Some day, I must get around to writing, at length, about De Cost Smith. Born in Skaneateles in 1864, the son of E. Reuel Smith and Elizabeth De Cost Burnett Smith, he excelled as an artist, a writer, an outdoorsman, a scholar and an important collector of Native American artifacts. He lived enough to fill a goodly sized biography. But today, just one story.
In his early twenties, De Cost Smith studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris, probably in the years 1886 and 1887. And one day he was browsing in an upholstery shop, and saw a flag. The shop owner explained that it was salvaged from the flotsam of the C.S.S. Alabama following its sinking off Cherbourg, in June of 1864, when the legendary Confederate raider was sent to the bottom by the U.S.S. Kearsarge.
Ever the collector, Smith bought the flag for 15 francs.
When De Cost Smith died in 1939, the flag passed to his nephew – his sister Celestia’s son, Clement Sawtell. If that name rings a bell for you, perhaps it’s because Sawtell wrote and published Captain Nash De Cost and The Liverpool Packets, without which I could not have written my piece on Nash De Cost, De Cost Smith’s great-grandfather, for whom he was named.
The author of a number of monographs, Clement Sawtell had an appreciation for history, especially nautical history, and so the flag was in good hands. And in 1975, at the suggestion of retired Rear Admiral Beverly Coleman (a grandson of Col. John Singleton Mosby, “The Gray Ghost,” of Civil War fame), Sawtell donated the flag to the state of Alabama.
And so a flag made its way from the waters of the Atlantic to Paris to Montgomery with the help of an artist from Skaneateles.