5 Key Moments in American History as Seen Through Flags

The US Constitution

Flags stand as powerful symbols, intricately weaving together identity, unity, and heritage. They not only represent organizations, nations, and movements but also become deeply woven with historical milestones, embodying the enduring legacies of these pivotal moments. In the United States, the most prominent icon of our nation’s history is the American flag and the many designs it has used since its initial adoption in 1776. However, beyond our national emblem, there are a variety of other historical flags that have made an impression in the memories of the American people. Here, we will take a closer look at some of these significant historical flags and the stories behind them.

The American Revolution

In the mid-1770s, American subjects of the British Empire were frustrated with their system of governance, spurring the unity of the Colonies against the Crown and sparking the American Revolution. One of the earliest historical US flags that can be called distinctly ‘American’ is the Gadsden flag, designed in 1775 by South Carolina delegate Christopher Gadsden. Gadsden then gave the flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins, who flew it from his flagship in the Continental Navy.

The rattlesnake symbolized the unity of the original Thirteen Colonies, first depicted by Benjamin Franklin in his 1754 ‘Join or Die’ woodcut. The timber rattlesnake is a venomous native snake used to represent the Colonies’ willingness to fight against the British Empire.

While the Gadsden flag is one of the most popular flags from this time, some other flags gained popularity, such as the Sons of Liberty flag, the Come and Take It flag, the First Navy Jack flag, the Grand Union flag, and the Culpeper flag.

Grand Union flag

The Beginnings of American Independence

In 1776, the United States declared independence from the British Empire. The newly formed nation adopted its first official flag, the Betsy Ross flag. To this day, you can see Americans proudly flying this flag - especially during Independence Day. The design features 13 red and white stripes and 13 white stars representing the original Colonies. Its most commonly used name comes from the legend that the Founding Fathers asked the Philadelphian upholsterer Betsy Ross to manufacture the first instances of the new national design.

Betsy Ross flag

The Civil War

During the early 1860s, a civil war broke out in the United States between the Northern Union and Southern Confederate states. The central conflict arose from the use of slavery in many of the southern states and the debate as to whether it should be allowed in the United States’ newer western territories. After the election of anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln, states with prevalent use of slavery seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy.

The modern use of some of the battle flags flown by the Confederacy is highly controversial due to the values they represent. However, the Union also had several unique war flags, with one of the most popular recently being the Fort Sumter flag, also known as the Civil War Union Flag. This flag was flown over Fort Sumter, a sea fort located near Charleston, South Carolina.

Cannon and American flags

World War II

Before the onset of World War II, the United States adopted a 48-star flag following the admission of Arizona to the Union in 1912. This design remained the national flag during the United States’ involvement in the war. This iteration of the American flag remains well-known thanks to its involvement in the invasion of Iwo Jima as part of the war effort against Japan. During the island's capture, the flag was raised by six US Marines on Mount Suribachi.

The 48-star flag is also the second oldest national flag, lasting 47 years from 1912 until 1959, following the granting of statehood to Alaska.

Flag raising on Mount Suribachi

9/11 Attacks

One of the most significant and defining events in recent American history was the World Trade Center attacks. On September 11, 2001, two airplanes were hijacked by Al-Qaeda members and flown into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth dived into rural Pennsylvania thanks to passenger intervention.

After the buildings collapsed, firefighters and other first responders entered the area to locate survivors. An iconic photograph, Raising the Flag at Ground Zero, shows three firefighters raising the current 50-star American flag amidst the rubble. Soon after, the national flag became a widely used symbol of unity and patriotism.

Flag raising at Ground Zero

Through the evolution of historical American flags, we can follow the path of history and investigate how those events are remembered in the modern day. Many of these flags remain widely used or are captured in cultural artifacts such as photographs, creating symbols that allude to their origins and the impact those events have had on the United States.

Mar 18, 2024 Caeden F.

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