The flag rests, tattered edges, deep stains and all, beneath a protective mesh cover and curious eyes. It's a peaceful change of pace for an artifact that, nearly 140 years ago, helped lead hundreds of pioneering Baltimore troops into battle in America's bloodiest war.
Recently acquired by the Maryland Historical Society, the 5-by-5 1/2 -foot, handmade silk flag belonged to Baltimore's 4th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, one of the Union Army's first units of black soldiers during the Civil War. Starting Wednesday, just in time for the July 4 holiday, the flag will be on display in the society's McCardell Textile Gallery.
A glimpse of the flag represents a unique opportunity for visitors, since experts believe there are just 25 Civil War colored regimental flags remaining.
This one, the first in the society's collection, is in surprisingly good condition, says curator Jeannine Disviscour. It has red and white stripes and a blue canton, which is painted on one side with a full-color American eagle, 13 gold stars and the text, "E Pluribus Unum." The other side is inscribed, "Presented to the 4th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops by the Colored Ladies of Baltimore," and the text is encircled by 35 gold stars. Disviscour said the flag, bought from a dealer representing an anonymous owner, was probably left untouched after the war, but is still quite fragile.
"It's in battle-worn condition," she explains. "You breathe on it and bits of silk can get dislodged."
The flag was presented to the 4th Regiment in the summer of 1863, soon after the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to incorporate African-Americans into the Union Army. About half of the 4th Regiment troops were slaves -- some who had been liberated and some of whom were fugitives; the rest were free men from varying backgrounds, from butchers to waiters to lawyers.
The regiment, consisting of 1,007 men ages 14 to 49, was the first of six such Maryland regiments and part of the Army of the James, which had the largest number of black troops of any Union force, said Edward Longacre, author of 2003's A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th Colored Infantry, 1863-1866.
The 4th assisted several Union efforts, including an 1864 mission to capture the Confederate capital, Richmond. "People don't think about colored troops fighting and dying in battle," Disviscour said. "The 4th Regiment played a pivotal role in numerous battles." And contributed hundreds of deaths to the total in a war that would boast more American casualties than any war in history.
The 4th Regiment flag, used in battle to guide the troops, witnessed that bloodshed. The 4th carried it into combat at New Market Heights, Va., in September 1864, for instance, where Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood of Baltimore saved it from loss. He received a Medal of Honor for heroism in 1865.
Regimental flags were highly protected for their symbolic value, Longacre said. "Flags were the one recognizable thing troops could rally around. They were to guide, and also for morale."
Disviscour said photographs of Fleetwood, the educated Baltimore businessman who achieved the highest rank possible for blacks and kept a detailed diary during the war, will be displayed with the flag. "Those are the things we want to interpret, and to help people understand," she said. "Few flags have stories like this one does, and we want to give people the whole picture."
The flag represents an important, previously missing piece of Maryland history. "We didn't have anything tangible related to colored troops," Disviscour said. The flag will be featured among the historical society's other Civil War artifacts, which include bullet-torn uniforms, a Confederate flag and Robert E. Lee's camp chair, she said.
The society obtained the flag by chance, after receiving a call from the dealer in Boston. An informal poll was taken among staff members and a presentation was made to an outside approval committee. "It was a hands-down 'Yes, we need this' across the board," Disviscour said. The price was not disclosed.
Staff members will preserve the flag in a fine mesh covering.
After the display is taken down next month, Disviscour said, the flag will be analyzed and eventually returned to the museum as part of its Looking for Liberty exhibition, a collection of Maryland objects including a Mason-Dixon stone and paintings that encourage viewers to think about what liberty meant for different people in the state's history.
"This is a part of Maryland Civil War history that has not gotten a lot of attention," she said. "We couldn't afford not to have this flag."
What: Flag of 4th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops
Where: McCardell Textile Gallery, Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.
When: Wednesday through July 18
Admission: $8 adults, $6 children 13-17
Information: 410-685-3750 or www.mdhs.org