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How America's Flag Evolved

Lt. Col. Thomas N. Pyke

June 14 is Flag Day, the day Americans proudly display and pay honor to the flag of the United States of America.

The story of our flag, the Stars and Stripes, is the story of the nation itself. The evolution of our flag is symbolic of the evolution of our free institutions—for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes over 200 years ago—and its development into the great Nation it is today.

Flags, banners, ensigns and other heraldic symbols have been used by mankind over the centuries to convey particular ideals and identify families or nations of the world. The first recorded use of a flag in the New World took place when Christopher Columbus stepped ashore in the West Indies on October 12, 1492, on the island of San Salvador. Columbus carried the flag of Spain, the country that sponsored and financed his voyage, thanks to Queen Isabella. That same flag was carried to the mainland of Florida by Juan Ponce de Leon when he landed in the “Sunshine State” in 1513.

The English flag played a significant role in the evolution of our present-day flag. The English flag, known as the Cross of St. George, was the banner carried by the colonists to Jamestown in 1607 and to Plymouth in 1620. It consisted of a broad red cross on a pure white field.

With the union of England and Scotland in 1707, the English flag changed to reflect that union. Scotland’s flag consisted of St. Andrew’s white cross in the form of an “X” in a dark blue field.

The first Union flag of England was formed by superimposing St. George’s Cross with a thin white border on the standard Cross of St. Andrew’s. Queen Anne approved the design for use on all British flags and it became known as the Union Jack.

The Grand Union was the flag that became the official flag of the United Colonies. George Washington,commander-in-chief of the continental forces, displayed this flag over his headquarters. The thirteen stripes signified the original colonies.

The citizens of Taunton, Massachusetts, raised a flag which indicated the growing unrest under the tyrannical rule of the mother country. The flag carried the British Jack in the canton and the words ‘Liberty and Union’ in red at the bottom.

Two earlier flags of particular interest were used in the fight which took place on Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775, better known as the battle of Bunker Hill. Those flags utilized the pine tree symbol which became so familiar in New England.

One of the first banners to appear in the Southern states was the Moultrie flag. It was used by the troops defending Fort Sullivan in Charleston harbor, which was later renamed Fort Moultrie. That flag, devised by Colonel William Moultrie of South Carolina, displayed a crescent on a blue field with the word “Liberty” in white.

Innumerable flags, standards and colors appeared during the revolutionary period; all reflected their feeling of unity with the mother country but also expressed the grievances that existed against her and proclaimed their demands to obtain justice and liberty.

Several versions of the “Striped Rattlesnake Flag” are identified with the Revolutionary naval forces. The flag we know today as the 1st Navy Jack was flown aboard the Alfred, flagship of the newly commissioned Continental fleet, in January, 1776. American ships continued to use this flag, or one of its several variations, throughout the Revolutionary War.

Many theories have been advanced concerning the origin of the Stars and Stripes. None of the theories can be proven, since there is no official report describing the steps leading up to it.

The resolution adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on June 14, 1777, is as follows:

“Resolved: that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white; that the Union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

The design was probably proposed by the Marine Committee.

However, historians agree that one Francis Hopkinson was more closely responsible for the design than any other person. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from New Jersey, a member of the Marine Committee and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Regardless of who drew up the design for the Stars and Stripes, there was no radical change from the Grand Union flag mentioned earlier. It merely substituted in the canton 13 stars for the Union Jack and retained the 13 alternate red and white stripes. General Washington expressed his theory of the evolution and symbolism of the Stars and Stripes as follows: “We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing liberty.”

We have all heard the story of Betsy Ross and the American flag. Be it true or legend, it’s a good story. It goes like this: Betsy Ross, a young Philadelphia widow who supported her children by her excellent needlework, received a visit by Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross, her deceased husband’s uncle. They described a flag and asked if she could make one for them. She agreed to accept the job and recommended that 5-pointed stars be used instead of the 6-pointed stars.

There are no written records to verify this story. It is based entirely on anecdotes handed down by word of mouth from direct descendants of Mrs. Ross. Whether true or a legend, it will continue to be part of the American tradition. The Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia is a National Shrine and the U.S. flag flies on a staff from the third floor window. It is known as the birthplace of Old Glory.

There was a distinct lack of uniformity in the early Stars and Stripes (see article, page 41). The red and white stripes remained unchanged but the Congressional Resolution mentioned earlier did not specify what star arrangement should be followed in the canton. In most cases all 13 stars were formed in a circle, familiarly known as the Betsy Ross flag. Occasionally, the 13th star occupied a position in the center.

A favorite arrangement consisted of three horizontal rows with four stars in the top and bottom rows and five in the middle row. Still another design consisted of five horizontal rows of which the first, third and fifth contained three stars each and the second and fourth rows had two stars each. They all add up to 13 stars, one for each of the original 13 states.

There was still another flag design which was known as the Bennington flag. It consisted of 13 stripes alternate white and red with the 13 stars in the canton, 11 in semi-circle and two on top near each of the corners of the canton. The figure ‘76’ was in the middle of the semi-circle. The Bennington flag, perhaps the first using the Stars and Stripes in battle, was carried by the Continental forces in the battle of Bennington, Vermont, on August 16, 1777. This was the flag that General Stark, commander of the Continental forces, is quoted as saying “This flag flies from yonder hill by nightfall or Molly Starks sleeps a widow tonight.”

In 1794, the flag was officially altered to consist of 15 stripes, alternate red and white, with 15 stars, since two more states had joined the Union. The stars were arranged in five rows of three stars in each row. It was this flag, 30 feet wide and 40 feet long, that was “so gallantly streaming” from Fort McHenry in 1814 when Francis Scott Key, from a British ship in Baltimore Harbor, wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

In 1818 the design of the flag was changed once again, reverting to the original 13 stripes, alternate red and white, and provided for each state admitted to be represented by a star. By this time, there were 20 states and the stars were usually arranged in four rows of five stars each.

The design of our flag has been changed many times since 1818. With the admission of many additional states, the stars increased to 48 by 1912. They were arranged in six rows of eight stars each on the canton of blue, and, with the 13 stripes alternate red and white, remained so until 1960.

With the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, the number of stars increased to 50, arranged in nine rows, alternately, five rows with six stars each and four rows with five stars each on the canton. Together with the 13 red-and-white stripes, it is the flag of America today—the flag to which we so often pledge our allegiance—because it stands for the America we love.

The flag of the American Union is a visible symbol of the ideal aspirations of the American People. It is the one focus in which all unite in reverential devotion. We differ in religion; we differ in politics; we engage in violent disputes as to the true meaning of the Constitution, and even challenge the wisdom of some of its provisions; but through the sanctifying folds of the flag, the collective intelligence of the Nation rises superior to the wisdom of its parts, and thus endures the perpetuity of the Republic.

General Douglas MacArthur