In 1864, President Lincoln ordered his executive departments to each raise a force of troops for the defense of Washington should it be threatened by Confederate forces. The Treasury Department raised a full regiment of citizen-soldiers, and the women employed there presented a custom set of colors to the unit. The canton of the national flag bore hand-painted patriotic images and a banner identifying the unit, which spent months drilling on a dusty lot in Washington. In April 1865 the unit held a ball at Ford’s Theater celebrating Lee’s surrender. The following day the theater’s manager asked the Treasury Guard to lend their flags to help decorate the box where the Lincolns would sit while attending the play "Our American Cousin."
Five flags decorated the theater box, including the Regiment’s national colors on its standard next to the president’s seat, and the blue regimental flag draped over the rail. After John Wilkes Booth shot the president and wounded an aide, he leapt over the rail, catching his spur on the blue flag and injuring himself when he landed.
The next day the flags were returned to the Treasury and the blue regimental flag gained fame due to Booth’s accident. Its companion was largely forgotten until Henry Cobaugh, Chief of the Guard at Treasury, rescued it from a basement workshop and displayed it, first in his office and ultimately, in a small display box hung in a hallway. There is stayed for decades, with Cobaugh as its self-appointed protector.
By the 1890s Edgar Yergason of Hartford was both a well known interior decorator and one of the country’s leading Civil War collectors. Yergason landed a contract to redecorate some rooms in the White House, and probably met Henry Cobaugh at the Treasury Department at this time. The two became friends and around 1907, Cobaugh shipped the boxed flag to Yergason in Hartford for its protection, telling him that if anyone asked where he got the flag “you are supposed to lie like ____”! Upon Yergason’s death in 1920, his impressive Civil War collection, including the flag, was inherited by his son, Hartford physician Robert Yergason. Shortly thereafter Dr. Yergason proceeded to sell off his father’s collection, but donated several items, including the Treasury Guard flag, to the Connecticut Historical Society.
It was not until the late 1990s that the flag was “rediscovered” by a new generation of Civil War researchers, starting with CHS Reference Librarian Kelly Nolin. Nolin, aware that one of the flags decorating the presidential box had yet to be accounted for, nearly fainted when she saw the piece, along with Cobaugh’s letter to Yergason. Nolin and her CHS colleague, Director of Museum Collections Susan Schoelwer, undertook exhaustive research that proved that this flag was indeed in the President’s box the night he was shot.
The Treasure Guard Flag will be featured in behind-the-scenes tours at the Connecticut Historical Society on Saturday, April 12th. Pre-registration is required. For more information call (860) 236-5621x289 or email Jenny Steadman.