Day Trips

The exhibit of flags in Houston reminds us of what it took to come this far.

Threadbare reminders
Threadbare reminders (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Texas flags exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is an unusual and thought-provoking presentation of historic artifacts. Had some of these banners not been restored for this showing, they might have been completely lost in a few short years.

It has been a long journey from battlefield to art gallery for these sacred pieces of cloth. Among the oldest of the flags are four survivors of the Battle of San Jacinto, three from Mexican battalions. Forensic tests have shown that one, the Guerrero Battalion Mexican Tricolor Battle Flag, was extensively stained with blood. The newest flags flew during World War II, including the Battle Ensign from the USS Texas.

In 1997, John Nau, chairman of the Texas Historical Commission, found several of the flags deteriorating in storage at the Texas State Library and Archives. "Some were not much more than a pile of lint," said Lawrence Oaks, THC director, at a presentation in Houston before the exhibit opened on January 13.

Nau enlisted the help of former Houston congressman Mike Andrews and the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission to begin a conservation effort that was the last chance for many of the state's most historic banners. Soon the Houston museum was committed to a major exhibition, and Dr. Robert Maberry, professor of history at Texas Christian University, was working on an exhaustive background study.

The Hood's Texas Brigade flag, or "Mrs. Wigfall's Wedding Dress," illustrates the compelling stories behind the banners and the fragile condition that many are in today, according to Dr. Maberry, who is a licensed dentist as well as the foremost authority on Texas flags.

The flag was presented to the brigade of Texas infantry and their first commander, Louis T. Wigfall, by Jefferson Davis at ceremonies in Richmond, Va., in 1861. It is possible that the white parts were actually cut from Mrs. Wigfall's wedding dress, Maberry says.

The red, white, and blue Lone Star banner saw service at the battles of Richmond, Seven Pines, and Etham's Landing. At Gaines Mill (also referred to as Gaines Farm) it was the first flag to the summit in the battle. The names of the fights were painted on the flag as honors. At the Battle of Antietam eight standard bearers fell carrying the 47-by-47-inch flag, Maberry says. Hood's Brigade, made up of men and boys from Central Texas and the Houston area, helped save General Lee's army that day, but suffered 82% casualties.

The flag was ultimately captured and paraded around the North as a symbol of the Confederate defeat. It was later sent to the War Department where it languished in a storage room until it was returned to Texas in 1905. The flag led the parade in 1910 to dedicate Hood's Brigade monument on the Capitol grounds. Of the more than 4,000 men who served in Hood's Brigade, only 600 survived to the end of the war.

But the story of the flag doesn't stop there. After hanging in the Senate chamber for a decade, it was sent to the state library for preservation. Conservation techniques in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties did more harm than good, Maberry says. In places the cloth has deteriorated to a few strands of thread, and the colors completely faded.

This rare assembly of historic flags, some of which have not been displayed in public for more than 100 years, covers a wide range of Texas history. The exhibit is heavy with Civil War flags because they were widely used as rallying symbols during that period. There also is a flag from James K. Polk's campaign for president in 1844, banners from the Buffalo Soldiers, and from World War I. A flag from Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War returns to Texas for the first time since it left San Antonio for the battlefields. A homemade Stars and Stripes flew in front of the Stiles house when Union troops entered Austin.

The flags are owned by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, United Daughters of the Confederacy, the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry, and other historical institutions.

"Texas Flags: 1836-1945" is a unique opportunity to see 32 flags from Texas' past in one place through April 28. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is at 1001 Bissonnet. Admission is $5 for adults, and $2.50 for children. Admission is free on Thursdays courtesy of Shell Oil company. Free admission is granted to children with a library card on Saturdays and Sundays and at all times during the exhibit for students in the seventh grade studying Texas history. For more information, call 713/639-7300, or go to www.mfah.org.

556th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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