Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Iron Uniform

It's been an interesting Flag Day.

Today, I covered a story as interesting as it is significant to American History. And in covering this story, which started several weeks ago, it led to a nostalgic look back at my own family history.

Four Revolutionary Battle Flags under the ownership of a British family for more than 225 years were sold at auction at Sothebys here in New York. The british officer who captured the flags at the Battle of Pound Ridge in New York in 1779 and at the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina in 1780 passed them down through six generations of his family until the current man, his great great great great nephew, realized that they are the only examples of the "Stars and Stripes" that exist in the world today, and decided they were too valubale to hang on his wall, not to mention not easy to insure.

So when I started covering this story, it made me look back on the items of my family. My own family history.

Urban Fredrick Farabaugh, U.S. Army 1918

For years, I remembered that my grandparents had my Great-Grandfathers (Urban Farabaugh) World War I uniform in the attic of their house in Pittsburgh. It was in a cedar chest, and I distinctly remember that cedar smell when I would take a peek at the uniform. It was a perfectly preserved wool tunic and pants along with the famous Doughboy leggings and his heavy metal helmet. There were red Keystone patches on the arm and a red Keystone on the helmet (he was from Pennsylvania, and so he served in the Pennsylvania regiment) and it became something I took great interest in. But it was more than just a uniform.

Urban Farabaugh, post war 1919
My Great Grandfather is a man I never met. He died decades before I was born. But I am connected to him in a way few people can be. You see, he did what few people did after the "war to end all wars." He wrote about his experiences. Actually, he did what even fewer did. On February 11, 1920, he sat down at a desk with the Pittsburgh Water Heater Company, his employer, and typed out a narrative almost 15 pages long about his experiences in the trenches of the First World War in France. As a result, I know a man I never met.

Urban (left) somewhere in France, 1918-1919

An interesting point here is the man only saw active combat for exactly 24 hours. As a combat medic with the 109th Ambulance company of the 103rd Sanitary Train (all part of the 28th "Keystone", or "Iron" Division) he was called to the front on November 10, 1918. The truce was called on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of the 18th year... November 11, 1918. This is why we celebrate veterans day as a national holiday on this date.

He did however, see enough of the war. Trench warfare, aerial dogfights, wounded, dead, and dying men. For the next year he would meet the Germans they had fought in that war as part of the occupation force. And it's all in his type written account.
But the uniform itself was a tangible piece of that written family history. I had heard a few years ago that my Grandmother had donated the uniform to the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg Pennsylvania. In covering the story about these Revolutionary War Battle Flags, I was curious to see where my Grandfathers war trophy had wound up. I called the museum. By the end of the week I had called several museums, and all of them had news I had never hoped to hear. There is no record of a uniform ever donated to any of the musuems related to military history in the state of Pennsylvania in my great grandfathers name.

Pennsylvania Military Museum, Boalsburg Pennsylvania

I talked to curator after curator only to be disappointed at every turn.
While I haven't given up yet, I hold little hope of ever finding them. My grandmother insists she mailed them to the museum at Boalsburg, but the folks there never recieved it if she did, or never recorded it.

103rd Medical Battallion & Regiment Monument

Even so, my family still has the original manuscript written by my Great Grandfather, and I hope to give a copy of it to the musuem in Boalsburg, who indicated they would love to have it as a record of the history of the unit. And I hope to give a copy to the Legacy Project, or to allow the history my Great Grandfather shared with me to be shared with other people just as interested in the past as I am.

And there is a lesson I learned here. It's to save my stuff as well. I still have the uniforms I wore on active duty in the Air Force. Several times I've though about donating them or throwing them away. And I've also kept my kevlar vest and chemical weapon suit with gas mask that I wore during the Iraqi Scud missile attack near our encampment in Kuwait during the 2003 Iraq war. Yeah, they take up space, and might even be able to grab a few bucks on EBay. But they do mean something to me, and as nostalgic as I am sometimes, they are only as valuable to me. And what would someone say to the great grandchild of mine who reads this blog some eighty years from now and wonders... where did that uniform and gas mask go?

VOANEWS: Oldest American Flag up for auction at Sothebys

June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. Sotheby's auction house in New York marked the date this year with a unique offering. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports on how the holiday and history intersect with one family's private collection of flags now heading to the auction block. The flags could fetch as much as $10 million.

The flags were the symbols of an American nation in its infancy -- symbols currently under the care of Sotheby's vice chairman, David Redden. "It's ironic to think that the most important item on the battlefield wasn't a sword, wasn't a musket, wasn't a cannon, it was the colors."

To the country they represented, they were more than just simple colors. It was in a battle fought more than two centuries ago during America's War of Independence that the story of four flags began. Revolutionary War re-enactor and retired U.S. Army Colonel James Johnson describes the significance a flag carried during the early days of the American military. "The flag was very heavily protected. It was not something you wanted captured. It brought dishonor to your regiment,” he said. “People rallied around that flag in battle."

One such unit was the regally uniformed Second Continental Light Dragoons.
They marched into battle on July 2, 1779 north of New York City to fight British and Loyalist forces at Pound Ridge. While there was no clear victor in the battle, the Dragoons did lose their regimental colors to Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, an infamous British officer. Johnson said, "Banastre Tarleton was probably one of the best British cavalrymen. He gained a reputation probably for propaganda purposes, probably by us [revolutionaries], but a reputation he gained as being a ruthless commander."

Tarleton would capture three more flags, defeating the Americans in 1780 at the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina. A painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds on display at the National Gallery in London shows Tarleton with those three flags at his feet.

After Tarleton died in 1833, the flags made their way from the walls of one Tarleton family home to another and have finally appeared at Sotheby's in New York some 226 years later.

While the family knew the flags were special, Sotheby's considers this collection a discovery.

The flag Tarleton captured at Pound Ridge is one of the first to display the 13 red and white stripes of the American colonies. Another he captured in South Carolina is one of the first to display 13 five-pointed stars on a field of blue. Together, they are variations of the American flag that came to be known as the ‘Stars and Stripes.’

Redden underscores the significance. “We know the flags, three of them, were in Philadelphia in 1778, and described in this description as new. If they were new in 1778, then they almost were certainly made in Philadelphia, because Philadelphia had a thriving flag making industry. One of the principal flag makers in Philadelphia in 1778 was none other than Betsy Ross. So one can speculate that one of the makers of the three flags in South Carolina was Betsy Ross.”

This once private collection of family heirlooms soon heads to public auction at Sothebys. Reddon says the auction house and the family are committed to selling the flags to a responsible buyer. Ultimately, they hope the American public will have a chance to view these rare, unique, and well-preserved symbols of the founding of a nation.