Monday, May 23, 2016

Field hospital flag exhibited in Atlanta aided stretcher-bearers, witnessed war's horrors

(Photographs courtesy of Atlanta History Center)

Before he became a renowned landscape and marine painter, Harrison Bird Brown created signs and banners. During the Civil War, his business in Portland, Maine, produced a U.S. Army field hospital flag that had a distinctive yellow background and contrasting green “H” for hospital (style specified in January 1864 Army regulations). One of Brown’s flags is among only a dozen such banners believed to have survived the Civil War.

Gordon Jones
The flag was donated last year to the Atlanta History Center, where it is displayed near the “Agonies of the Wounded” case at the center’s “Turning Point: The American Civil War” permanent exhibition. The Picket asked AHC senior military historian Gordon Jones about the donation from John and Joyce Shmale of Mahomet, Ill. (Jones first wrote about the gift in Civil War News). His responses have been edited.

Q. Any clue in which theater it was used?

A. None. It was made in Maine, so you have to think Eastern Theater, but you never know. 

Q. Why did the Schmales (who each have worked in the medical field) donate it specifically to the AHC? Have they done so previously?

A. No, this was their first donation to us, but not their first donation to a museum. They were looking for a good home, not to sell it, and decided on the AHC due to a recommendation from their appraiser. On our end, we were thrilled beyond words. The DuBoses (an Atlanta father and son who amassed thousands of items) collected for 35 years and never found one – and this is not something you find every day, or something you can just buy from the antique store. We probably would have never had one had it not been for this donation. And it really helps our interpretation of medical treatment during the Civil War, which we cover in “Turning Point,” and is included on all the tours, especially for school groups.   


Q. On the conservation of the 63-by-46-inch wool bunting flag by Kate R. Daniels, how much was involved in it? What shape was the flag beforehand?

A. The flag was in good shape beforehand and needed very little cleaning. The main thing Kate did was prepare the mount: a backboard to which is attached layers of soft cotton batting covered by plain-cotton cloth, then she lightly stitched the flag to the cloth. Then we had a local framer who prepares the frame – powder-coat aluminum frame with U/V-protected plexiglass front and cleats on the back for securing to the wall. This frame has to be precisely matched to the measurements of the backboard (everything has to be custom-made). The idea is that once the mount is placed in the frame, the flag is “sandwiched” securely between the cotton cloth and the plex front, preventing it from sliding around, stretching fibers, etc. It’s the safest way to treat a flat textile item like this. And, of course, we wanted the flag on display as soon as possible.

Q. Any general thoughts on the flag's significance? Why are they so rare?

A. It’s like a lot of other Civil War artifacts: That which was most common shall be least common. In other words, what was ordinary back then was not considered worthy of saving and was discarded, hence making it incredibly rare today. That is why enlisted soldier’s uniforms are so much rarer than fancy officer’s uniforms. Our artifact storage area is filled with wedding dresses and tuxedos. but no blue jeans – that sort of thing.   


Q. Did a yellow or red field hospital flag prove effective in deterring enemy fire on the sites?

A. It was probably not about deterring enemy fire as much as being recognizable to one’s own stretcher-bearers in the smoke and confusion of battle. The field hospitals should have been far enough from the front lines to avoid direct fire, but they had to be easy to find in order to bring in the wounded quickly. The same type of flags, but larger, were used to designate buildings used as more permanent hospitals in towns and cities -- so again, to make sure everybody knew this was a medical facility. It was a way of making medical care more timely and efficient. If you recall how unprepared and overwhelmed the medical services on both sides were early in the war – hence the terrible suffering of the wounded -- you know why this was so important. (About 30,000 emergency amputations were conducted by U.S. Army surgeons during the war.)

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