Historic York County York, PA United States 717.502.1281
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American Revenue Cutter Service Ensign Belonging to Captain William Henry Bagley

Documentation Signed
Origin United States
Period 19th Century
W. 81.25 in; H. 53.75 in;
W. 206.38 cm; H. 136.53 cm;
Condition Good. See Item Description
Creation Date 1870-1880

United States Revenue Cutter Service ensign, made ca 1870, with a canton bearing 13 stars in an arch above a blue eagle, with a patriotic shield upon its breast, and a field of 16 red and white pales (vertical bars). The flag has specific history to Captain William Henry Bagley (b. Jan. 28, 1838, Durham, ME), who married Laura Barnes (b. May 14th, 1843), the youngest of 10 children of another ship captain, William Barnes (b. 1797, Berwick, ME). The flag was found with numerous effects belonging to Barnes, including an oil-on-canvas portrait of him, a painting of one of his ships, the Wabash, and a lap desk full of log books and extensive papers and history regarding himself and his family. According to a newspaper article among the family affects, Captain William Bagley and his wife went down in a ship bound from Manila to San Francisco in 1884.

The canton and pales (vertical bars) of the flag are made of wool bunting. The eagle and stars are made of merino wool. The red bends (diagonal bars) on the patriotic shield are made of cotton. There is a sailcloth canvas binding along the hoist with 2 brass grommets, along which “W.H. Bagley” was inscribed with a dip pen. It was typical to mark flags in this fashion to indicate ownership.

The eye of the eagle is made of cotton, hand-appliquéd, and has a pupil that was hand-embroidered with dark brown or black thread (now slightly faded). The stars of the flag are hand-sewn and single-appliquéd, meaning that they were applied to one side, then a cutout was made on the reverse and the surrounding fabric under-hemmed, so that they could be viewed on both sides. The profile of the eagle, olive branch and arrows were also single-appliquéd using a combination of hand and treadle stitching. The pales, canton, and sleeve were pieced with treadle stitching.

This stunning design was adopted by an act of Congress in 1799 for use on Revenue Cutter ships. At this time there were 16 states in the Union and for this reason Revenue Cutter Service flags typically have 16 “stripes”. There may have been 16 blue stars on the earliest Revenue Cutter Service flags, set in an unspecified pattern around a large eagle on a white canton. Sadly, no original survives. Some early illustrations show 15 stars with a complement of 16 stripes. 15 was the official star count on the American national flag from 1795 until 1818 and so was appropriate in that respect, though it is very interesting to see the latter combination of 15 and 16.

Among the tiny number of examples of actual flags of the Revenue Cutter Service that survive to the present day, all bear 13 stars and 16 stripes, save one that has 13 stars and 13 stripes, and another that bears 13 stars and 17 stripes. The latter two flags probably represent errors in the design. 13 stripes were probably chosen because there were 13 stripes on the American national flag, and the maker was perhaps unaware of the difference, while 17 stripes was perhaps selected because it seemed illogical to start the flag on a red stripe and end on white. And additional red would have visually balanced the field in a predictable manner.

Note that this particular eagle has a fantastic profile with great folk art qualities and a keenly early design. Eagles of the late 19th century seldom take this form. With an elongated breadth to fill the horizontal canton and a turkey-style head, the graphic impact has exceptional value in the world of Americana. Since eagles are both very desirable and rare on early American flags of all kinds, and because the RCS design is so visually arresting and different, this is a masterpiece level example for the collector community. And the fact that the object has known family history lends additional interest.

Several documents and images accompany the flag. These include:

(1) A tintype of Joseph Bagley of Berwick, ME (William’s father).

(2) A tintype of a woman believed to be Laura Barnes Bagley.

(3) A map with hand-drawn notations by Bagley, detailing routes he took between 1879 and 1883, traveling between the U.S., Ireland, the U.K. and San Francisco on the ship Levi C. Wade, by way of Cape Horn. [He went down in a ship the following year, 1884.]

(4) A copy of the “Siam Daily Advertiser,” published in Bancock on Sunday, Sept. 19th, 1880, noting that the Levi C. Wade was had arrived on September 2nd, with William Bagley as captain.

(5) A copy of the “General Directions To All Masters of Ships Trading to Cronstadt [Trinadad]” published in 1871, with hand-written notes on the cover.

(6) A copy of “The Chine Mail,” published on April 12th, 1884, noting that the Levi C. Wade had arrived in “Hongkong Harbour” on April 9th, with William Bagley as captain [the same year he went down at sea].

(7) Modern photographic images of the portrait of Captain Barnes and the portrait of his ship.

Brief History of the “Revenue Marine” or Revenue Cutter Service:

The Revenue Cutter Service was founded in 1790 by U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, through an act of the United States Congress. Its job was to protect merchant ships in and around major ports. Such measures ensured the safe transport of goods with regard to looting and piracy, and also oversaw that proper tariffs were collected on trade goods. Because there was no income tax, this was an extremely important function for the U.S. Treasury.

Following the Revolutionary War, America had no navy. Vast debt incurred to fund the war was partially repaid by the sale of all remaining warships, and the most significant source of government revenue was taxes collected on import goods. 10 ships were ordered by the "Revenue Marine", as it was originally called, and distributed among various ports. And while the U.S. Treasury held the overall umbrella for the Revenue Marine, the captain of each ship was directly responsible to the customs collector in whatever port the ship sailed from. Captains had wide-ranging authority to do what they saw fit to keep order, and could board and search any vessel whether docked or at sea.

From 1790 until the U.S. Navy reformed in 1798, the Revenue Marine cutters were the only armed American ships in government service. Afterwards they fought alongside the Navy and have since participated in every major U.S. seafaring conflict. The mission, general orders, and organization of Revenue Marine was reformed and revised a couple of times during the 19th century. First by default, and later by revised general orders, one of its functions became the rescue of ships in distress. In 1894, the name was formally changed to the Revenue Cutter Service and this is the term most widely used today by historians and collectors of related artifacts.

In 1915 The RCS merged with the U.S. Lifesaving Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. As of this date it was no longer responsible to the U.S. Treasury, but instead became a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces under the War Department and responsible to the president. Today it falls under the Department of Homeland Security in times of peace, but at times of war its direction can be transferred by the president to the U.S. Navy.

Mounting: The flag was stitched to 100% silk organza for support on every linear seam and through some of the elements of the canton. Then flag was then hand-sewn to a 100% wool background, black in color, which was washed to reduce excess dye. An acid-free agent was added to the wash to further set the dye and the fabric was heat-treated for the same purpose. The mount was then placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic.

Condition: There is very minor mothing. The overall condition is outstanding for a wool flag of this period.

Frame Size (H x L): 53.75" x 81.25"
Flag Size (H x L): 42.5" x 70.5"
Styles / Movements Americana, Folk Art, Traditional
Dealer Reference Number ofj-805
Incollect Reference Number 118911
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