Stolen La. Flag Is Back At Museum
By Greg Biggs
(November 2011 Civil War News)
NEW ORLEANS, La. — The recent recovery of a stolen Confederate flag began on Sept. 29 with an email and an attached flag photo.
This writer received an email from a known relic dealer who asked the location of the 14th Louisiana Battle Flag. The files showed the flag was in the collections of Confederate Memorial Hall Civil War museum in New Orleans.
In a phone call noted flag historian Ken Legendre of New Orleans, considered to be the expert on Louisiana Civil War flags, detailed how the flag had been stolen from the museum by a former volunteer, now deceased, in the mid-1980s.
The theft was discovered in 1991 when Legendre did a survey of the museum’s flag collection, comparing its records with the flags themselves.
This revelation brought another phone call, Memorial Hall Director Pat Ricci, along with an email with the flag image attached. She confirmed that the flag was the one that was stolen.
Both Ricci and Legendre inquired where the flag was, but that was not known at the time. This writer informed the dealer that the flag was stolen. He contacted the FBI and later that day, confirmed to this writer that the flag would be returned to Memorial Hall.
The FBI’s National Art Crime Team took over and contacted the Caroline County, Virginia, collector who purchased the flag in 2004. When informed that it had been stolen from Memorial Hall, he gladly turned the flag over to the FBI in Richmond.
Agents took the flag to the Museum of the Confederacy on Oct. 5, where the curatorial staff prepared it for the return to New Orleans.
Rebecca Cumins, a member of Memorial Hall’s board and a historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, observed the work at the museum and served as Memorial Hall’s official representative.
She called her involvement “the most exciting event I have participated in” during her 30-year study of the Civil War.
“We had a small ceremony at the museum and then the flag curators took the flag from its frame, removed it from the backing and wrapped it for travel to New Orleans.”
Cumins delivered the flag back to Memorial Hall on Oct. 7. The museum will conduct fund raising for its conservation and eventual display.
The Memorial Hall staff is overjoyed at having the flag back home. “Confederate Memorial Hall wishes to thank the FBI Richmond unit, specifically Special Agent Adam Pierce, in recovering the flag,” Ricci said.
Historian Legendre said each flag in the collection has a story. “The 14th’s flag belonged to the over 1,000 men who followed it into battle and suffered the loss of many of their friends under its folds. Less than 30 remained at Appomattox.”
The 14th Louisiana flag is a rare example of a first wool bunting flag first made by the Richmond Depot in May or June 1862. Based on depot records, only about 50 of them were made. Memorial Hall has another example of this type of flag, that of St. Paul’s Battalion, the 7th Louisiana Battalion.
Many of the men who made up the 14th Louisiana Infantry were of Polish descent, reflective of the many nationalities that made up the citizens of the Crescent City. The unit first mustered in June 1861 as the 1st Regiment, Polish Brigade and was received into Confederate service in August 1861. The regiment spent its entire war career with the Army of Northern Virginia.
The 14th’s flag was probably baptized in fire at Seven Pines or the Seven Days campaign. At Gaines’ Mill, two color bearers died and others were wounded bearing the banner up the slopes. The flag remained in regimental service until Gettysburg, where color bearer Frederick Sontag was captured with the flag.
Rather than give it up, Sontag hid the flag in his clothing, returning it to his regiment after his exchange from prison. The 14th Louisiana requisitioned a new flag to replace Sontag’s banner and they followed that flag until Appomattox in 1865.
Despite its replacement by necessity, the tattered first bunting flag remained special in the hearts of the 14th’s veterans. It was given to a young lady for safekeeping after the war.
In 1889 she turned the flag over to former regimental colonel David Zable, who, in turn, gave it to the Army of Northern Virginia Association veterans’ organization in New Orleans.
The veterans carried it to many postwar reunions from Tennessee to Texas. When Confederate president Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans in December 1889, the banner graced his coffin. It is said to be the last flag he touched. The association gave the flag to the museum.
According to the museum, at least 11 men were killed or wounded while carrying the flag. A postwar memoir said that no man who carried it in battle escaped unhurt.
Donations for conservation of the 14th Louisiana’s flag may be sent to Memorial Hall Foundation, 929 Camp St., New Orleans, LA 70130 or given by credit card at (504)523-4522.