J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Legends of the Forster Flag

Tomorrow the Doyle New York auction house will offer the Forster Flag, a banner that family tradition dates to the Revolutionary War. The estimated price is $1-3,000,000.

As Barbara Owens of Spicer Art Conservation explains in an interesting technical analysis, this silk banner shows signs of having been refashioned with a new canton on its red field.

The original canton probably displayed either the British Union Ensign or the English St. George’s cross. The remade canton has thirteen short white stripes, six on one side and seven on the other. Some of those stripes are pieced together from two scraps, so whoever sewed the new design really worked on it.

This flag came down in the family of Samuel Forster of Manchester, Massachusetts, who was lieutenant of that coastal town’s militia company in 1775. It was first mentioned in print by a local newspaper during the Centennial, though it may have been on display earlier at the Massachusetts State House.

There are two family legends attached to this flag, and I find both highly dubious.

One holds that the flag in its original form “was captured from the British on April 19, 1775.” Flag experts have discarded that idea because there are no records of any British unit losing a regimental flag that day, and because the surviving banner doesn’t match known examples of regimental colors in shape or size or stitching.

Furthermore, Forster’s militia company didn’t actually do any fighting during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. That wasn’t their fault; they were marching south from Manchester. Like the other Essex County companies, they arrived too late to meet the British troops. As the Doyle website says, “The Manchester Militia Company marched as far as Medford on that first day, and was then ordered to remain there for three days in anticipation of further fighting near Cambridge.”

So for this to have started as a British regimental flag, the Massachusetts soldiers who captured it would have had to hand their trophy over to another company that hadn’t come close to the action. I really don’t think that would have happened.

TOMORROW: The other legend.

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