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Decoding Sherman's flag and conserving a historic treasure

In our textile conservation lab, the final pieces of a million piece jigsaw puzzle have just been put into place. The "puzzle" in question is a 135-year-old silk flag commissioned by General William T. Sherman, of Civil War fame, that had deteriorated into thousands of fragments. Textile conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss and her intern Kayla Silvia were up to the challenge.

Sherman's flag never saw a battlefield. Instead, it waved over military ceremonies as a symbol of unity and peace. Commissioned in 1880 by William Tecumseh Sherman, General of the U.S. Army after the Civil War, it represented reconciliation between states. Take a close look:

  • An eagle with golden feathers and a white head soars in the center of the flag.
  • The eagle's head turns toward the olive branch grasped in its talons, emphasizing the new peace between the states.
  • The thirteen stars hovering above the eagle and the thirteen stars and stripes in the shield on its breast represent the original thirteen colonies.

Combined, these symbols illustrate the legacy of the original colonies, and the continuation of American freedom and peace.

On a table covered in white material, a yellow envelope is mostly open to reveal fabric in yellow and blue colors.

Sherman's daughter Mary Elizabeth donated the flag to the Smithsonian in 1918, tightly folded into an envelope. In a letter to the Smithsonian dated September 27, 1918, the flag was described as being "in very poor condition… owing to age." This meant that the envelope should only be opened under the care of an expert conservator. Two years ago, Textile Conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss delicately opened the package. She removed the deteriorated pieces of silk and began to reconstruct what seemed to be a gigantic puzzle.

When I first saw the flag, during its final few weeks of treatment, it was lying on a table with the outer silk fringe and embroidery laid out and a large section of the flag in one piece. On nearby tables lay the fragments needed to fill in the rest of the flag. The sight was awe-inspiring and a little intimidating—how would I help put the fragments back where they belonged? Suzanne taught me a lot of tricks to speed the process.

A woman in a blue sweater stands in front of a table covered in white material with small pieces of blue fabric

Color was a clue. Prolonged exposure to sunlight had caused the flag to fade into various shades of light blue, and bleeding dyes created green stains in spots. Suzanne and I used these color differences to sort and match the silk fragments. As silk deteriorates, the fibers begin to fracture and essentially crack. Fabric is made out of interlocking warp and weft fibers; warp fibers run longitudinal in the fabric, weft fibers run latitudinal. When light degrades the fabric, the warp and weft fibers begin to break down until there are no fibers left, which causes pieces of fabric to separate or split. These fractures in the silk create unique shapes, which a conservator can piece back together like a puzzle.

Fortunately, there was still some silk attached to the fringe and embroidery to guide us. It was like our jigsaw puzzle's border was completed and we just needed to fill in the middle.

Using the methods Suzanne showed me, we were able to place many fragments of silk back into the flag. I was asked to focus on one important section of the flag in particular to reassemble: the stars. (No pressure, right?)

Design with an eagle in the center, stars, and elaborate flourishes that say "Headquarters of the Army of the United States"

My only clue to the positions of the stars was the flag's original drawing. The drawing showed thirteen stars and I began putting them in place according to the drawing. But only eleven stars had come out of the envelope. Where were the other two? I'll get to that soon. The time soon came to flip it over to reveal the civilian side.

Woman leans over table with white covering and flag in many pieces

When Suzanne and I delicately flipped the flag and unrolled it, we discovered a very unexpected surprise. There, in the middle of the red silk banner, on top of the gold lettering, was the 12th star. I was so excited to see it that I could not contain my smile. Soon, I placed it in its correct location on the flag.

Flag on table with lots of missing parts, eagle in center

In our search for the 13th star, we weren't as lucky. We believe that the 13th star was removed from the flag before it was given to the Smithsonian. There is an almost perfect square-shaped loss in the top row of stars where, based on the spacing in the drawing, we would expect to see a star. The straight lines in the silk indicate that the star was cut out of the flag, most likely removed as a souvenir—a common practice at the time.

Young woman in blue dress carefully leans over flag, spread out on the ground, to prepare it for storage.

Sherman's flag was a symbol of unity and peace in the turbulent era of Reconstruction and also a hope for the future. I feel honored that I was able to help piece together this national treasure; it is certainly an experience that I will never forget.

Young man carefully leans over flag

By Kayla Silvia interned in the museum's Textile Conservation Lab. The museum does not have current plans to display the flag, but stay tuned for news of the flag's future.