34 Star Civil War Flag Made For Commodore Stephen Decatur

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34 star American national flag, handed down through the Decatur/Storer family, made in the period when Commodore Stephen Decatur (1815-1876) and Admiral George Washington Storer (1789-1864) were prominent, career naval officers.

A name, written in a dip pen along the hoist binding, reads "Mrs. A. P. Parsons". This would correspond to Stephen Decatur’s sister, Anna Pine Decatur, born 1812 in New Jersey. Anna married a man by the name of William H. Parsons in NY in 1854. It seems very likely that it is her name on the flag, which suggests that it belonged to Decatur. Admiral Storer retired from service in 1861, the opening year of the Civil War and the same year in which the 34th star was added, which also suggests Decatur provenance. Anna outlived all her siblings by approximately 20 years and died in 1896, which would explain how she came into possession of the flag, if she did not, in fact, produce it herself.

Stephen Decatur enlisted in the Navy in 1829. He achieved the rank of Commander in 1861, Captain in 1867, and Commodore in 1869. He was the namesake nephew of Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr. (1779-1820), one of the most memorable figures in American Naval history. The elder Decatur is most remembered for his expedition into the harbor of Tripoli for the purpose of burning the captured U.S. frigate “Philadelphia” in the 1st Barbery Wars (1804-05), an act which earned him a Captain’s commission and a sword of honor from Congress. In the War of 1812, he captained the “United States” and gained further recognition for capturing the H.M.S. “Macedonian”. And in 1815, he launched a successful attack on the corsairs of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli in the Mediterranean Sea, at which time he captured the captain of the Barbary pirates, an act which brought about the end of the 2nd Barbary War with America. Andrew Jackson referred to this last act as the most recklessly daring of any so far attempted by an American Naval officer.

Note how the stars are laid out in an unusually haphazard arrangement. While the configuration may have been set forth column-by-column, it is puzzling to speculate why the maker didn’t decide to line up the first 6 groups of 5 stars both horizontally and vertically into a rectilinear pattern. Even if he/she had done so, the 4 remaining stars in what would have comprised the last column is significantly off-center. Whatever the reason may have been, ill light or poor skill, the result is at the same time peculiar and whimsical, with drunken paths of stars meandering across the navy blue canton. When combined with the fact that the stars point in various directions on their vertical axis, these features lend a nice folk quality to the flag's design.

Construction: The canton is pieced from two lengths of blue wool bunting that have been joined with treadle stitching. The red and white stripes are also made of wool bunting and are pieced in the same manner. The wool has an especially early appearance because its strands vary in width and the weave is atypically loose compared to that which is often seen in flags of the Civil War period. The stars are made of cotton and are double-appliquéd, meaning that they are sewn to both sides of the canton. These are appliquéd with treadle stitching and in a pattern that crisscrosses the body of each star. Treadle-sewn stars are unusual in this period. The sewing machine had been mass-marketed by Singer in 1855 and by the outbreak of the Civil War, just 6 years later, was used in the piecing of most stripes on American flags. But seamstresses still found it easier to hand-sew stars, not yet having mastered the skill of turning the fabric to appliqué them to the canton while pumping the treadle mechanism. There is a cotton header with two hand-sewn, whip-stitched grommets for hoisting. While all of these traits would typically suggest that the flag was made in a cottage industry setting, the Decatur family's long naval history would provide easy access to such things as wool bunting and grommets that were not otherwise readily available for private consumption.

Kansas was admitted into the Union as the 34th state on January 29th, 1861, about 2½ months before the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter that marked the beginning of the Civil War. The 34th star was officially added on July 4th of that year, but most flag makers would have added a 34th star with the addition of Kansas in January. The star count remained official until July 4th, 1863, and 34 star flags would have been produced until the addition of West Virginia in June of that year.

Mounting: The flag was hand-stitched to 100% silk organza for support on every seam and throughout the star field. It was then hand-stitched to 100% cotton twill, black in color, which was washed to reduce excess dye. An acid-free agent was added to the wash to further set the dye and the fabric was heat-treated for the same purpose. The mount was placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The front is U.V. protective acrylic.
Place of Origin
United States
Date of Manufacture
19th Century
See Item Description.
Dealer Location
York County, PA
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1stdibs seller since 2008
Located in York County, PA