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182-Year-Old U.S. Flag Returns to Tennessee

When the first U.S. flag known as Old Glory was last flown prominently here, the nation was embroiled in the Civil War.

Now, more than 140 years after the flag became a legend when it was flown atop the state Capitol to celebrate the capture of the city from Confederate forces in 1862, the flag has returned to Tennessee.

Old Glory is on display at an eight-month-long exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum, where visitors can learn about the flag's origins and the efforts of its owner William Driver to keep it safe during wartime.

The 182-year-old homemade flag is on a rare loan from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and had to be carefully shipped and displayed because of its fragile condition.

"This loan was an exception because of its local ties to Nashville," said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, a senior textile conservator at the museum in Washington. "It's probably the last time it will be loaned out."

The 10-foot-by-17-foot flag has to rest horizontally to keep stress off the very fine and thinning fabric. The blue background has become almost translucent and the edges are tattered and torn.

Driver, a sea captain from New England, came up with the nickname when he was given the flag by a group of women who had sewn it in Salem, Mass., in 1824, said Dan Pomeroy, the state museum's chief curator.

Driver, who used the flag for years on his merchant ship, retired to Nashville in 1837 and regularly flew the flag at his home for federal holidays and his birthday, Thomassen-Krauss said.

"After the election of 1860, the time of the secession crisis, the flag was not a welcome site in Nashville," Pomeroy said.

Driver, a staunch Union supporter, had his daughter disassemble the flag so it could be hidden in a comforter and kept secure. He was concerned that it would be seized, Thomassen-Kraus said.

He didn't bring it out again until Nashville became the first Confederate city captured by Union forces.

"It became a sensation in the North — the story of this old man who hid the flag from the Confederates and then raised it on the Capitol building after its capture," Pomeroy said.

"But it was hardly a heroic image in the South," Pomeroy said.

As Old Glory's fame spread, the nickname soon became a term of affection for the Union flag.

Driver's daughter gave the flag to President Warren G. Harding as a gift in 1922, and it was put in federal repository at the Smithsonian, Thomassen-Krauss said.

The flag is on display until November along with dozens of artifacts from the state's collection, including pictures of Driver, photos of his Nashville home, letters and ship logs.