Historical Flags: Unraveling the Stories Behind Iconic Flags Throughout History

Did you know there have been dozens of flag designs throughout US history? American historical flags vary widely in style and time, with some dating back to the years before the American Revolution. Here are a few of the most recognizable flags from US history and where they came from.

Sons of Liberty Flag

The Sons of Liberty was an early American political organization that fought for colonists' rights and, eventually, for independence. This group included the Founding Father Samuel Adams and other notable Americans like Christopher Gadsden, John Hancock, and Paul Revere. The first Sons of Liberty flag was made of wool and consisted of nine vertical red and white stripes. A later popular variant used 13 horizontal red and white stripes to represent the original 13 colonies.

Continental Flag

The Continental flag is a famous symbol of New England. Its canton features an eastern white pine. In John Trumbull’s painting “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775,” the Continental flag is shown at the battle scene.

The flag’s red coloring and white canton come from the Red Ensign of Britain’s Royal Navy, which initially had the Cross of St George in the canton. Variants of these flags were also used by local American regiments, many of which had, by 1636, removed the cross. In 1686, a green pine tree was added to the canton of flags in New England.

Gadsden Flag

First designed in 1775 during the American Revolution, the Gadsden flag is one of the most iconic flags in American history. It is named for its creator, Christopher Gadsden, a brigadier general in the Continental Army. He was inspired by yellow drums used by the Marines that featured a rattlesnake and the motto “Dont tread on me”. The timber rattlesnake was chosen because it was already a popular political symbol at the time, representing the unity of the American colonies against British oppression.

The first iteration of this flag was given to Commodore Esek Hopkins, who flew it from his flagship, the USS Alfred. Hopkins soon became the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy and regularly flew the Gadsden flag, leading to its widespread use.

First Navy Jack

In 1775, the Continental Navy flew the first American jacks with a striped design on ships in the Delaware River. This order was issued by Commodore Esek Hopkins, who would later fly the Commodore Perry flag.

Over time, a rattlesnake and the quote “Dont tread on me” were added to create the First Navy Jack Flag, drawing on the same political symbols of the Gadsden flag. In modern times, this flag was the official naval jack of the US Navy from 1975 to 1976 and 2002 to 2019. Today, the First Navy Jack is reserved for use on the longest active-status warship, which is currently the USS Blue Ridge.

Washington Cruisers Flag

Also known as the Pine Tree Flag, the Washington Cruisers flag was initially used by frigates under George Washington’s command during the American Revolution. The design was suggested by Washington’s secretary, Colonel Joseph Reed, and the flag was later designated as the official flag of the Massachusetts State Navy.

Pine trees were an important material in shipbuilding at the time due to their height and wood quality. In 1772, Americans in New Hampshire led the ‘Pine Tree Riot,’ a resistance against British appropriation of the pines for the Royal Navy.

Betsy Ross Flag

The Betsy Ross flag is the very first official flag of the United States. As per the Flag Act of 1777, the design of this flag has 13 white stars and 13 stripes to represent the original 13 colonies. The name of this flag comes from American upholsterer Betsy Ross, who lived in Philadelphia from 1752 to 1836. According to American legend, several Founding Fathers approached Ross and commissioned her to create the first official national flag. Furthermore, it is suggested that Ross changed the design of the stars from 6-pointed to 5-pointed, the shape the stars retain to this day.

Bennington Flag

The Bennington flag is closely associated with the Battle of Bennington, where it was supposedly flown on August 16, 1777. This flag has 13 red and white stripes, but unlike other US flags, the outermost stripes are white instead of red. In the canton, 13 stars are arranged around the number “76”, in reference to the year that the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Commodore Perry Flag

Known as the Commodore Perry flag, this flag was designed as a tribute to naval officer James Lawrence by his friend Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Lawrence was in command of the USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812 when a battle with the British HMS Shannon broke out. Mortally wounded by bullets, Lawrence’s last words were, “Don’t give up the ship!”. After his death, Perry ordered that the phrase be stitched onto his personal battle standard. The flag became famous in September 1813 when Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, defeated British forces on Lake Erie.

Star-Spangled Banner

One of the most famous American flags is the Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” This flag had 15 stars and stripes, representing the entry of Vermont and Kentucky into the Union.

In September of 1914, Fort Henry in Baltimore was preparing for a suspected attack by British forces. Major George Armistead, commander of the fort, ordered that a gigantic American flag be flown so the British could see it from far away.

The British Navy bombarded the fort for two days but could not pass into the harbor. On the morning of September 14th, Francis Scott Key saw the flag flying and knew that the American forces had won the battle. But Key was not in the fort - he was held captive on a British ship on the Patapsco River at the time. There, he wrote the famous poem that would later be retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the US national anthem in 1931.

How many of these flags have you seen before? Were there any you had never heard of? The Stars and Stripes may be our nation’s most recognizable flag today, but plenty of others still have their share in American history and symbolism.

Jun 05, 2024 Caeden F.

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