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Material Culture

A distinctive aspect of American History Unbound is the use of historic, sometimes rare, and always evocative “material culture”—flags, banners, even Zippo lighters carried by troops in Vietnam—that drives a lecture’s narrative arc and connects us more deeply to our past. These objects—some of great historical significance and others ephemera made significant in this unique storytelling context—are from John Monsky’s personal collection, as well as the New-York Historical Society’s trove of art, objects, and letters.

Among the many flags, pennants, and objects highlighted in the American History Unbound lecture series are:

Flag from LCM PA 13-7

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This American flag was attached to LCM (7), a Higgins craft, carried by the 4th Division, 12th Regiment, when it landed on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944.

Flag from USS LCI (L)-94

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The LCI 94 landed on Omaha Beach with the 104th Medical Battalion on D-Day. As it picked famed photojournalist Robert Capa up off the Beach, carrying with him the soon-to-be-developed film of his “Magnificent Eleven” photographs, she took a direct hit, killing several crew members.

761st Tank Battalion, “Black Panthers” 48-Star Flag

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The 761st Tank Battalion, a segregated unit, was known as the “Black Panthers.” Landing on Omaha Beach four months after D-Day, they fought into Germany, seeing 183 days of continuous service, and were honored many times over for their valor.

Flag from L’Aventure

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This flag is from the L’ Aventure, one of four free French frigates that participated in the Normandy landings. While elements of the French military were under Axis control, others supported the Allied Forces and aided the liberation of their occupied homeland.

National Color, 29th Infantry Division Entry

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On D-Day, the 29th and 1st Divisions landed at Omaha Beach, taking the bulk of American casualties. This is the Divisional flag of the 29th Division, which was carried with the Division from D-Day until the end of the war.

Flag from the USS Constitution

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This commissioning pennant, featured in the American History Unbound “War of 1812” lecture, flew atop the USS Constitution’s mast, identifying it as a warship. According to an analysis of its conservators, there is still smoke from gunpowder on the pennant. President Kennedy was known to have a painting of the ship, pictured engaging in one-on-one battle, hanging in the Oval Office.

Union Army’s XXV Corp Flag

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During the Civil War, the Union Army’s XXV Corps was comprised almost entirely of Black American troops, who served with distinction in the waning days of the war, and on April 3, 1865, became the first command to occupy Richmond. This flag flew at “The Grey House,” the Confederate “White House.”

Zippo Lighters/Vietnam War

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During the Vietnam War, troops “in country” could buy Zippo lighters for $1.00 and for 50 cents engrave them with personal messages. This collection of 298 Zippo lighters carried in Vietnam—in battle and into the jungles—offers a look into the thoughts, humor and bravado of American soldiers during the 1960s and 1970s. While providing a narrative or history of the war and the fear, anger, patriotism, and longing of the troops, they often became poignant mementos of a fallen loved one for survivors back home.

Flags from the Apollo Missions

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We Chose to Go to the Moon includes flags from each of the Apollo moon missions, all but one of which, Apollo 13, traveled to the surface of the moon and back. These flags were often included in an astronaut’s “personal preference kit.”