Grand Old Flags

Now is the time to salute the banners, tattered and touching, that have inspired us since the Texas Revolution.
WAR TORN: This banner was carried by Indian-fighting buffalo soldiers stationed at Fort McKavett in West Texas.

This promises to be a banner year for Texas flag buffs. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has assembled an unprecedented exhibit of 32 Texas flags—from a tattered one that survived the Battle of San Jacinto to the huge ensign that flew over the battleship USS Texas— and the catalog is really a combination of breakthrough historical text and glossy coffee-table centerpiece. Given Texans’ staunch chauvinism and the nation’s newly rekindled pride in the Stars and Stripes, both the exhibit and the accompanying book should succeed with flying colors.

The study of flags is known as vexillology, from “vexillum,” a Latin word for a Roman cavalry flag. Although the discipline isn’t new, no one has ever before attempted to display so many historical Texas flags together or to write seriously about them at such length. Flags meant much more in olden days than they do now. The sight of our modern lone-star flag is so common—so woven into the fabric of Texas life—that we almost take it for granted. This exhibit’s faded declarations of loyalty—of silk, cotton, or wool, with crooked seams, lopsided stars, and unevenly lettered slogans—remind us not to. These vintage flags aren’t academic curiosities; they’re Texas’ equivalent of holy relics.

Many of the fragile cloths showcased in “Texas Flags, 1836-1945,” which runs through April 28, have never before been on public display. The gathering of the flags took five years and required the cooperation of eleven organizations, public and private. And Texas Flags, authored by Fort Worth historian Robert Maberry, Jr., is not just a history of Texas flags but a history of Texas through its flags, complete with bullet holes and blood—and minefields. In a state that revels in quibbling over such details as the exact number of Alamo defenders, an academic treatise on Texas flags is bound to offend some people—those, say, who have long believed that their

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