Thursday, June 19, 2014

A New Constellation

By Frank N. Barker 
Assistant Education Coordinator

“Resolved that the flag of the thirteen united states to be thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” These were the words that the Second Continental Congress used on June 14, 1777, to create the American Flag.

The Continental Colors, also
known as the Grand Union
The actual first national flag of the united colonies was a combination of the Grand Union flag of Great Britain (which was itself a combination of England’s red cross of St. George and Scotland’s white cross of St. Andrew) as the union and the alternating stripes representing the 13 colonies. Only half this flag was American, but in early 1776 when it was first used, the colonists were still fighting for their rights as Englishmen, not necessarily to be an independent nation.

British Red Ensign, flown on merchant ships in the 
18th and early 19th centuries.
The flag wasn’t as difficult to make as it might seem. All one needed was the British red ensign, which was the flag flown by British merchant ships, and six white stripes to sew on.

This “Continental Colors” flag was first hoisted over a Continental Navy vessel, the USS Alfred in December 1775, by Lt. John Paul Jones, and over the Continental Army at Cambridge, January 2, 1776, by General George Washington.

The resolution of June 14, 1777, that would change these half-British half-American flags into the full-fledged Stars and Stripes does not give much specific information about the flag’s design or proportions. How many points on the stars? How should this “new constellation” be arranged? Does the flag start with white stripes on top or red? Much was left up to interpretation. What did these first flags look like? How were they first used?

The Bennington flag, which may or may not have flown at the 
Battle of Bennington.
The first Stars and Stripes in combat was at the siege of Fort Stanwix, New York, in August 1777. According to tradition, this flag was improvised with white stripes and stars cut from the soldier’s shirts. The women of the garrison sacrificed their red flannel petticoats for the stripes, and the blue came from Capt. Abraham Swartwout’s cloak. The captain was later reimbursed by Congress for this contribution to the war effort. Exactly what this flag looked like is not known, but at least the colors were right.

The flag of the Green Mountain
boys which did fly at Bennington.
Later in August of ’77, at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont, a peculiar variation of the flag may have been flown. This flag has a “76” sewn onto the blue canton surrounded by 13 six-pointed stars. In addition, the order of stripes is reversed, as the flag has white stripes top and bottom. This flag still exists, but many experts say it was a later creation, possibly made for the Centennial Celebration in 1876. It is certain that the regimental flag of the Green Mountain Boys was used at the battle. This flag had a blue union, with stars, but the rest of the flag was green.

The Hopkinson flag, with its six-pointed stars.
Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, designed a flag while he was Chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department. He was the only person to have made such a claim during his own lifetime, when he sent a bill to Congress for his work. He Initially asked for a "Quarter Cask of the Public Wine" as payment. He was not paid, as Congress decided he had already received a salary as a member of Congress, and also he was not the only person to have contributed to the design.

And what of Betsy Ross? While the “Betsy Ross” flag design with the 13 stars in a circle was often used during the Revolution, and is perhaps the modern ideal of what a Revolutionary War flag should look like, she never submitted a design, didn’t meet with the flag committee, or George Washington. Her story only came to light nearly a century after the Revolution and was likely a creation by her grandson William Canby.

Nothing exists from Congress—no law, no executive order, no resolution—that gives an official reason for the colors of the American flag, but Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress helped design the Great Seal of the United States. In his report to Congress on June 20, 1782, the day the seal was approved he described the colors thusly: “White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue…signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

Connell, Royal W., and William P. Mack. "Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions." Google Books. Web. 17 June 2014.
"Flag of the United States." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 June 2014. Web. 16 June 2014. <>.
"Historical Flags for Sale | Historic American Flags | Historic Flags | Flags Unlimited." Web. 17 June 2014. <>.
Leepson, Marc. "Five Myths about the American Flag." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 June 2011. Web. 17 June 2014. <>.

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