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Editorial: Albion library should keep Civil War flag and promote it as part of bigger heritage destination

Photos by Tom Rivers: Hoag Library may vote to sell this flag for an African-American unit that fought in the Civil War. The flag has 35 stars. That’s how many stars were on the flag for two years from 1863 to 1865.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 March 2019 at 3:00 pm

ALBION – Hoag Library doesn’t want to be a museum. Library leaders say that isn’t the mission for the organization.

The library has an interesting situation. It owns a Civil War flag for a Colored Troops regiment. It was in the attic of the former Swan Library for probably a century. It was unearthed when the library moved to a new building, which opened in July 2012.

Swan functioned as a caretaker of community artifacts. An impressive collection of World War I posters, nearly 100 in near-mint condition, were stashed away in the attic. Some of those are on loan and on display at the Cobblestone Museum.

The Mount Albion tower is a Civil War memorial to 463 Orleans County residents who died in the Civil War.

For decades it has displayed a collection of bird eggs and nests from Stuart John Flintham. He collected them in 1896 to 1899. They are in two displays as you enter the library.

Hoag has been going through some of items that were put in a back room of the new building.

Library leaders aren’t positive how the Civil War flag ended up at the former Swan Library. Without a certain local connection, the board of trustees is leaning towards selling the flag. An auction house from Texas estimates it will fetch $20,000.

The board will meet at 6:30 p.m. today at the library, and selling the flag is on the agenda.

I urge the library to keep it. Hoag is a good home for the flag. It is a well-maintained building and well-trafficked so people can enjoy seeing the flag. Yes, there will be some costs to have it properly preserved and protected. It’s amazing it has endured so long. Someone, decades ago, was smart to have the sense to put it in a frame. That has extended the flag’s life.

The library doesn’t need the money. Just last year, Maurice and Courtenay Hoag, the namesakes for the library, sent another $250,000 to the library. It was an unexpected gift. They have now donated $700,000 to Hoag.

I saw the flag for the first time about two weeks ago. I generally don’t feel an emotional stirring from objects, but the flag fired up feelings in me. Right away, it casts a spell. It looks different with the 35 stars. That’s how many states we had near the end of the Civil War.

The emblem for the 26th Regiment United States Colored Troops also is sewn into the flag. When you know the back story, that this was carried by one of three Colored Troop regiments from New York, you get goosebumps.

County Historian Matt Ballard believes it has a strong local connection. Ballard said the flag likely was in possession of a Barre man, who was a commissioned officer with the 26th USCT.

Charles H. Mattison of Barre was a 1st Lt. and adjutant for the regiment. He enlisted with the 151st NY Infantry to start, but turned down a commission with the 151st. He instead took a commission in 1864 with the 26th USCT. The Colored Troop regiments were led by officers who were white.

The GAR marker for Christopher Drake was recently repainted, along with about 160 others that were rusty.

“It would make sense that a commissioned officer and adjutant would have a regimental flag,” Ballard said.

Mattison is buried at Mt. Albion and his wife died in 1910. Ballard thinks Mattison’s wife left the flag to the library, which was becoming “a defacto repository for local historical artifacts.” Swan opened in 1900.

This bit of history could be shared as part of a display about the flag.

The flag could be part of a bigger Civil War Heritage Trail in Albion. The community is home to the county’s Civil War memorial, located at Mount Albion Cemetery. That memorial at the Mount Albion tower has a spiral staircase where people can climb up about 70 feet through a tower made of local Medina sandstone.

The bottom of the tower holds marble slabs with the names of 463 county residents who died in the Civil War. This is a powerful display and an unusual one. Most of the counties erected bronze statues that celebrated the highest-ranking officer to serve from the community. In Orleans County, every life that was lost in the Civil War is given equal treatment.

The cemetery is the final resting place for about 250 Civil War veterans and about 160 GAR markers remain on those plots. You can feel the sense of sacrifice and loss just by taking a stroll around the cemetery.

The local Civil War vets joined the Grand Army of the Republican, a fraternal organization for the vets. They met at a GAR Hall on Main Street, at the top floor of the Day building at 116 North Main St.

The building’s owners, Michael Bonafede and his wife Judith Koehler, discovered the GAR emblem remains on the wall. It had been covered with wall paper.

Mattison, the regiment leader, very likely was part of the GAR in Albion. It doesn’t seem farfetched to think of him bringing the flag to the GAR Hall on Main Street.

The Civil War flag would offer another stop on a Civil War Trail, if Albion was interested in promoting this history. (It could be extended to Medina with the Bent’s Opera House which opened in 1865. Kendall also has a cannon from the Civil War at Greenwood Cemetery on Route 18.)

The Civil War flag could be tied into a bigger story in Albion with other sites that are on either on the National Register of Historic Places or deemed National Historic Landmarks. They include the Courthouse Square, downtown Albion, the Erie Canal, Cobblestone Museum and Mount Albion Cemetery. Having five nationally recognized historic districts in a small community is highly unusual. There are also several local homes on the National Register.

The new Hoag Library, while not “historic,” can be a focal point of telling the community’s story.

The cannon in Civil War section of Mount Albion is pictured Nov. 5, 2016. About 250 Civil War veterans are buried at Mount Albion.

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