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Enlighten Me: Reuniting pieces of the First State’s Revolutionary history

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Delaware Public Media
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A Revolutionary War-era flag from the First State and the man who captured it are having a reunion of sorts.

The flag is a Delaware militia flag that’s in the Delaware Historical Society’s collection.  The man is William Dansey, a British Army officer, who captured that flag 242 years ago in September 1777 during fighting in the area shortly before Battle of Brandywine. 

Dansey is obviously not showing up in person, but his portrait  - on loan from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment Museum in Halifax, England - is here, making its first ever appearance in the U.S.

The two are on display together at the Delaware Historical Society until Sept. 7 before heading to the Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution to be part of its Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier exhibition that opens Sept. 28th and runs through March.

In this week’s Enlighten Me – Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne sits down with Delaware Historical Society chief curator Leigh Rifenburg to discuss this unique pairing.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:

TOM BYRNE:

What is this Revolutionary War-era flag's backstory?  And how did it wind up in the hands of William Dansey when all was said and done?

LEIGH RIFENBURG:

So, it's a really interesting backstory in the sense that it was a Delaware militia flag created for a regiment that was camped down near the Christiana Bridge. But they didn't get to use it for very long because sometime during the week between the Battle of Cooch's Bridge and the Battle of Brandywine, William Dancy who was an officer in the British light infantry, came along and was somehow able to capture the flag from the Delaware militia colonel. He captured a few other things as well it was the flag that he really prized and he writes in his letters that he was going to take it home as a war trophy. So, he did take it home with him to England.

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Credit Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
The Delaware militia flag, known as the "Dansey flag," was captured by British Light infantry officer William Dansey in Sept. 1777 during fighting before the Battle of Brandywine.

The interesting sort of postscript to the story is that one hundred and fifty years later the Dansey family had had really treasured the flag for a very long time but eventually they decided to put it up at public auction. Somehow this news filtered back to the folks in Delaware and especially the Delaware Historical Society. And so they set up a sort of public subscription donation program for people to contribute money to buy the flag. So crowd sourcing was alive and well this was 1927 and they were able to do that but they had a certain amount of competition because back across the ocean William Dansey's original regiment the 33rd Regiment of Foot was also making plans to purchase the flag. So, there was some competition at auction, but the Delaware Historical Society was victorious and the people of Delaware were once again able to reclaim the flag.

So, in a sense it was Delaware's only Revolutionary War era victory just a hundred and fifty years too late.

BYRNE:  And just to clarify for people - this was captured sometime in that span between The Battle of Cooch's Bridge and the Battle of Brandywine, in what was really the greater Philadelphia campaign during the Revolutionary War.

RIFENBURG:  Exactly. The timing of all of this is really interesting in that this [time of year] is the time when the Delaware and Pennsylvania campaigns really start to heat up. [Ed. note: The Battle of Cooch's Bridge was Sept. 3, 1777 and the Battle of Brandywine was Sept. 11, 1777]  So this is the time when we start to commemorate certainly the engagement at Cooch's Bridge and Brandywine and Germantown. This was a time when Dancy was was particularly active getting ready to join his army and head up to the campaign north. But  whatever was happening during that week, he was engaged in some skirmishes and somehow he managed to engage with the Delaware colonel and he was able to capture the flag.

BYRNE:  Tell us a little about the portrait itself, and how it came to be known that this portrait existed to even pair with this flag.

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The portrait of William Dansey.

RIFENBURG:  So, for the Delaware Historical Society having Dansey's flag is certainly significant enough, Having the letters that describe his capture of the flag is incredible because it provides an incredible level of context. But there was a third piece of this collection that had been previously unknown. Dansey had commissioned a portrait of himself sometime around 1780 when he returned from the war and everyone had lost track of where the portrait was located. Somehow the Museum of the American Revolution and their curatorial staff were able to track it down. And it turns out it's been all of these all of these years in a small regimental Museum in Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. And they were very willing to lend it to us as part of an exhibit at the Museum of the American Revolution is launching in September called "The Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier." So it became this really sort of serendipitous thing where we were able to bring the portrait and the letters and the flag together at one time and they're now being displayed in the Delaware History Museum for the first time on Delaware soil.

BYRNE:  What is the significance in your mind of kind of connecting these dots - the flag with the letters, with the portrait - having them all in one place for people to experience, as you mentioned, in the package.

RIFENBURG:  We've called this a "Revolutionary reunion" and that's in fact exactly what it is. Each of these pieces of Delaware history and of William Dansey are significant on their own, but bringing them together is is really incredible.

Dansey, in a roundabout way through his actions and the capture of this flag, contributed to one of the Delaware Historical Society's marquee collection pieces. It's something that we've treasured all of these years. But there was always this sort of missing piece up to this point. Our curatorial staff has only known Dansey through his letters and the rudimentary documentation that we had about the flag itself. But finally getting to meet him, as it were, through the unveiling of the portrait has been a really remarkable thing.

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Credit Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
The Delaware Historical Society also has letters from William Dansey discussing his time in and around Delaware and capturing the Delaware militia flag.

We know that Dansey will serve as a more minor figure in this exhibit that's coming up [at the Museum of the American Revolution]. He did serve with the gentleman who is the focus of the exhibition in the British light infantry. But having these things together where Dansey is really a central figure, having them together here in Delaware is something that's pretty remarkable.

BYRNE: And you mentioned to me earlier when we were over looking at the flag and the portrait, this was an opportunity for you to get some more work done on the flag. Tell people a little bit about that, and exactly what was done to help preserve this flag a little bit better.

RIFENBURG: This has been a really remarkable collaboration between the Delaware Historical Society and the Museum of the American Revolution.  It occurred to us once we agreed to this loan that if you have 240-something year old flag and you're going to have it displayed on a much larger stage for a much broader audience to engage with, you'd better make sure that it's show ready. And that involves for us a certain amount of conservation on the flag itself.

The Dansey flag was last conserved in 2006 by a wonderful textile conservator named Virginia Whelan, who incidentally had done all of the textile conservation, including Washington's tent, at the Museum of the American Revolution. This was an opportunity to get back in touch with her and she was able to do the conservation work this time over the summer. It was a real source of relief to be able to turn over something that's so precious to us to someone who was already familiar with it and able to do the work.

She was able to take the flag out of its mount. I was able to see the flag sort of exposed for the first time, which was incredible. It's one of 12 regimental flags known to exist today. But what makes this one so unique is the fact that it's in such remarkable condition and the fact that it both the chords and the tassels are still intact and connected is really remarkable.

One of the first things that Virginia did when she worked on the flag was to tell us that everything she was doing was going to be reversible and that's incredibly important in textile conservation because as the science advances and as technology and methodologies and best practices change you really need to be able to go back and undo your work if necessary. So everything that's been done on this flag can be changed in the future if it needs to be. And we know that this isn't the final time that the flag will be conserved, because conservation is not a one and done sort of proposition. It's something that you need to go back and tweak periodically.  And to be able to have this conservation work done here in the Delaware History Museum was a really wonderful thing and we know that we're going to send it to its temporary home in Philadelphia in the best possible condition and ready to go.

BYRNE: And I imagine that there are many people who are not really aware that some of these pieces from the Revolutionary War era are around and they are things that you can see and connect with in person. Is this an opportunity to remind people that there are these things, both here in Delaware and elsewhere, that can take you back to that place in time.

RIFENBURG: Absolutely. And what's so wonderful about this is - you can see these things online. You can look at pictures. You can read about them in books.   But there is a certain just visceral reaction that takes place when you see the items in person and that's how we all felt when we finally saw the flag and the letters and the portrait together. There's there's just something amazing about being able to come into a space and engage with those items on a on a very personal level.

BYRNE: You are working with the Museum of the American Revolution on this project, loaning the flag to them for their longer term exhibit that's coming up through the winter into into the spring. It seems like it's a natural fit to work with them. Is there hope that there'll be additional ways to collaborate with them in the future around these type of things.

RIFENBURG: I certainly hope so. I think one of the sort of core tenants of good collection stewardship is that, if you have a collection that's unique and worth sharing, you should do whatever you can to make it possible to facilitate all alone and ensure that it's able to be discovered by a broader audience. And that's a part of what we've done here.

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