Here’s the update you’ve been waiting for! Several weeks ago, we moved six historic, hand-painted silk flags from the Burnside Building (Bristol, RI), to the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum for evaluation and conservation.
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This flag restoration has blossomed into a complex and costly project that will require hundreds of hours to complete (including research and labor from numerous individuals and organizations).
The Varnum Continentals are a private non-profit receiving no federal or state funding. We depend on donors to perform these critical but labor-intensive preservation projects. Please support us!
Acquiring the Burnside Flags in Bristol, RI
Having been housed at Burnside since 1883, the flags are believed to be associated with General Ambrose Burnside‘s American Civil War service. Although in poor condition, they can be made displayable again through a painstakingly tedious conservation process. We unfurled them for first time in many decades in early February 2020.
To help with this amazing project, Andy Santilli built a massive work table in the Varnum Armory’s new archival preservation space to give us the space needed to do the Bristol flag conservation project at the armory. Thank you! And kudos to the Town of Bristol for working with us on this important project.
Next, we needed to carefully unfurl the flags.
Unwrapping the Flags for the First Time in Decades
Here’s where dedicated teamwork really starts to come into play! In addition to Varnum Memorial Armory Museum curator Patrick Donovan, we also benefit from the incredible talents of textile conservator Maria Vazquez and contractor/carpenter Andy Santilli. They have been doing incredible work to restore the Burnside Memorial flags that we recently picked up in Bristol, RI. Also on hand has been Brendan Synnamon, (owner of the Union Drummer Boy Shop in Gettysburg, PA), to provide an expert opinion.
These images show Maria carefully removing the flags from the suffocating plastic in a nail-biting procedure. Later, they were humidified before being unfurled for the first time in decades. That process will take place in our newly constructed flag conservation humidification chamber, designed and built on the fly by Andy Santilli.
At this point, we’re not the only ones interested in this amazing restoration project.
Documentary Filmmaking by Rhode Island PBS
As we got deeper into this project, it became obvious that we’d stumbled upon something so truly historic that it deserved more attention than many of our other exhibits. So, in steps Rhode Island’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to film the entire restoration project. The final product will absolutely be televised locally, but it’s also possible that this story will be televised nationally.
And we’re happy to have them here, because it turns out that we may have findings of national interest.
Unfurling the Flags and Initial Findings
Now that they’re unfurled, we do have some big news!
1687 Nathan Byfield Flag
One of the flags appears to be a national treasure. It is a beautiful silk, gold-colored flag with its original pole and finial. Material culture experts believe this was made in the latter half of the 1600s, possibly a King Philip’s War-era flag. The finial is engraved on each side: “Gift of Col Nathan Byfield to the First Company of Militia” … “Capt Nathan Byfield 1687” … “For Bristol for the time being 1724”.
Having died in 1733, Nathan was a veteran of King Philip’s War, a member of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Co., and was one of the founders of Bristol, RI, among other things. The flag appears to be stained with blood. Much research is needed in addition to blood and DNA testing.
But, this may be the oldest flag from the Americas in existence.
And here are some of the other valuable flags we’re working to restore.
1861 33-Star U.S. Civil War Flag
1890 Post No. 15 G.A.R. Flag
DONATE TO HELP WITH THIS PROJECT!
You can help with this historic restoration project. The Varnum Continentals are a private non-profit receiving no federal or state funding. We depend on donors to help us perform these costly and painstaking preservation projects.
Keep watching this space! There’s certainly more news to come regarding these amazing flags!
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