Discovering Georgiana Appleton and the Fort McHenry Flag
By Elaine Heavey, Reader Services
A few weeks ago a writer contacted me looking for material located in the Appleton Family Papers. The writer, Ariel Sabar, was working on a piece for the June issue of Smithsonian Magazine. The focus of the article was the act of taking souvenir clippings from the original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when the British attacked on the evening of 13 September 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to compose our national anthem.
Sabar hoped I could locate and provide him with a copy of a letter written to a Georgiana Appleton from a Stephen Salisbury in 1874. The letter, Sabar knew, contained Salisbury’s request for a clipping from the old Star-Spangled Banner. I was dubious, until realized that Georgiana Appleton was formerly Georgiana Armistead, the daughter of Major George Armistead. Major (later Colonel) Armistead, upon taking command of Fort McHenry in 1813, saw to it that an enormous flag was made to be flown over the fort, which he assumed would be a likely British target in the ongoing War of 1812. Sometime in the three years between the inspirational battle at Fort McHenry and Armistead’s death, Armistead came to possess the flag. His daughter Georgiana, who had married into the Appleton family, inherited the flag upon her mother’s death in 1861.
So I spent a bit of time browsing the Appleton Family Papers (our very detailed collection guide helped me narrow my search to 5 folders contained in box 10 of the collection) and my interest was piqued! Even after I located the letter Sabar had requested, I kept reading. I needed to learn more about Georgiana and the flag.
At first glance, what I read both thrilled and slightly horrified the trained archivist in me. I kept reminding myself that the best practice guidelines for preservation of historical treasures we follow today simply did not exist in the mid-1870s. But it seemed that each letter uncovered tales about snipping souvenirs from the flag to give to different parties, shipping the flag off by mail, and schlepping it around from exhibition site to exhibition site. I thought about the stringent guidelines we impose on borrowing institutions when we loan items from our own collection, not to mention the time we invest in doing condition photographs and reports, having insurance appraisals done, hiring professional art movers to transport artifacts, etc., etc. I marveled that the flag survived into the early 20th century, when Appleton’s son, Eben Appleton, gifted it to the Smithsonian, who has worked to preserve the flag ever since.
Starting with a letter written in February 1873 there is a rich correspondence between Georgiana Armistead Appleton and Commodore George Henry Preble. Preble authored a history of the American flag, first published in 1872, and I gleaned from his first letter that Appleton had sent him a list of corrections to his text regarding the Star-Spangled-Banner. Preble promised to correct those errors in the next edition, and then asked that Appleton facilitate his photographing the flag so that he could include an engraving of the original flag in his next edition as well.
Here is where the feeling of horror began to sink in. Appleton agreed to loan the flag so that it could be photographed, and in letter dated 15 May 1873 Preble advised Appleton to “express ‘the flag’ to the address on this letter [the Boston Navy Yard] any time after or about the 1st of June” so that he could have it “hoisted on the Navy Yard Flag Staff & be so photographed.” It was so casual, as if she were lending him a table cloth, not a national treasure.
But when I read a bit deeper, I discovered the horror was a bit unwarranted. In his first letter in February 1873, Preble expressed concern for the flag, stating that such treasures should not remain in private hands and recommending that Appleton deposit her flag at the Military Academy at West Point for long-term safe keeping. And in writing on 9 June 1873 Preble assured Appleton that once he received the flag at the Navy Yard he would see to it that “the banner is carefully preserved,” noting that he will only attempt to have it hoisted at the Navy Yard if its current condition merits it.
Alas, when the flag arrived by express on 11 June, Preble disappointedly found it “too frail & tender” to be hoisted. The next day he informed Appleton that he was having some of the ripped seams restitched, and that he planned to have the flag “hung (out of the wind) against the wall of some one of the Navy Yard buildings” so that the photograph could be taken. Preble was clearly more preservation minded than I had at first given him credit for.
For a period of about three years Preble acted as caretaker to the flag. He arranged to have the Banner, along with two other historical flags he wrote about in his history (the flag of the Revolutionary era USS Bon Homme Richard, and a flag from the USS Enterprise, famous for its involvement in the Tripolitan Wars of the early 19th century) exhibited at the New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEGHS). A one-day exhibition of the relics took place on 9 July 1873. Appleton’s flag remained on display for several weeks after, until, under Preble’s supervision, it was carefully rolled up, placed in a canvas bag, and deposited in the fire proof safe at the NEHGS for safe keeping.
Immediately after the NEHGS exhibition, Preble and Appleton began corresponding about another opportunity to publically exhibit the flag. As early as March 1873 representatives of the Centennial Committee, based in Philadelphia, began contacting Appleton about borrowing the flag for display during the celebration of the centennial in that city. What again seemed a risky venture on the surface, proved that Preble was concerned about the long-term preservation of the flag, as he advised Appleton (on both 12 July and 21 Aug 1873) that if she chose to lend the flag, she should require that it be insured for “$5 or $10,000 dollars” and request a guarantee from the committee that none of it will be sold for relics. He also stressed the importance of ensuring that the flag would be displayed in a manner that prevented relics from being taken by enterprising attendees. Reading through to the letters of 1876, I discovered that Appleton did choose to loan the flag, and that Preble ensured that proper case was taken.
Of course I could not overlook that Preble also wrote of taking snips of the flag, with Appleton’s authorization, to give to this person and that. In fact, there is a receipt in one of the folders, dated August 1873, indicating that a snip of the flag was given as a gift to the NEHGS. But as Sabar points out in his article, the act of flag snipping was common in the 19th century, and Preble does stress in his letters that he takes great pains to take his snippings from areas where they will not be missed. So I can try to forgive this preservation transgression. [Side note: The MHS has its own snippet of the Fort McHenry flag, but it was not gifted to the MHS by Appleton. It was received in 1917, inserted an extra-illustrated edition of Preble’s History of the Flag of the United States of America, that was donated by a Nathan Paine.]
I discovered a number of other interesting letters in the Appleton Family Papers, all of which I am sure could lead to hours of research and future blog fodder. There were multiple letters from individuals seeking clipping from the flag (unfortunately, Appleton did not keep copies of her replies to those requests) and letters from individuals that had written poems and songs about the flag. There was even a letter from the granddaughter of Mary Pickersgill, the woman credited with making the flag, revealing her own poverty, and asking that a sign be displayed with the flag at the centennial to generate donations to support her. But, I must say, the letters from Preble, that not only tell the story of the flag, but offer insight into thinking about preservation issues in the mid-19th century, are the real gem for me.
| Published: Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 8:00 AM
“Time will bring forth...a fine Child”: The Labor of Declaring Independence
By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers
Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. In June 1776, John Adams likened the struggle in the Continental Congress to declare independence to giving birth. For Adams, the fact of independence already existed; it was only a matter of recognizing what was already there. In a letter of June 12, Adams alluded to the momentous occasion finally on the horizon: “We have greater Things, in Contemplation, than ever. The greatest of all, which We ever shall have. Be silent and patient and time will bring forth, after the usual Groans, throws and Pains upon such occasions a fine Child—a fine, vigorous, healthy Boy, I presume. God bless him, and make him a great, wise, virtuous, pious, rich and powerfull Man.”
Those final throws and pains began in earnest on June 7, when Richard Henry Lee put forward a simple but powerful resolution: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” John Adams seconded the motion, but patience was yet required. Some delegates were unwilling to take such a step without explicit instructions from their constituents moved for a delay of consideration of the Lee Resolution. So that there would be no further loss of time, however, it was proposed to form a committee that would draft a declaration to serve as a justification for the resolution should it pass. On June 11, the Continental Congress appointed a Committee of Five—Robert R. Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and John Adams of Massachusetts.
Leaving no contemporary minutes, the details of the committee’s proceedings to create the draft of this declaration have been lost to history, although Adams gave a brief, though contested, overview in his Autobiography based on his recollections thirty years later. The draft that came out of the committee on June 28 was closely debated in Congress from July 2d to 4th, and the final product—the Declaration of Independence (to Adams’s surprise)—would go on to surpass the Lee Resolution in national importance and symbolism.
Nevertheless, on July 3, 1776, the day after the Continental Congress unanimously declared “that these United Colonies, are of right ought to be, free and independent States,” Adams wrote triumphantly to his wife Abigail that the “Day of Deliverance” had arrived—the child safe delivered: “Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men.... You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man.” The child born, the day past, the real work could now begin.
| Published: Wednesday, 11 June, 2014, 8:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
It is a fairly quiet week at the Society this week, but that does not mean it is uneventful!
First up is a special member event taking palce at 6:00PM on Wednesday, 11 June. MHS Fellows and Members are invited to "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country Preview Reception." The evening will begin with remarks by Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey, followed by a reception and exhibition viewing. Registration is requried at no cost. Please RSVP.
On Thursday, 12 June, "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War" opens to the public! From the Society’s extraordinary collection of women’s recollections, this exhibition features photographs, letters, diaries, and memorabilia related to Margaret Hall and Eleanor (Nora) Saltonstall, Red Cross volunteers in France. The exhibition will highlight Hall’s large-format photographs of the battlefront on loan from the Cohasset Historical Society. Both women were keen observers of the climactic months of the war and depicted what they witnessed in vivid detail. The exhibition celebrates the forthcoming MHS publication Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The exhibit is on display Monday through Saturday, 10:00AM to 4:00PM, until 24 January 2015. There is no cost to enter the exhibit and it is open to the public.
And on Friday, 13 June, stop by at 2:00PM for a special public program titled "Lost Boston." Historian, author of sixty books, and MHS Fellow Anthony Sammarco explores some of the sixty-eight houses, churches, libraries, clubs, squares and baseball fields that have been lost by demolition, fire, or neglect since the 1870s. His new book, Lost Boston, is a nostalgic journey back in time to visit some of the disappeared buildings and spaces in all their grandeur. This event is free and open to the public so come on by and listen in!
Finally, on Saturday, 14 June, drop in at 1154 Boylston for "The History and Collections of the MHS," a free tour of the Society's historic home. This 90-minute docent-led tour explores the public space in the building, touching on the art, architecture, history, and collections of the Historical Society. The tour is free and open to the public. No reservation is required for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more should contact the MHS prior to attending a tour. For more information please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 firstname.lastname@example.org.
| Published: Sunday, 8 June, 2014, 12:00 PM
Guest Post: Unlocking the Story of a Real-life Robinson Crusoe
By Gregory N. Flemming, Guest Author
Tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society Library are two small, leather-bound volumes printed nearly 300 years ago. These small tracts, titled Ashton’s Memorial, reveal an incredible story -- the first-hand account of a Massachusetts fisherman named Philip Ashton who was captured by pirates in 1722 and then escaped and lived as a castaway on an uninhabited Caribbean island for nearly two years. Ashton’s Memorial is a rare description of a voyage aboard a pirate ship during the peak of Atlantic piracy and it reveals rich new details about the crew, captures, and nearly-fatal mishaps.
The Society may hold the only surviving copy of the original 1725 printing of Ashton’s Memorial in Boston. There are original editions from a second printing of Ashton’s Memorial, published in London in 1726, at both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the British Library. The second printing is nearly identical to the first, except the title page uses the descriptor “An Authentick Account” instead of “An History” and includes three lines of text that were omitted from the Boston printing, apparently due to a typesetting error.
Ashton’s narrative was compiled by his minister, John Barnard of the First Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The fact that the book was published in London a year after it was printed in Boston speaks to the popularity of the story at the time. In fact, Ashton’s Memorial may have been read in London by Daniel Defoe, who had a lifelong interest in piracy, castaways, and the maritime world. A leading scholar of Defoe’s work, Manual Schonhorn, has compared Defoe’s writings before and after Ashton’s Memorial was published and concludes that Defoe incorporated new details from Ashton’s story -- never published anywhere else -- in his next novel.
Barnard compiled Ashton’s Memorial shortly after Ashton returned home to Massachusetts from his three-year odyssey, but the book is written in the first person and reads as though Ashton wrote it. Barnard notes in a short introduction that he met with Ashton on several occasions to record the narrative and subsequently verified its accuracy: “I have taken the minutes of all from his own mouth, and after I had put them together, I have improved the first vacant hour I could to read it over distinctly to him that he might correct the errors that might arise from my misunderstanding his report. Thus corrected, he has set his hand to it as his own history.” In researching Ashton’s story, I found that a number of significant events recounted in Ashton’s text were supported by other sources.
The Massachusetts Historical Society also holds the papers of John Barnard, including his Autobiography and three other volumes of his sermon notes. These papers provide additional insights into the adventurous life of one of New England’s more prominent Puritan ministers during the early eighteenth century -- but they reveal nothing more about Philip Ashton or Ashton’s Memorial. It is striking, in fact, that Barnard was compelled to record Ashton’s story not for the sake of history, but because he believed it conveyed important religious themes to an audience that was, in his mind, lacking in faith. This was quite common, in fact. Religious leaders during this era -- including Barnard’s former teacher, Cotton Mather -- frequently exploited pirate captures, executions, and other dramatic events to issue dire warnings against what they saw as a rising tide of drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, church skilling, and other transgressions in Boston and throughout colonial New England. As interesting as Ashton’s voyage was, for Barnard the true message in the story was “God’s ability to save” an ordinary fisherman from death and disaster.
Gregory N. Flemming is the author of At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, published in June. He will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society at 12 noon on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The event is free and open to the public.
| Published: Tuesday, 3 June, 2014, 1:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
Entering the month of June we have a couple of special programs on offer this week at the Society.
First up, on Monday, 2 June, the MHS is co-sponsoring "Never Done: Interpreting the History of Women at Work in Massachusetts." Join us at the Hogan Campus Center, College of the Holy Cross, for a thought-provoking day examining women in Massachusetts history. At this, the tenth annual Mass History Conference we will welcome the many small historical organizations that preserve, interpret, and deepen the exploration of Massachusetts history. The stories of lesser-known women change-makers get lost in the larger narrative of industry, politics and conflict, but the timing is right for an examination of their tales of great and compelling variety, of lives lived with courage and determination. This conference for Massachusetts history organizations is presented by Mass Humanities, Massachusetts Historical Society, University of Massachusetts Amherst Public History Program, and the University of Massachusetts Boston Public History and Archives Track, The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and Elizabeth & Ned Bacon. The conference begins at 9:00AM and will feature as Keynote Speaker Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University. For more information--including a detailed schedule of the day, or to register for the conference, visit the Mass Humanities website:http://masshumanities.org/history_conference_2014.
On Wednesday, 4 June, stop by the Society at 1154 Boylston Street for a Brown Bag lunch talk. In this week's installment, Sara Georgini, Adams Papers and Boston University, presents "Creating Adams Family Values." This project is a history of religion in the Adams family of Massachusetts from 1583 to 1927. Most Adams family members accepted organized religion as a public good, but they filled letters and lives with the effort to answer one query: What was it good for? As men and women operating at the heart of the nation, prevailing notions of Christian citizenship laid out duties for them to fulfill, and the Adamses repeatedly sought out God for help. Drawing on the public and private papers of several generations, this project explores the “cosmopolitan Christianity” that the Adams family developed over time. The talk begins at 12:00PM and is free and open to the public.
Also on Wednesday, 4 June, there is a special evening program as the society welcomes the Archivist of the United States for "A Conversation with David S. Ferriero." Join us for a pre-talk reception beginning at 5:30PM, followed by the program which begins at 6:00PM. Registration is required for this event at no charge. Click here to register online, or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.
Finally, please note that the library is closing at 3:00PM on Thursday, 5 June.
| Published: Sunday, 1 June, 2014, 12:00 PM