A Flag Bears Witness - Don't Give Up The Ship

By Paulette Dininny
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVIII, Number 4 - Fall 2012

The iconic flag carried by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry during his stirring victory at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, was photographed after the treatment made by Amelia Fowler in 1912 was removed. NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF PARKS, RECREATION AND HISTORIC PRESERVATION

A mere five words stitched on a flag in 1813 in a tiny frontier village produced one of the most enduring symbols in United States history. Two hundred years later those few words - Don't Give Up The Ship - have become a stirring, unofficial motto of the U.S. Navy; a rallying cry; and a flag flown from masts of sailboats, yachts, tall ships, and more. The details of the War of 1812, the Battle of Lake Erie, and Oliver Hazard Perry's battle flag may be vague to many, but the impact of those words echoes through United States naval history and reverberate in men and women who continue to be inspired by the phrase.

Two hundred years ago, on June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed An Act Declaring War between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Dependencies Thereof and the United States of America and Their Territories, which began the War of 1812. The causes of the war, also known as America's Second War of Independence and Mr. Madison's War, included impressment of American sailors into service on British ships and blockading United States ports to hinder foreign trade and commerce. In addition, the British supported Native American raids on American settlers to prevent westward expansion.

Against this backdrop the United States declared war on Great Britain, and on September 10, 1813, Lake Erie was the site of a stunning defeat of the Royal Navy by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1785–1819). The victory cut off British and Indians from their supply bases in the west. The scene aboard Perry's flagship Lawrence off Put-in-Bay at the western end of Lake Erie is described by John Miller, author of A Twentieth Century History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, published in 1909 by the Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago. "Captain Perry having called the crew about him elevated the burgee, exclaiming, 'My brave lads, this flag contains the last words of Captain Lawrence! Shall I hoist it?' 'Ay, ay, ay, sir!' resounded from every voice on the ship, and the flag was swayed to the main-royal masthead. As the flag unfurled and became visible to other crews, hearty and enthusiastic cheers responded through the line."

The simple flag bore the words spoken by Captain James Lawrence (1781–1813), a friend and colleague of Perry's who was mortally wounded as he commanded the frigate USS Chesapeake in a single-ship action against the HMS Shannon in early June 1813. Lawrence is best known for his dying command, "Don't give up the ship." Perry named his flagship for him and invoked his last words on his personal battle flag. A short time later the flag was raised and the battle commenced. The Lawrence was heavily damaged, forcing Perry to transfer to a sister ship, the Niagara, which he fought to victory. Seaman Hosea Sargent cast the rolled-up personal pennant and the battle flag in his cutter. One of the most famous battle scenes is a painting of Perry standing with the large flag over his shoulder as he was rowed to Niagara. Today the US Brig Niagara and the Erie Maritime Museum are popular attractions along the Pennsylvania Trails of History® administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

The Battle of Lake Erie ended, and the Don't Give Up The Ship flag was about to begin its epic journey through the following two centuries. It's a fascinating story of a valuable artifact that survives today due to the stewardship of guardians of U.S. history - military and civilian caretakers and knowledgeable conservators.

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry
UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY MUSEUM

Before the Battle

The planning and construction of Perry's small fleet had been underway in the village of Erie since the autumn of 1812. It was no small undertaking.

In The Building of Perry's Fleet on Lake Erie 1812–1813, published by PHMC in 1987, Max Rosenberg wrote, "The construction of this tiny fleet upon the waters of Lake Erie would compare in hardship with most projects undertaken by the United States Navy for World War II." Before the war, the population of Erie was about four hundred; it increased by another two hundred with the arrival of workmen. Erie's boundaries were one square mile but the settlement did not come close to that size. It was in this setting that Margaret Forster Stewart (1780–1835), also spelled Steuart, wife of Thomas Stewart (1776–1848) and sister of prominent local official Colonel Thomas Forster (1762–1836), undertook the making of a flag.

The flag was approved by Perry and arranged for by Purser Samuel Hambleton. Stewart began work about the time of the principal ships' christening. Sewing was done in July 1813 in Stewart's spacious log house, the largest of its type in Erie, on Fourth Street between French and Holland Streets; but it no longer exists. Helping were Stewart's three daughters, her sister Dorcas Forster Bell and her two daughters, and a cousin. One account contends the flag was made in secret, its existence known only to the women and the officers involved, although another story tells of visits of officers to the Stewart home in the evening to check progress and socialize with the young women sewing. The flag never contained an apostrophe in the word "Don't," although it has been - and continues to be - routinely inserted.

Details either lost or never recorded include the color of the flag material, where it was purchased, its cost, and other historical facts. Secondary accounts range from the fanciful and romantic to scanty facts accepted as historic record.

Following the transfer of Perry and his flag from the heavily damaged Lawrence during the battle, the subject of whether it was raised on the Niagara is open to conjecture. Some accounts contend it was; others are silent. Perry biographer David Curtis Skaggs addresses the lingering controversy in Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage and Patriotism in the Early U.S. Navy. Some accounts have Perry plugging a hole in the cutter with the flag as he crossed to the relief flagship. Another contends Perry's second in command, Jesse Duncan Elliott, said his purser picked the flag out of the water and yet another claimed it was found on the bloodied deck of the Lawrence.

In a footnote Skaggs wrote, "The preponderance of evidence suggests Perry carried the flag with him and had it raised on the Niagara shortly after his arrival. As commodore, Perry certainly wanted this identification of his location known to other vessels." The basis of conflicting versions is probably the result of Perry's and Elliott's conduct during the battle, a subject best left for researchers and historians. "On the morning of Saturday, 11 September," Skaggs wrote, "Perry transferred his flag to the Aerial. That pilot boat acted as his flagship for the remainder of his service on the lake."

A circa 1814 engraving depicting American and British warships engaged in battle on September 10, 1813. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Lieutenant Dulaney Forrest later took the captured British flags and likely the Don't Give Up The Ship flag to General William Henry Harrison and then to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C. Congress passed a law the following year requiring the Navy secretary to collect all flags taken by the service from enemies. In 1849 President James K. Polk ordered trophy flags be held for care and use with the Superintendent of the Naval School at Annapolis, now the United States Naval Academy.

Where exactly and under what conditions the flags were kept between their arrival in the nation's capital and their ultimate destination in Annapolis in 1849 is unclear. In the early nineteenth century the Navy Department was headquartered in a building immediately to the west of the White House. After the British burned Washington in August 1814, brick buildings housing the Departments of War and Navy were erected on the site. The trophy flags may have been kept at the rebuilt Navy offices until they were sent to the Naval Academy.

No shipping list exists for the transfer, but a list of flags appears on June 13, 1849, in the Niles' National Register published by Hezekiah Niles in Philadelphia and regarded at the time as an authoritative source of information on legal and legislative issues, and respected for its reliability and comprehensiveness. Included in the listing were Perry's battle flag and captured British flags.

The Next Chapter

Opportunities to see the famous flag outside the Naval Academy were few and far between. Potential threats during the American Civil War, however, prompted officials to temporarily move the school to Newport, Rhode Island. The flag was displayed in the lobby of the old Atlantic Hotel, which was used by the academy to house a mess hall, administrative offices, classrooms, and quarters for upperclassmen. (Underclassmen were assigned classes and berths aboard the USS Constitution.)

The flag's next destination was New York City in April 1864 for display at the Metropolitan Fair, one of a series of fundraisers held by women for the benefit of Union soldiers. According to A Record of the Metropolitan Fair in Aid of the United States Sanitary Commission, published in 1867, Perry's flag hung "between the two posts nearest the entrance." The book also noted, "Attached to this flag is the belt of the gallant Lawrence, taken from him after his fatal wound."

Amelia Fowler and assistants work on the Star Spangled Banner in 1914, two years after she treated the Don't Give Up The Ship flag. SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

By 1865 the Naval Academy had returned to Annapolis where the flag was hung by its top edge over the balcony in the old chapel which had been converted to the Naval School Lyceum, a museum, and gunnery-room. A rebuilding of the academy in 1912, combined with the centennial of the War of 1812, prompted a thorough examination of the Navy's flag collection. In need of conservation, Perry's flag was taken to Capitol Hill where it was shown to members of the House of Representatives to emphasize its historical value and to dramatically illustrate its deteriorating condition. Congress appropriated $30,000 for treatment and new exhibit cases.

Amelia Fowler of Boston, an embroidery teacher and well-known flag restorer, was commissioned to conduct the work on Perry's flag in 1912. Attesting to her respected reputation, the following year she and her staff worked on the Star Spangled Banner. The next time the battle flag was displayed outside Annapolis was in 1913 when the Secretary of the Navy approved a request by the Toledo Art Museum in Ohio to include it in a Perry centennial exhibition.

After Fowler's treatment the flag was displayed in a case in the ceiling of the new auditorium in Mahan Hall, but the exact location is unknown. A gap in historic record surrounds this site since no photographs have been found. Should an authentic photograph surface of the flag appearing in this location, a copy would be appreciated by the Naval Academy for its museum files.

A copy of a letter to Thomas L. Austin, curator of the Erie Public Museum in 1913, from the officer in charge of academy buildings and grounds is revealing: "It will be impossible to give you the data requested in your letter, as The Perry Flag has been placed in the ceiling of the Auditorium . . . to do which it was necessary to build a large amount of scaffolding, and since this scaffolding has been removed I have no means of taking the measures."

In 1924 the flag was folded to fit in a case and installed in Memorial Hall inside the entrance to Bancroft Hall. The awe-inspiring space honors graduates who lost their lives while serving on active duty.

William Henry Powell (1823–1879) created Battle of Lake Erie in 1873, the last of the historical paintings commissioned for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Powell depicted Perry making his way in a rowboat through enemy fire from the severely damaged Lawrence to the Niagara. UNITED STATES SENATE

If lacking all details and answers sought by researchers and curatorial staff, more complete records, correspondence, and receipts showing transfers for temporary loans are held in academy files in the early twentieth century. The battle flag was permitted to leave the academy again in 1948 for an exhibition entitled Your Navy: Its Contribution to America from Colonial Days to World Leadership mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. About that time concern was expressed in professional circles and among some Navy officers about the damaging effect of light on the flag. Correspondence in academy files records that William F. Davidson, head of the American Department at M. Knoedler and Company in New York City, one of the country's oldest and most prestigious art galleries until it closed last year, suggested a remedy. "I think that possibly the non-reflecting plate glass recently invented and now being manufactured by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company would do the trick," Davidson wrote. No further discussion or action was mentioned, however.

Following its exhibit at the Metropolitan, the flag was returned to its hallowed place in Memorial Hall. It was placed on a layer of cotton batting and a heavy cotton backing fabric in about 1958. After the layers were stitched together its texture appeared to be quilted. The display case was mounted in what had been a window in an exterior wall. While subject to thermal changes, the flag remained there until 2002 when it was removed for conservation treatment. A replica flag, donated by Robert F. Sumrall, former curator of the academy's collection of ship models, now occupies the place where the original flag had been displayed for decades.

The original Don't Give Up The Ship flag was reinstalled at the Naval Academy in summer 2009. This time was different, however. It had undergone thorough examination and painstaking conservation before it was relocated to the newly renovated museum in Preble Hall.

Questions Answered

Textile conservator Deborah Lee Trupin of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation's Bureau of Historic Sites at Peebles Island, Waterford, New York, was selected by academy officials to examine, stabilize, and preserve Perry's flag. Trupin and her team embarked on an arduous - and exciting - pursuit they hoped would answer many questions.

Among information sought was the original color of the flag. Was it blue, black, brown, or even red as one account reports? How many different fabrics were there and what were they?

Following its painstaking conservation, the famous flag was returned to the United States Naval Academy where it is on exhibit in Preble Hall. NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF PARKS, RECREATION AND HISTORIC PRESERVATION

Trupin discovered the flag, measuring approximately eight by ten feet, is not made of bunting, a light-weight wool cloth used for making flags, but rather a "fairly fine brown wool fabric that looks more like a fine dress fabric." But was it? The letters are cotton and are appliqued to each side.

Close examination of the flag showed that it had at least two fairly early repair campaigns. The first repairs seemed to be a series of patches in bunting-like fabric. The next repair was most likely made by Annapolis sailmaker Henry T. Stocker in 1864. Another puzzle presented itself in the blue wool bunting stitched to one side of the flag, covering all of the brown fabric and exposing only the letters. The original flag fabric could be seen at the edges of some letters which raised yet another question: Why was the blue overlay used on brown wool fabric?

Trupin discovered the condition of the silk thread used in applying the blue fabric and the stitching pattern are similar to those used in the late nineteenth century for other "restoration" treatments. No records have been found explaining when or why the fabric was applied.

The first documented early treatment, conducted by Fowler in 1912, offers no clues about the blue bunting. She and her staff had sewn the flag to a heavy linen fabric in a grid of interlocking buttonhole stitches with heavy linen thread. The blue fabric was left in place. At one time, perhaps in the late twentieth century, someone had painted over some faded Fowler stitches with a water-soluble dark blue paint which penetrated the flag at the same time.

During the most recent conservation work fibers of the flag were sent to Ina Vanden Berghe of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels, Belgium, for dye analysis. Conservators hoped this might show the presence of a compound in indigo, the blue dye used in the early nineteenth century. When nothing was present, Vanden Berghe suggested the flag fabric may have been woven from naturally brown wool.

The Peebles Island conservators painstakingly removed thousands of Fowler stitches and thread which revealed numerous small losses and one large loss in the flag's center. Despite being dry and partly friable (or easily broken up), the fabric was somewhat flexible. The cotton letters had serious damage from the extensive earlier stitching and some were almost separated from the ground fabric. A different analysis to test fiber strength showed a serious loss indicating the need for a proper environment for any future display.

A reproduction of the flag has been installed in the recently restored Memorial Hall of Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY

The U.S. Naval Academy Museum staff decided to display the flag in its "actual" state without any compensation for losses and with all the early repairs in place. It became necessary to approach treatment in phases as conservators learned more with each step of the treatment. They also realized that testing was needed to evaluate cleaning options. The academy granted permission for them to remove Fowler's treatment and the blue overlay fabric to enable further investigation.

Trupin characterizes the work as "nerve-wracking, exciting, and informative." The side hidden by the Fowler canvas was seen for the first time since 1912, confirming a second set of letters and that the flag was not two layers of cloth sewn together back to back as some had speculated. The letters were not exact copies of those on the side that had been exposed. Fortunately, the original ground fabric was intact and in better condition than all had expected.

"The differences in the letters and their placement gave a human touch to the flag; one could imagine Mrs. Steuart and her family stitching the flag under less-than-ideal conditions," wrote Trupin in "A Tale of Two Flags: How History of Treatment and Ownership Affected Conservation Treatment of Two Early 19th-Century American Flags" which appeared in Restauro: Forum für Restauratoren, Konservatoren und Denkmalpfleger, an international professional publication, in 2009.

Treatment Methods

Once past the initial revelations about the storied flag, the treatment methods are fascinating and not widely known outside the conservation field. The fabric was gently vacuumed. Appropriate cleaning options were tested. Immersion wet cleaning was selected as it would help raise the pH level and reduce distortions caused by creases and the stitches made by Fowler.

The Peebles Island conservators designed a special support system of stretched screening so the fabric would not be subject to "swimming," or excessive movement. The flag was wet-cleaned in December 2004 in a tank specifically made to accommodate it. It was rinsed with filtered, softened water and then sponged through the screening with a nonionic detergent mixture. Trupin reported the detergent was carefully hosed off the flag as sump pumps removed the dirty water and detergent. The tank was refilled with clean water and the process begun again. Rinsing continued until there was only an insignificant amount of detergent residue. After wet-cleaning, the flag was covered with drying cloths to prevent lines forming as the flag dried. After the flag had dried Trupin and her staff noted the pH level was higher; the flag was noticeably brighter, and holes and puckering from the Fowler work had disappeared. The blue overlay cloth was cleaned two weeks later using the same method.

Removal of soil revealed that considerable fading had occurred in the past forty years. Naval Academy staff and conservators agreed the flag would be exposed with the obverse (the hoist on viewer's left) facing out. The Fowler lining that had covered the obverse would not be replaced but no other repairs would be removed. The flag would lie on the blue overlay fabric that would be visible in areas of loss.

A neutral beige Pima cotton (an extremely soft, durable, and absorbent type of cotton named after the Pima Indians who first cultivated the plant in the United States) was used for the mounting fabric with the blue overlay placed on it. The blue overlay was stitched to the mounting fabric only around the cut-outs for the letters and the flag was then placed on top of the blue overlay. The flag was stitched to the mounting fabric. Where possible no stitching was done through either set of letters.

An aluminum honeycomb panel with a sealed wood perimeter was covered with polyester and when the flag was positioned on the mount, the mounting fabric was stapled to the back. Trupin and museum staff watched intently as the flag was placed on an A-frame support, wheeled into its new glass case, and locked. Lighting and environment controls installed in Preble Hall were in keeping with sound conservation practices.

The reproduction of Perry's Don't Give Up The Ship flag is on view in Memorial Hall while the original is preserved for generations of future midshipmen and the public to see.

Questions Unanswered

Although the original color appears to have been determined by the most recent conservation treatment and analysis, skepticism remains.

The flag is blue in portraits for which Perry sat and others painted during his lifetime depict the flag as blue. Would he have allowed the color to be misrepresented in those paintings? Why were early repairs using blue and black fabrics retained? Trupin believes the "biggest puzzle of the blue overlay fabric is the choice of color," prompting the question of whether the brown fabric had originally been blue.

Clues to Follow

In the years following wars and conflicts it was not uncommon for souvenir cuttings to be taken from trophy flags. It is known cuttings were taken from the Star Spangled Banner. In fact, the Naval Academy had two souvenir pieces of the flag and repatriated them. About a dozen pieces were returned. Similar losses to the Don't Give Up The Ship flag are visible. The Smithsonian Institution has several cuttings in its collection, but has neither examined nor had them analyzed. In 2012 an antiques dealer visited the academy with dark fabric bearing a label indicating it had been cut from Perry's flag. Was it? The question begs an answer.

Will the next chapter be to authenticate souvenir cuttings and analyze a small sample to determine whether it does contain the chemical in indigo dye absent from the sample tested in the recent conservation work?

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Asked how the Perry flag is viewed by classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy, Midshipman First Class Kara Yingling, Class of 2012, responded, "It's a rallying cry and inspires us to do more, to not give up, but also it stands for our core values of honor, courage and commitment. It means to get the mission done and don't compromise."

Yingling, a graduate of Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown, Cambria County, graduated from the academy with honors in English; her first Navy assignment will be as a surface warfare officer on a destroyer.

The motto on the flag is used in more lighthearted moments such as during the traditional rivalry of the Army-Navy game. "It's a huge championship and sport is important to us, but beyond that mission is more so," she added. "Memorial Hall is definitely a sanctuary. Many midshipmen go there when they face a big decision. We understand what Lawrence meant in those words."

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To see the original Don't Give Up The Ship flag, visit the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The flag and Perry artifacts are on display in the academy's museum. For more information, visit United States Naval Academy Museum.

Erie is organizing concerts, picnics, lectures, movies, tours, contests, and publications for a bicentennial observance commemorating Oliver Hazard Perry and his victory during the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie in 2012 and 2013. To learn more go to Perry 200.

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Come Aboard!

In addition to visiting ports of call, the Flagship Niagara offers day sails and training programs. erie maritime museum and u.s. brig niagara

When President Thomas Jefferson decreased the size of the United States Navy in 1801, Oliver Hazard Perry was one of only 150 midshipmen retained. Perry enjoyed a history of good fortune which was dubbed Perry Luck. And on September 10, 1813, Perry Luck was apparent.

On his flagship, the Lawrence - named for his friend Captain James Lawrence who died in action several months earlier, on June 4 - every officer was either killed or wounded, except Perry and his younger brother James Alexander Perry (1801–1822). As Perry made his legendary transfer from the Lawrence to the Niagara he miraculously escaped enemy fire. Within fifteen minutes of his taking command of the Niagara, the Battle of Lake Erie ended with the surrender of the British squadron. Commodore Perry not only won the first U.S. Navy fleet action, but defeated and captured an entire British squadron for the first time in Great Britain's history. Perry's victory secured the Northwest Territory, opened supply lines, and lifted the nation's morale.

Visitors to the Erie Maritime Museum, opened by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1998, are introduced to the history of Lake Erie and the pivotal role the Battle of Lake Erie played in the War of 1812. (Although the Treaty of Ghent, signed by the United States on December 24, 1814, ostensibly ended the War of 1812, fighting did not cease until both sides ratified the peace treaty and so the hostilities continued through February 1815.) Interactive and hands-on exhibits, objects and artifacts, and dramatic videos bring the epic battle to life. Exhibits also chronicle the history of the 1843 USS Michigan, renamed the USS Wolverine in 1905, the Navy's first iron-hulled ship, and Erie's three lighthouses and fishing and related industries. The museum features a one-of-a-kind "live fire" display, an orientation film, and a dockside amphitheater. It also offers spectacular views of Presque Isle Bay. When in homeport at the museum the Flagship Niagara is a major attraction.

The US Brig Niagara is a reconstruction of an early nineteenth-century U.S. Navy warship. Six of the nine vessels in Perry's fleet, including the Niagara, were constructed in Erie. Building the squadron was a remarkable feat, given Erie's population of several hundred and its remote location. Shipwrights, blacksmiths, builders, carpenters, and laborers were recruited from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. Daniel Dobbins, a Great Lakes shipmaster living in Erie, was assigned by the Navy to direct construction until experienced boat builders arrived. In February 1813 Great Lakes Naval Commander, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, hired Noah Brown, a New York shipbuilder, to complete the vessels. Brown designed two of the four schooners and the brigs Lawrence and Niagara.

During the summer season the Niagara visits Great Lakes ports of call and visitors interested in day sails are asked to contact the museum in advance for the ship's schedule. Both the museum and the ship are participating in the bicentennial observance entitled "War of 1812: Celebrating 200 Years of Peace."

To plan a visit write: Erie Maritime Museum and the Flagship Niagara, 150 East Front St., Erie, PA 16507; telephone (814) 452-2744.

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Paulette Dininny, a native Pennsylvanian, is a writer and former Washington, D.C. reporter who covered regulatory and legislative issues. Her articles have appeared in national and regional magazines, among them Smithsonian, and newspapers. A resident of Erie, she frequently writes about the Erie Maritime Museum and the Flagship Niagara, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

The editor gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Deborah Lee Trupin, textile conservator, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and J. Scott Harmon, former director, and James Cheevers, associate director and senior curator, of the United States Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis, Maryland, for reviewing this article prior to publication. Special thanks are due to Trupin who generously provided images with which this feature is illustrated.