The Civil War Connections Blog

Roll, Alabama, Roll!: CSS Alabama Flag is one of Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts for 2012

She was born an ocean away – purpose-built in Liverpool, England to wreak havoc on the commerce of the Union.  Two years later she met her end in the waters off Cherbourg, France – a victim of the USS Kearsarge.  She was the CSS Alabama – arguably one of the most notorious ships of the Confederate navy, and in the two years that the Alabama plied the waters of the world, she carried two different ensigns – both identifying her as a Confederate vessel.  She first carried the Confederate ‘Stars and Bars,’ but in late May, 1863, that flag was replaced by the ‘Stainless Banner’ which featured a white field with the more recognizable Confederate battle flag in the canton. We have in our collection at The Mariners’ two flags attributed to this vessel – a First National ensign and a Second National ensign. We are pleased to announce today that the Virginia Association of Museums has chosen to highlight the conservation needs of the Second National ensign as part of its 2012 Top Ten Endangered Artifacts initiative.  

 

CSS Alabama Second National

CSS Alabama’s Second National Ensign

All authorities consulted about this flag concur that this is a genuine Confederate Naval flag and was very probably the property of the CSS Alabama, given its provenance. The flag came to the museum in 1985 as part of a collection of artifacts and archival material associated with the CSS Alabama. These items were once the property of James Dunwoody Bulloch. During the American Civil War, Bulloch was the American agent in England responsible for the construction and acquisition of vessels for the Confederacy.  He oversaw construction of the CSS Alabama in Liverpool.  His half brother, Irvine Bulloch, was a midshipman on the Alabama and family legend holds that Irvine rescued this second national ensign from the Alabama before she slipped beneath the waves on June 19, 1864.

 

Noting that wool bunting was only made in England until 1866, Mr. Howard Madaus of the Milwaukee Public Museum remarked that the proportions of this flag strongly suggest English manufacture, making it unique among Confederate naval flags still in existence. While there are many flags attributed to the CSS Alabama in collections around the world, the fact that this flag was in the possession of the Bulloch family makes it particularly significant.

 

This flag is an important teaching tool – connecting students, museum visitors, and Civil War enthusiasts and scholars to a vessel that in many ways signified the global scale of the American Civil War. This was a Liverpool-built Confederate vessel, carrying an English-made Confederate flag flown on a ship with an international crew on a voyage that spanned the globe and ended spectacularly off the coast of France. This flag tells a story of intrigue, diplomacy, deceit, and the courage and conviction of men on both sides of the conflict. It can also serve to open a dialogue about the issues that still so divide our nation today.

 

But it cannot tell any of these stories while it sits in storage – too fragile to display for any length of time. Our hope is that this nomination will bring attention to the critical importance of collections care in our museum – and in other museums around the Commonwealth. Our curators, collections management staff, and conservators are among the very best in the world, but without ongoing funds for the conservation of objects like this, all they can do is provide a stable storage environment for these priceless pieces of history.