battle some refer to as “the Slaughter” – to fight for the flag’s return. “The one stained with blood is gruesome. It’s very moving to see,” the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of a Continental Army soldier who fought at the Battle of Waxhaws, Patricia McCain Kinard, said. She viewed the flags yesterday and said she hopes someone like Ted Turner will put up the money to keep them in the South.
Whatever the fate of the flags, it will be decided swiftly. The auction of both lots will last about five minutes, the Mr. Redden, who will conduct the auction, said yesterday.
The seller of the flags is the greatgreat-great-great-nephew of Tarleton, Captain Christopher Tarleton Fagan, a member of the Grenadier Guards who served in Cyprus. Captain Fagan, who lost a son in military service and whose lineage includes not only Tarleton but Fagans who were stationed in India when the British first arrived, made his first visit to America this weekend to see the flags on display in Charleston and expects to be in New York for the sale.
“I would like them to be owned by someone who would revere them and love them as much as I did and my whole family,”
Mr. Fagan said, adding that his reception in America had been tremendously friendly, without a hint of hostility.
He recalled what his mother told him about the flags when he was as boy: “She said, ‘See the stars in one and the stripes in the other? These flags were created before the American flag which brought the stars and stripes together.'”