Friends across the bay at the Varnum Armory in East Greenwich have continued their work rescuing a collection of Bristol’s historic flags from oblivion.
It’s been an ongoing process, four years and counting, but friends across the bay at the Varnum Armory in East Greenwich have continued their work rescuing a collection of Bristol’s historic flags from oblivion.
For years, a bundle of historic flags languished in a case in the Burnside Building, tightly furled around their flagpoles, wrapped in plastic. Serendipity brought the flags to the attention of a visitor, who knew that Patrick Donovan, Director of the Varnum Armory military history museum, and Maria Vazquez, an expert textile conservator, would be interested in their existence. Donovan and Vazquez were very interested indeed.
Donovan proposed to the Town that they investigate, conserve, and display Bristol’s historic flags at their East Greenwich museum, with the conservation work to be performed by Vazquez’ company, Royal Conservation Inc. Given the large investment of time and money, Donovan asked the Town of Bristol to allow any of the conserved flags to be put on long-term display at the Varnum Armory Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Rhode Island military history. The Town of Bristol would retain ownership, and the Varnum Armory would allow the Town of Bristol to borrow and display the flags for special events.
At the Jan. 18 Town Council meeting, Contente presented Donovan’s written report on the current state of Bristol’s flags. They are as follows:
The Nathaniel Byfield flag is the most notable, as it is believed to be the oldest extant Colonial American flag. It is on display at the Varnum Armory in a climate controlled and secure case; the National Museum of the U.S. Army intends to display the flag for the 250th anniversary of the Army at their museum at Fort Belvoir starting in 2025. The flag will be put in a new custom-made display case that will remain with the flag when it is returned to Rhode Island.
The two small "Babbitt Post 15” GAR Civil War veteran flags are both completely conserved. One is framed and on display, and the other is in storage, awaiting the Town of Bristol’s determination of an appropriate place to display it.
According to Donovan, the other flags remain in storage, including the exceptional 33-star 1861 U.S. ‘Great Star’ flag thought to have been carried into the Battle of Bull Run by Rhode Island soldiers.
“We still intend to conserve and display the 33-star flag that is in fragments,” wrote Donovan. “I have secured a promise for grant funding to pay for that conservation when Maria is able to get to it.”
A picture in the June 8, 1861 issue of the Phoenix appears to show the men of the 2nd RI Volunteer Regiment following the presentation of the Great Star flag from made for them by the ‘Ladies of Bristol.’
“We think it was the second flag carried by company G at first battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War,” said Donovan. “It’s circumstantial evidence, but it’s very good circumstantial evidence,”
A PBS documentary about the Byfield flag and its conservation was produced and aired last year; you can stream it here.