Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fun with Flags at the Old Barracks*

One of my favorite parts of exploring New Jersey is that there's always the chance of finding something extraordinarily cool in a spot you're not really expecting.

Like the time we found a bamboo forest at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Or when we discovered a piece of Grover Cleveland's wedding cake at his birthplace in Caldwell. Or found a taxidermied specimen of the now-extinct Heath Hen at the Drake House in Plainfield. Usually, they're not the things you're initially looking for in the place you're visiting, but they become one of the dominant aspects of your memories of the place.

I had a similar experience recently in Trenton. As part of my work with the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, I'm at the Old Barracks several times a month. Said by some to be the last remaining colonial British military barracks in North America, it was constructed in 1758 as part of a larger defensive system during the French and Indian War. It played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and had a checkered past until it was purchased by local preservationists in the early 1900s. Now owned by the state of New Jersey, it's been fully restored to tell stories of colonial life and defense. If you're into military history or early Jerseyana, it's an amazing place to visit.

Among the many artifacts is something you'd never expect to find at a small museum in New Jersey: one of the oldest surviving flags in North America and maybe the British Isles. It's hanging unassumingly on a wall in the Barracks' French and Indian War exhibit space.

The Pine Tree Flag. Photo courtesy The Old Barracks Museum..
In the interest of full disclosure, the flag's story is tied more to Connecticut than to New Jersey, but there's no shame in that. Some of our best friends came here from other places. It's known as a Pine Tree flag for the small conifer affixed to the upper left portion near the St. George's Cross. Embroidery in the center stripe of fabric appears to label it as the banner of the 5th Connecticut Provincial Regiment, which hailed from somewhere east of present-day Hartford. The soldiers of the 5th served at Fort Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War, and many of them likely clipped pieces of the flag for souvenirs at the conclusion of their service. That's why the damage to the banner would seem so uniform in spots. Flags carried by regiments during the Civil War sometimes suffered similar damage -- one could say they were sort of loved to death. (Coincidentally, New Jersey's Civil War flag collection is just a few blocks away at the State Archives, with select few examples on display.)

How do artifacts like this survive, and how do they end up in Trenton? This one seems to have been the beneficiary of the forgetfulness of the soldier who might have been its creator. Flagbearer and Ensign Jacob Woodward took the homemade flag when his service was complete, tucking it away in a chest, much as many of us do when we move from one stage of our lives to the next. Maybe he took it out occasionally to view it, maybe not. All we know is that 200 years later, a Woodward descendant sold the chest and its contents in an estate sale, leaving the new owner to discover what he fortunately recognized to be a treasure. Professional textile conservators have estimated that the flag dates to the mid-1700s, if not earlier.

One thing led to another until, in 2009, the Pine Tree flag found a home within Trenton's own French and Indian War relic. Though the Barracks and the flag weren't acquainted in their primes, it's fitting they should be together now, much like centenarians who meet at the VFW and build a friendship based on similar wartime experiences. Together, they tell a story of pre-Independence American history that so many of us know so little about.


*Apologies to fans of The Big Bang Theory

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