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Civil War flag returns to Mauch Chunk

  • Mauch Chunk Museum's President John Drury, left, and Vice President Bob Stevenson are putting on display a 31-star silk Civil War-era flag that is believed to have been made in Mauch Chunk in the 1850s and presented to a Union officer in 1861. AL…
    Mauch Chunk Museum's President John Drury, left, and Vice President Bob Stevenson are putting on display a 31-star silk Civil War-era flag that is believed to have been made in Mauch Chunk in the 1850s and presented to a Union officer in 1861. AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Published May 29. 2013 05:03PM

On Jan. 24 John Drury, president of the Mauch Chunk Museum in Jim Thorpe, received a phone call from J.C. Coombs of Wichita, Kansas. Coombs was in possession of a flag that was presented to a Union soldier in Mauch Chunk In 1861.

Coombs, a retired Wichita State University music teacher who specialized in the Civil War period, had been lecturing at St. James Episcopal Church in Wichita. Following the lecture, a board member said to him, "While renovating the church, in the basement we found something that might interest you".

He was shown the flag and immediately recognized that it was of museum quality, and felt it should be returned to it's a place of origination. Coombs was given the flag and then after researching, he determined that it came from Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, and had been presented to LTC John D. Bertolette in 1861.

Coombs agreed to donate the flag to the Mauch Chunk Museum if the museum was willing to pay for the cost of shipping. Although the flag was light in weight, in order for it to have been preserved and maintained in its museum-quality condition, the flag was stored horizontally in a 50-inch by 60-inch case, viewable through a plexiglass window. When packaged for shipment, the container measured 5 feet by 6 feet by 10 inches thick, weighed 290 pounds, and cost $1,467 to ship by UPS.

The flag, made of silk and hand cut and hand sewn, has been appraised at between $14,000 and $16,000. Its red, white and blue colors are in remarkably good condition, and it is believed that the dyes that were used for the red and blue coloration help to preserve the fabric.

The flag has not been removed from its case for a complete examination, but it appears to have 31 stars set in a great star pattern around one large central star. This indicates that the flag was made during the period when the U.S. had 31 states. California was admitted as the 31st state on Sept. 9, 1850. Minnesota became the 32nd state on May 11, 1858. Therefore the flag was likely to have been made between 1851 and 1858.

In the 1850s, Bertolette came to Mauch Chunk from Reading, Pa. to train as an attorney with Charles Albright. On April 22, 1861, Bertolette was commissioned an officer in Company A, Pennsylvania 6th Infantry Regiment. Around this time he is believed to have received the flag.

"Nobody knows precisely the origin of the flag," Drury said. "We suspect that maybe women in one of the churches in Mauch Chunk put it together."

The Mauch Chunk Museum is located in the former Methodist Episcopal Church.

"It was the first church in town dating back to 1843. That flag could very well have come from this church."

"Bertolette fought in several battles and was wounded at Bull Run," Drury said. "The flag may have been carried by him during his service. A pact was made between the 48th Regiment's staff officers that the flag would be buried with the first among them to perish."

"After the war ended, he returned to Mauch Chunk and worked as a partner in Albright's office before starting his own legal practice," Drury said. "He lived on West Broadway in a home later occupied by former treasurer for the Mauch Chunk Museum, Midge Mulligan.

Bertolette was born June 11, 1839, and died April 17, 1881, at the age of 41, the first among the 48th Regiment's staff officers to pass. His funeral was presided by the minister at the Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Lehighton.

Rather than burying the flag with Bertolette, he directed that it be passed to his son, John Bertolette Jr., who, after studying at Dartmouth, moved to Wichita, Kansas. He died in 1931 at age 66, and left no heirs. The flag was donated to St. James Episcopal Church in Wichita where it was stored in a basement until discovered and shown to Coombs.

"When I received a phone call from J.C. Coombs. I thought this was fantastic," Drury said. "How exciting to have something like this, and to have it come back to this town."

It was even more exciting for Jim Thorpe Area High School history teacher and Civil War re-enactor Chris Holub.

"He almost fell off his chair," Drury said. "He is a Civil War buff to begin with. When he heard of this, he went wild with enthusiasm."

When the flag shipment arrived at the museum, Holub arranged with his principal to help uncrate the package.

He examined the flag and the case but no plaque or identifying information was enclosed.

Holub has held annual Civil War history-related celebrations at the high school that included an encampment and a ball.

The flag will be on exhibit at the Mauch Chunk Museum, 41 W. Broadway in Jim Thorpe during normal museum hours: Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The museum's phone number is (570) 325-9190.

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