What can a flag tell us about the people who marched behind it? We recently rediscovered these regimental flags from the Library’s online collections and were struck by the vivid imagery and mottoes. We did a little research on the flags – and the artist behind them – and decided to highlight them during African American History Month in February.
Although few people today recognize the name and work of David Bustill Bowser, this cousin to Frederick Douglass was fairly prominent and well known during the mid-nineteenth century. He produced portraits of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln as well as a number of regimental flags. Only a few of the flags have survived.
The style of these regimental flags might be strange to students, so invite them to study one closely before looking at the whole set. Direct them to look closely at the imagery. Select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Prints and Photographs. You might ask:
- What do you notice first?
- Why do you think this image was made?
- Who do you think was the audience for this image?
After students have taken a deep look at one image, introduce the other images, and allow time for them to analyze and compare.
Focus attention on the text on each flag. Students might notice that one flag bears the motto “Sic semper tyrannis;” some might recall that John Wilkes Booth is said to have yelled that phrase, the motto of Virginia, when he shot Abraham Lincoln. What message do the words and images together convey? What theme do students see in the flags? Why do they think that was an important message at the time?
To situate the regimental flags in historical context, student may learn more about African American soldiers during the Civil War. Two documents from the papers of Frederick Douglass offer entry points.
- Address at a Meeting for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments offers published text of speeches delivered in Philadelphia on July 6, 1863. Frederick Douglass was one of the featured speakers (see pages 5-7).
- “Why a Colored Man Should Enlist” is the manuscript of essay published April, 1863.
In each, Douglass traces a number of arguments about why African Americans might not want to, but should, enlist. Ask students to identify as many arguments as they can. How do the arguments in each document compare?
What did your students wonder about when they examined the pictures of these flags? What did they learn from studying the flags? Share your teaching experiences in the comments!