Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Flags of the Revolution

If you've been watching HBO's hit miniseries, John Adams, chances are you have noticed the assortment of flags during its opening credits. One of the neat things about the American Revolution is the fact that the colonists created and flew a number of banners, which are now used to commemorate specific events in this all-important era of American history. Unfortunately, the majority of these flags are unknown to the American public today. It's a shame because these flags provide an interesting insight into the history of the American Revolution, which is why I think they are worthy of recognition. With this in mind, here are a handful of America's earliest flags:

The first flag portrayed in the opening credits is the "Join or Die" banner. This flag, which has its origins in the French and Indian War and not the American Revolution, was actually derived from none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin designed the flag to suggest that unity between the British colonies was essential in securing a British victory over the French. For obvious reasons, the banner was brought back during the American Revolution. Here is a link to a previous posting on Franklin's "Join or Die" slogan.

Another flag that has received a lot of attention is the "Appeal to Heaven" flag. This flag's origin is also before the American Revolution. Settlers in Massachusetts used the green tree as a symbol of peace roughly 100 years before the American Revolution. When war broke out, the flag was naturally adopted as a rallying banner for their cause. General George Washington even adopted the flag and used it as the official banner for his navy (a navy he funded himself). Here is a link to an older posting on this flag.

The British Ensign was the official banner of the British Navy, and was flown at every major seaport within the empire. Many historians speculate that this flag's design was the inspiration for the design of the current United States flag.

The "Sons of Liberty" flag as it was commonly called by the Americans was created in 1765 during the protests over the Stamp Act. The flag's nine stripes represent the nine colonies that stood in defiance to Great Britain. Interestingly enough, the flag became known in Great Britain as, "The Rebellious Stripes." Naturally, the flag had to be retired and replaced once the remaining four colonies joined in open rebellion to Britain. In the John Adams miniseries, this flag can be seen in various scenes that include Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

The yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag (officially known as the Gadsden Flag) is arguably the most famous and popular flag of the American Revolution. This flag was presented to the Continental Congress by South Carolinian Christopher Gadsden. The flag was used for a time by the Continental Navy, but was later replaced. The interesting thing about the Gadsden Flag is that it provides us with an insight into the popularity of the rattlesnake in colonial America. During this era, many Americans embraced the myth that a rattlesnake, if chopped into pieces, would come back to life if the snake were buried before sundown. This is why Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" snake was so popular. The idea of national unity when combined with snake folklore was a powerful symbol. In fact, the rattlesnake was so popular that it was seriously considered for the national emblem. Benjamin Franklin became its most ardent proponent, claiming that the rattlesnake would make the perfect symbol of the new American republic. Te reasons for embracing the rattlesnake as the national emblem were:

*The rattlesnake has no eyelids and is therefore eternally vigilant.
*Colonial Americans believed that the rattlesnake would never attack first, and that it never retreated from a fight.
*Colonial American society believed that a rattlesnake never slept, suggesting that the animal never tired.
*The rattlesnake is indigenous to North America

Benjamin Franklin was so passionate about making the rattlesnake the national emblem that he adorned his home with the Gadsden Flag. When the eagle was finally accepted as the new national emblem, Franklin protested by proclaiming the eagle, "a despicable vulture of the sky."

The "Grand Union Flag," which is often considered by historians to be the first "official" American flag, was used between 1775 and 1777. The flag was an adaptation of the British Naval flag, which was altered by the inclusion of the thirteen alternating red and white stripes (which represented the thirteen colonies). The flag kept the original red cross of St. George and white cross of St. Andrew, which represented American devotion to Great Britain. It is important to remember that in 1775 the majority of American colonists were still opposed to a complete break with Britain. This flag symbolizes their hope for reconciliation and loyalty to the motherland.

This was the personal flag of General George Washington during the American Revolution. As strange as it may sound today, generals carried flags into battle for identification. This allowed couriers and other staff to be able to locate the general on the battlefield. This flag always accompanied George Washington and his "life guard" (a select group of men that served as Washington's security detail). This flag can be seen in HBO's John Adams series when the General makes a stop at the home of Abigail Adams and during the siege of Boston from Dorchester Heights.

As the British commenced their attack up Breed's Hill on the morning of June 17, 1775, this flag could be seen flying from the top of nearby Bunker Hill. This flag would forever commemorate that encounter and give Bunker Hill the distinction over Breed's Hill (where the fighting actually took place).

This flag, which is known as the American Naval Jack, was flown on several American naval ships during the American Revolution. The current United States Navy is still using this flag. In fact, it is tradition that the ship with the longest total period of active service be given the distinction of flying this flag. Currently the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk carries this distinction. It is also worth noting that the Secretary of the Navy ordered all Navy vessels to fly this Navy Jack for the duration of the war on terrorism. Here is an interesting link for more information on the Navy Jack.

This flag, which is often referred to as the "Vermont Flag" or the "Green Mountain" flag was first flown by Ethan Allen during his raid of Fort Ticonderoga. The flag was later adopted as the official flag of the Republic of Vermont, since Vermont did not join the union until 1791.

Of course we cannot forget the legendary "Betsy Ross" flag. Though its origins are a source of intense historical debate (click here for more on the Betsy Ross flag), the banner has remained a traditional emblem of the American Revolution. The "Betsy Ross" flag was used by the army, while the flag to the right was the most widely accepted and distributed flag of the infant United States during the yearly years of the republic

Some other interesting flags of early American history:
The earliest known Viking flag, which depicts a raven. Ravens were important birds for the earliest seafaring voyages, since they naturally flew in the direction of land. It is thought that the Vikings under Leif Ericson could have flown this flag during their voyages around the American coast.

This was the flag carried by Christopher Columbus to the "New World." The flag represents the rule of King Ferdinand and Isabel (in Spanish spelled Ysabel). Upon his arrival, Columbus is said to have posted this flag as an act of claiming the lands for the Spanish crown.

This flag represented England as far back as the Crusades. It also accompanied John Cabot during his exploration of the American coast, and was carried by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620.

You could make the argument that this is the first flag of New York. Known as the Dutch East India Flag, this banner flew proudly over the Dutch fortresses of New Amsterdam (the "A" in the flag represents Amsterdam, the motherland's capital). It would take several years before the city of New Amsterdam would fall to the British and be renamed New York.


Lindsey Shuman said...

Very cool post, Brad. I was not aware of all of these flags. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The British Navy flag you show and quote as the possible ancestor of the Stars and Stripes is not that of the British Royal Navy, which is the White Ensign. The flag you show in your otherwise ecellent piece is the Red Ensign of the Merchant Navy.

Brad Hart said...

You are right, anonymous. Thank you for pointing that out. I went back and looked up what you mentioned and you are right.

Thanks for clearing that up.

Steve-O said...

Loved the post. I like it when we can come up with creative stuff like this. It makes the blog a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...

David H. Fischer writes extensively on flags and the Ar in his book LIBERTY AND FREEDOM (Oxford, 2004), and has a number of color illustrations of flags from the American colonial era that have survived until today.

On a related note, the so-called Viking flag you include here is entirely conjectural, and was created by a large commercial flag printer several yrs ago.

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