Grand Old Flag

You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.
Every heart beats true
'Neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
Should all acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag. 
-George M Cohan, composer

Composer George M Cohan wrote these lyrics more than a century ago, at a time when the United States flag was a rallying symbol for a nation of “Americans” formed out of immigrants.  Over millennia, flags have been the banners under which people have rallied to wars of liberation and independence, as well as peaceful demonstrations for equality. Some deliberately provoke anger as their banners recall times of injustice or genocide. Though any student of history can dwell on the sins of a nation, the United States being no exception, the advances in medicine, agriculture, industrial output, other sciences, in education and literacy, in the United States made our national ensign a symbol well known in every part of the world. As a veteran and history buff, the history of the American flag is interesting and remains a symbol of pride. How did our national ensign emerge?

St Andrews cross
Grand Union Flag (pre-revolution)

For a century prior to the Revolutionary War, the American colonist flew a derivation of the ensign of Great Britain with various symbols that were historically significant in Britain, such as the cross of St. Andrews or the cross of Saint George.  The Union flag, which first flew on British naval ships in 1634. With several changes instituted and then reverted by monarchs for the next century, the colonist adopted flags with these designs and colors, until the unrest prior to the revolution, variations on merchant ships and to rally the colonists to their aims for independence carried mottos in Latin such as “conquer or die” or other provoking mottos (p. 135, Naval Ceremonies, Customs and Traditions, Naval Institute Press, 2004) and designs such as the Pine Tree. The Philadelphia Troop of Light Horse when it escorted General Washington to New York to take command of the Continental Army was first to bear thirteen stripes, representing the original colonies, in alternating blue and silver stripes. Commodore Hopkins raised a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag with thirteen stripes, a rattlesnake, and this motto on his ship the Alfred on 5 December 1775. During the bicentennial Independence year in 1976, it flew again as the jack on all Navy ships. In 2002, in response to the War on Terror, the “Don’t Tread on Me” jack was again flown. John Paul Jones, of whom so much of early American naval tradition rests, was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the new American Navy on 22 December 1775. From commissioning, in the company of Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock, he went aboard Commodore Hopkin’s flagship, the Alfred. Directed by John Hancock, with the Commodore and ship’s captain ashore, as senior officer John Paul Jones directed the first “American” flag, be hoisted from the mainmast. This is significant as the first American flag flying from a warship. From historical accounts, this ensign was likely the same flag raised by Washington’s troops in Boston a couple weeks later. The adoption of the national ensign, with the 13 alternating red and white stripes, with stars in a blue field representing the union occurred on 4 June 1777.  As for John Paul Jones, he received orders to command the Ranger the same day, and afterward he always believed his future and that of the new national ensign were linked. In the sea battle with the HMS Serapis, both ships were severely damaged.  As he transferred with surviving crew to the captured British vessel, the last view of sinking Bon Homme Richard was the “defiant waving of her unconquered and unstrucken (sic) flag as she went down” (report of John Paul Jones, ibid, p143).

Flag (top): flown from the Bon Homme Richard during battle. (bottom): the “Serapis” flag, when Jones sailed the captured ship from the Netherlands after the battle

With the admission of new states into the ‘united states’ in the last years of the Eighteenth Century, the design of the nation’s flag was subject to some controversy, over the number of stripes and stars.  The final design was established by Congress and signed into law in 1818 by President Monroe.  From that time forth, the stripes remained fixed as they appear today, but an additional star would be added to the blue field for every new state admitted.  

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