Hoag Library may sell historic flag from Civil War worth an estimated $20K
Unknown how flag for regiment of ‘Colored Troops’ came into library’s possession
(Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the possible connection with the regiment’s officer from Barre.)
ALBION – For many decades a flag from the Civil War was up in the attic of the Swan Library in Albion, unbeknownst to the community and library staff.
That flag was used by an African-American regiment from New York – the 26th Regiment United States Colored Troops.
“It spent many years in the attic of the Swan Library,” Betty Sue Miller, library director, said about the flag. “There were things there that hadn’t been looked at for years.”
The Hoag Library opened in July 2012. The old library also was mostly cleared out around that time. That building was the library’s home since 1900. When library staff were going through the items in the attic they found the old flag, which was in a frame.
The flag was moved to Hoag and put in a room with other community relics, mostly old books of local interest and history. There is a photograph by Matthew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer, and some other interesting local items, including signs from the Orleans County 4-H Fair.
Some library users knew about the flag and suggested that it be displayed or sold to someone who would appreciate it, perhaps a museum about African-American history.
The library reached out to Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas. The company estimated the flag is worth $20,000. Heritage wants to handle a sale for the flag and would promote it as a signature piece for an upcoming auction about Americana, Miller said. Heritage agreed to sell the flag for a 5 percent commission, well below its normal rate.
The library’s board of trustees are expected to vote on the issue at its 7 p.m. meeting on March 13. Miller said the board is inclined to sell the flag because there isn’t a positive connection to the county. Hoag Library also isn’t a museum and preserving and displaying the flag isn’t part of the library mission, Miller said.
The impeachment parchment, given as a gift by a former governor
The library has wrestled with a similar issue before. It was a decade ago when the former Swan Library considered selling a document from the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson.
Rufus Bullock, a former Albion resident, was governor of Georgia when Johnson was impeached. Johnson as governor was given an impeachment notice signed by the 126 members of House of Representatives who voted Feb. 24, 1868, to impeach Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Forty-seven House members opposed the ousting.
Bullock moved back to Albion in his later years and gave the impeachment notice to Swan Library in 1903. The library had only been open for three years at that point. Bullock died at age 73 on April 27, 1907, and is buried near the tower at Mount Albion Cemetery.
For a century that document sat in the attic at Swan Library. Librarians were aware of that piece of history and kept it safe.
But when the community was looking to build a library, Swan leaders thought the impeachment notice might fetch a big dollar and could help get the new building built. Some speculated the document might be worth a million dollars or more.
Library leaders at the time sent a photo of the impeachment parchment and a description to Sotheby’s, the famous international auction house. Its assessment of the document: about $15,000 to $25,000 – a nice sum but library leaders decided it wasn’t a difference maker for the library.
Miller, speaking today, also said that document had a known community connection, given by a native son who loved the new library, the first in the Albion community. That’s why the library decided to keep it.
The Bullock gift occasionally comes out of storage for a display or as part of a historical discussion.
No certain provenance for flag
With antiques, the story behind the items – their provenance – is very important. There is a lot of missing information with the Civil War flag, including critical facts such as who gave it to the library and why.
Miller supports selling the flag and using the proceeds to benefit local history efforts at the Hoag. She would like to see old newspapers from the community be scanned and entered into an on-line database, for one project.
Some facts are known about the United States Colored Troops. There were three regiments of black troops from New York – 4,125 soldiers altogether – that served in the Civil War.
The Union had 178,895 soldiers in the Colored Troops from about 175 regiments during the last two years of the war. Their service bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time.
Miller believes the flag should be treasured and she wants to see it go to a place where it would be prominently displayed, diligently preserved and deeply appreciated.
Historian: Barre man led the regiment and likely brought flag back to the Albion community
The county historian believes 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 and then took a commission in 1864 with the 26th USCT, said Matt Ballard, the county historian.
Those regiments were led by officers who were white.
“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 likely had the flag and his wife left it to the library, which was becoming “a defacto repository for local historical artifacts.”