Painting a Replica Civil War Flag for the Espy Post

photo of the st. clair guards replica flag

The St. Clair Guards replica flag in progress.

I love it when I get an unusual assignment that requires skills I don’t get to use every day.

One of the artifacts of the Capt. Thos. Espy Post at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall is the militia flag of the St. Clair Guards, of which Espy himself was the captain. He had had the original silk flag commissioned for his corps in 1860, according to a note in the 1911 Catalogue of Relics for the Espy Post.

Old signs and artifacts and graphic designs, design elements and fonts from eras past fascinate me, and I study and collect things whenever possible, using them as references. I had photographed this flag in January before it was packed away again for safekeeping so we’d at least have a documentation of it. Knowing this flag was sewn and painted 150 years ago by another tradesperson enthralled me as I studied the lettering style, imagining a long-bristled horsehair brush with an oak or poplar handle, real gold leaf paint, and the hand of another human being deftly and confidently lettering the insignia with a personal flair and the stars without benefit of any of my modern conveniences—electric lights, stores with materials ready for purchase, tracing paper, colored pencils, and all the other products I would later use to replicate the lettering, then to actually paint it onto the banner. I never cease to respect my predecessors in the communication trades I practice today.

The original flag stayed with the unit, though it wasn’t permitted to be used by the unit during the Civil War because only regulation flags, issued by the federal government, could be carried into battle. The flag was then returned to the Espy family, who in turn transferred it to the newly-opened Espy Post at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in 1907.

photo of the original espy flag

The original St. Clair Guards militia flag.

The flag was displayed in one of the cases in the room, but eventually was packed away with all the relics when the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves began caring for the room. Dust and water had seeped into the case, damaging the delicate silk. When it came time for the Espy Post’s renovation, the estimate to restore the tattered flag was about $7,000, something to consider, but perhaps only for the future.

But a Post can’t be without its flag, so a replica flag was commissioned to be sewn of silks, and similar fringe to be added to three sides as per the original.

Painted on the flag in gold leaf paint was the name of the corps, “St. Clair Guards”, and a field of 34 stars in the blue area. This was my part of the project.

Many years ago, “before everyone went digital”, I was a freelance sign painter in addition to my day job as a graphic designer; I also sewed nylon and felt banners in those days. I painted plenty of freestanding signs, store signs, wood panels for trucks plus both indoor and outdoor banners. Twenty-five years later, I still have a few cans of the special sign-lettering paints, including Kemp Permagild, the exterior gold-tone paint that mimics gold leaf at a much lower cost and without the concern of tarnishing. For some reason, in the late 80s, gold lettering was “in” and I used this paint repeatedly.

But this is a replica flag, and I needed to copy off of the old tattered flag these two elements and reproduce them as closely as possible, including studying and copying out a very personal lettering style by the original painter.

close-up of flag lettering

A close-up of the flag's lettering, and the condition of certain areas.

The Espy Post will be open all day on Saturday, December 27, 2010 to welcome everyone “Home for the Holidays” and you’ll be able to see all the available artifacts of the Post. In addition, the Post is open every Saturday from 11:00 to 3:00 for docent tours.

I am not a Civil War enthusiast—my interest is in historical artifacts—but I duly respect the importance of this flag to those it served and all the other artifacts in the Espy Post. “It is difficult for present day Americans to understand the veneration Civil War soldiers felt for their flags, at times risking their lives to fiercely defend it. Civil War flags were more than a functional means of communication during the chaos of battle—flags represented the heart and soul of the unit,” this from Diane Klinefelter, Library Director, in her article about the flag in the current newsletter. Read more in the Winter 2010 issue of the ACFL&MH Newsletter.

You can read about the Catalogue of Relics in the Summer 2010 issue of the ACFL&MH Newsletter.

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