Captured Colors

Four flags survive through battle and time against equally long odds. Curator Erik Goldstein talks about a compelling new exhibit at the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. August 11, 2008


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

If every artifact tells a story, then four new battle flags at the DeWitt Wallace Gallery would have a bloody tale to tell. Seized as trophies from battles, these proud banners witnessed the chaos of war.

The flags make up an exhibit called "Captured Colors," which can be seen at the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg through January 9, 2009.

Erik Goldstein, curator of mechanical arts and numismatics, returns to the program to talk about what these flags can tell us. What can they tell us?

Erik Goldstein: Oh, boy. That's a tough one. It's a cliché I often avoid addressing, but in this case, it's very much warranted. Aside from being almost unique survivals of the American Revolution, these flags have a provenance that goes back to the notorious Banastre Tarleton, who actually took them in combat in 1779 and 1780. So, I'm sure the stories they could tell, and the stories that we have forced from them by knowing their history are just absolutely fantastic.

Lloyd: He was not a dreadfully popular man when he was in combat.

Erik: He was very popular with his men. If you were looking at him across the field, you were wishing you were somewhere else. Tarleton is one of these characters that really has suffered drastically at the hands of 19th-century historians. The proof in the pudding is the fact that Tareleton was with Cornwallis when he surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.

If he was really that bad, if he did these awful things that later historians suggest that he did, Washington never would have pardoned him. He would have been court-martialed as a war criminal and he probably would have been hung on the spot. But instead, three months after Yorktown, Tarleton's boozing it up back in London with the Prince of Wales, and going to the opera and womanizing – living the life of a war hero. He was bad only because he was brutally effective on the wrong side of the war.

Lloyd: So Tarleton got these four battle flags, and we know where they've been every second since then, because they stayed in his family.

Erik: Yes.

Lloyd: So now they have come back. They were sold at auction?

Erik: They were sold by Sotheby's, on Flag Day, 14 June 2006, by one of Tarleton's descendants. So they remained in the family until they really decided that they really couldn't care for them any longer. So, they decided to auction them. And rightfully so, they sent them to the United States to be sold.

Lloyd: How do you not be able to care for a flag? I must miss something here.

Erik: These flags are amazingly frail. Of the tens of thousands of objects that we have in Colonial Williamsburg's collection, very few objects scare me as much as these flags do. They're very sensitive to light. I imagine if they weren't protected in these practically bulletproof frames, they'd be susceptible to all sorts of damage. By rights, they shouldn't have survived. But they did, because the Tarleton family took very good care of them.

Lloyd: So here are battle flags, and you're flying them and it's your unit and somebody's carrying them into battle and you lose it. That's quite a disgrace, right?

Erik: It's a horrid disgrace. It's a fate worse than death. If you were about to lose your regiment's color, you'd be the worst sort of coward to abandon them and try and save your life. It's your duty as an ensign to give your life defending those colors.
Lloyd: An ensign is the lowest-grade officer there is.

Erik: Correct.

Lloyd: So, the regiment takes its most trusted emblem and hands it over to the tender mercies of the youngest officer they've got in the corps.

Erik: Ironic, isn't it?

Lloyd: It just doesn't make any sense.

Erik: It does make sense, it's a good way of infusing a sense of esprit de corps to the young officers, and at the same time, it's a relatively easy responsibility. You don't have to think about maneuvering troops, you don't have to think about tactics, you don't have to think about words of command. So, it really is a good way to introduce young officers into the regiment.

Lloyd: So, essentially, you stay in front and that would not be a casual duty to me: staying in front with the regimental colors, you can end your life rather quickly.

Erik: Oh yeah. The colors, in a battle, are lightning rods. There's no doubt about it. When you're facing your enemy across a field in combat, somebody's going to be shooting for the flag.

Lloyd: What do they look like? I mean, you've got these four back now that we know are absolutely authentic, that they were carried this place and this place and this. What are we looking at?

Erik: They're more or less square flags. They're similar in size. They vary slightly, depending on function.

The first flag is quite ornate. It's square. It was carried by Sheldon's Second Continental Light Dragoons. It's got a metallic fringed edge around a field composed of 13 red and white stripes. Within this field is a central device which is a winged thundercloud. The Latin motto translates to, "When her mother calls, her sons answer in tones of thunder." Which is a perfect motto and legend for a cavalry unit.

The other three flags are a complete set that are number seven in the inventory of flags kept by the Continental Army for Continental Army use. It shows a beaver gnawing away at the base of a palmetto tree, and the word "perseverando" underneath, which is perseverance. Having nothing to do with South Carolina, as people tend to think when it's got a palmetto on it. This is a patriotic motto taken from the Dutch, who published it in the late 16th century as part of a compendium of patriotic mottos directed against the Spanish, who they were fighting with.

It means "perseverance," you know, only through perseverance can great things be accomplished. Much like the beaver slowly gnaws away at a tree, and one at a time uses it to build his lodge. This was one of the appropriate mottos that Ben Franklin chose for the Continental Army.

The other two flags that go along with this main regimental standard for the Continental Army are divisional flags. They're fairly plain. They're rectangular. One is light blue, one is light yellow, and each one has a scrolling ribbon painted on it with just the word "regiment."

Had these been more formally issued out to a unit other than Buford's detachment, who lost them at the Waxhaws, then they would have either had a state designation or numerical designation added to the word "regiment" in the ribbon.

Lloyd: You've said earlier that it just has the word "regiment" on it, and that if they had lasted longer or been used more or whatever it was that you said, it would have either had a state name, or a regimental number attached to it. Does that indicate they got captured so soon they never had a chance?

Erik: I don't really know what it means. We're not sure. We know that this flag with the beaver and palmetto and the two other flags are in a 1778 inventory in Philadelphia. They weren't issued for another two years. We don't know why. So we're not exactly sure why the Continental Army held on to them for so long. But either way, they apparently cut loose with at least this set.

Lloyd: Do we have any others in our collection other than the four we've just gotten back?

Erik: No.

Lloyd: So actually, there aren't that many that have survived their use.

Erik: There are very few. There are believed to be less than two dozen Revolutionary War flags that survive. Of those two dozen, some are just swatches, they're just tiny little fragments. To see four complete flags is absolutely amazing.

Lloyd: We've got two dozen, including pieces, that count among the two dozen. Any idea how many battle flags there were in the Revolutionary War?

Erik: Does that include both sides, and the German and the French?

Lloyd: Yeah, might as well.

Erik: Hundreds, maybe even thousands, maybe even to the lower thousands. Certainly hundreds.

Lloyd: So, to have four that we are absolutely certain were in use, and are complete now, is really quite remarkable.

Erik: It is. It's absolutely remarkable, especially when you think about the fact that these things were made out of thin silk. They were designed to fly, so they weigh next to nothing. They were stressed with paint or embroidery, and they wore out very, very quickly. So the fact that these things were captured and went back to England as war trophies ensured their survival.

Lloyd: That's amazing.

Erik: Well, other than cherished war trophies, Tarleton greatly prized these flags when he took them, as would his descendants, because there were many military men in his family. These are amazingly dramatic. They’re witnesses to some of, especially the three flags that were taken at the battle of the Waxhaws, the Continental Army set. I don't think I can think of any more evocative Revolutionary War object. These were witnesses to some of the most inglorious defeats in the American Revolution. Certainly the Waxhaws, while it was not strategically important event, it was the most complete victory. Of Buford's force, less than two dozen men got off the field intact.

Lloyd: That would be a pretty complete defeat, I should think.

Erik: Yeah. Of 350, there were 113 killed right there, and everybody else, with the exception of maybe two dozen, maybe 20 men – including Buford himself, by the way – got away. Everybody else was made prisoner, or was too grievously injured to be useful as a prisoner. So the force ceased to exist that day.

Lloyd: Your history of the flags, how would you go about – except for the battle – you now have these four flags that we know were used, that we know were captured in battle. How would you explain the history to a person who walks in, has no military background, looks at the flags and says, "Gee, they're nice, I wonder what they mean?" How do you explain to them?

Erik: That's the question I'm answering with the exhibit. What I do is, I tell people a brief history of the color, the flag, what it really means, by drawing analogies to modern flags. What the American flag means to your average American, I take that back to the Roman legionary standards of 2,000 years ago. I show the importance of what the color meant to these armies fighting for our independence. Then I set the stage up by telling them about the characters who are the important players in the story of these flags, and then I tell the story of the events where these flags were taken. That's really where you can convey the idea, the importance of these flags.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.

© 2017 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation