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Flag from ‘Cuba Libre’ a Merrimack mystery

February 03, 2015
President Obama’s call to loosen sanctions against Cuba has put the island nation in the news lately. And it turns out Merrimack may have its own historic connection to America’s Caribbean neighbor.

“In Cuba we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama said in his State of the Union address Jan. 20.

A stained and faded flag on the third floor of the McQuade Library may be one of the very flags that waved from the deck of the hospital ship Relief as it sailed into Santiago Bay in Cuba ahead of United States warships after the Spanish-American War in 1898.

But how did the flag get to McQuade, where it hangs in a gold-colored metal frame?

Library Operations Manager Bob O’Brien and Librarian Kathryn Geoffrion-Scannell agree it’s a mystery —  but some lore has been passed down.

“I passed it a million times, but with all the news stories about Cuba, I stopped to look at it,” O’Brien said.

In the frame with the flag is an envelope with a July 18, 1898 date stamp from Santiago de Cuba; a Red Cross armband; newspaper clipping; and a typewritten letter from the Army’s then-Brigadier Gen. A.W. Greeley, a Newburyport native who would later become a polar explorer and a Medal of Honor recipient.

O’Brien believes the flag was in the library when he was a Merrimack student in the early 1970s and may have been there since the library opened.

“I was a student here 45 years ago and I vaguely remember it,” O’Brien said. “It’s probably been sitting on this wall since ’67,” when McQuade opened.

There are a few clues with the flag.

Greeley’s letter ordered that Mrs. John Addison Porter, who was performing hospital and relief work for the Army in June 1898, should be given access to a telegraph. Mrs. Porter’s maiden name was Amy Ellen Betts; her husband was a Connecticut native who was secretary to President William McKinley.

An undated, yellowed news clipping from a newspaper called the Globe – though it’s unclear if it’s the Boston Globe - with lettering smaller than that used in modern newspapers refers to common knowledge that Mrs. Porter and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, sailed to Cuba aboard the Relief.

“It is not generally known, however, that when the ship entered the harbor in advance of the warships that Mrs. Porter stood on the deck and waved two small American flags, thus being the first woman to wave the American colors in Cuba Libre,” or Free Cuba, the news story said.

Porter donated one of the flags to the Putnam Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Greenwich, Conn., according to the clipping. There’s no mention of what happened to her second flag, which is believed to be the one hanging in McQuade — so it’s unclear how it got to Merrimack College.

Sally Bretschger, the program coordinator for the Putnam Chapter, said in an email that she doesn’t know of the sister flag in the chapter’s collection.  It isn’t surprising, because the chapter has so many donations it’s difficult to track them, she said.

“I am now very curious,” she said.

O’Brien has checked the library archives but hasn’t found any more information about the flag or Porter.

 

Know something about this flag? We’d love to hear about it! Write to minchj@merrimack.edu.

 

 

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  • Red Cross nurses en route to Cuba in 1898.
    Red Cross nurses en route to Cuba in 1898.
    Photo courtesy of redcrosschat.org

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