35 star flag of the USS Kearsarge, used during battle with the CSS Alabama June,1864 and descended in the family of Kearsarge Captain John Ancrum Winslow, plus commendation and photograph (3 items).
The epic naval engagement between the CSS Alabama, the most famous of the Confederate Navy cruisers, and the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France on June 19, 1864, is one of the two most famous single ship versus single ship actions of the American Civil War, the other being the duel of the ironclads CSS Virginia versus the USS Monitor. Both had significant affects on the naval actions of the Civil War and beyond.
The CSS Alabama was built in Birkenhead, England (opposite Liverpool) by John Laird & Sons ship builders under the secret name of Hull 290. She was a three masted screw powered sloop of war completed in May 1862 taking to the seas in late July. Her future captain, Raphael Semmes, a veteran Confederate naval raider, sailed on a different ship and met up with her in the Terciera Islands where she received her crew, armament and tons of coal for her engines. After outfitting, she was commissioned into the Confederate Navy and took to the seas. Throughout her career, the CSS Alabama conducted seven raids around the world against American shipping taking or destroying 65 Union vessels while boarding over 400 others. She put into Cherbourg, France on June 11, 1864 for repairs, a decision which would ultimately decide her fate.
Hunting her was the USS Kearsarge, also a sloop of war that was steam powered, launched in September 1861 and by February 1862 had set sail for Spain. She was under the command of Captain John A. Winslow, also a veteran naval officer, and Semmes' former roommate on the USS Raritan more than a decade earlier. Upon arrival at Gibraltar, the Kearsarge assisted in forcing the Confederates to abandon the raider CSS Sumter, commanded by Raphael Semmes. Once the CSS Alabama had taken to sea, the USS Kearsarge was tasked with searching for her and bringing her to heel, something that took Winslow and his crew across expanses of ocean off of Europe and Africa. Finally, on June 14, 1864, Winslow had found his prey in the French harbor setting the stage for the epic naval battle that would end with the demise of the Confederate raider.
Semmes and the Alabama took to sea to fight her way out of port. Winslow, spying his foe sailing towards him, ordered all his flags to fly. According to an 1868 letter, Winslow, cleared his ship for action and, “set the colors at the gaff and round up to the mastheads without breaking stops.” This placed his main ensign at the stern and the smaller boat and storm flags on top of his three masts which were hoisted unfurled so they would not need to be broken out. Winslow reported that this would give him spare colors for battle in case one or more were shot away. He continued, “the action commenced and continued until the last gun of the “Alabama” was fired, and but one flag (which was at the gaff) flying on board the Kearsarge.” The last shot from the Alabama broke the stop of a flag hoisted to one of his masts and unfurled it meaning that at least one flag was hoisted without ”breaking stops.”
The flag being offered for auction was on board the USS Kearsarge that fateful day and it was undoubtedly one of those hoisted to one of her masts for the battle.
Professionally made, using period sewing techniques, of imported English wool bunting for her canton and striped field and bearing thirty-five white cotton stars, the banner measures 40 ½ inches on the hoist by 79 ½ inches on the fly. Based on the size, this flag is rated a Number 12 Boat Flag according to the 1863 U.S. Navy flag regulations. Boat flags were issued for each of the launches of larger warships, of which the Kearsarge had four. The cotton or linen canvas hoist edge is a hollow sleeve to allow the passing of the knotted rope used to attach the flag to a ship’s halyard for hoisting. The hoist edge bears two markings, one indiscernible and the other bearing the initials “K W.” More details on this flag and more will be found in the accompanying letter written by noted Civil War flag historian Greg Biggs which will transfer to the flag’s new owner.
This flag is exceedingly rare and it is one of only four known surviving flags from the USS Kearsarge. Three of these are in museums today: the flag which flew at the gaff, which has been at the Smithsonian since the Winslow family placed it there in 1870s, and two of which are in the U.S. Navy system. It comes with solid provenance, descending from the Winslow family through his grandson, Eben Eveleth Winslow, an Army Brigadier General. The flag is framed, sewn to a backing and mounted under plexiglass in a 42 1/2" x 81" ebonized frame with brass commemorative plaque. This is the first time any flag from the Kearsarge has ever been offered at auction. We wish to thank Greg Biggs for his assistance in examining and cataloging this flag. This lot will include a copy of a notarized provenance letter from the direct descendant of Admiral Winslow.
Note: The 35 Star Flag became the official United States Flag on July 4, 1863 with the addition of West Virginia; it is the only US flag representing a state admitted during the Civil War, and was only official for two years.
2nd item: Commendation from the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, to Admiral John Winslow. The hand-drawn and lettered vellum document offers Winslow and the officers and crew of the USS Kearsarge "the congratulations and thanks of the Chamber for the destruction of the steamer Alabama" and praises "the skill, coolness and intrepidity with which the Kearsarge was maneuvered in the combat with her formidable foe." Signed by John Austin Stevens, Jr., secretary, and Abiel Abbott Low, president and dated Oct. 6, 1864. 19" x 21". Housed in the original gilt-lettered leather tube case. 3rd item: framed reproduction photograph of Admiral Winslow and officers on the deck of the USS Kearsarge after sinking the CSS Alabama, 24" x 30".
Flag: Conserved mid 20th century and stitch mounted to a plain white linen backing. Repairs, patches and losses up to 2" x 3"; 2" square repair on stripe adjacent to header, two 1" losses to top stripe. Scattered areas of fraying. Grime, discoloration consistent with age. Note basting stitches left in one star. Commendation: Overall good condition with light toning, scattered minor foxing and creasing. Ends of tube case are missing, case has moderate wear. Reproduction photograph and frame: Excellent condition.
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Bank: Pinnacle Bank
150 Third Avenue South, Suite 900
Nashville, TN 37201
Phone # (865) 766-3000
Swift Code: PNFPUS44
Routing, Transit, ABA: 064008637
Beneficiary: Case Antiques, Inc.
4310 Papermill Drive
Knoxville, TN 37909
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Private TN collection, acquired March, 2023 from direct descendant of USS Kearsarge commander Admiral John Ancrum Winslow (1811-1873) through his only surviving grandson Brig. Genl. Eben Eveleth Winslow, along with other items in this auction.