Long before this Civil War call-to-arms song was written, warriors of many
nations and causes had rallied to markers identifying their assembly points.
Because a field of battle is fluid, the markers were moved as the forces
moved. The markers required ease of both identification and mobility.
Pieces of cloth on staffs or poles well served both requirements. These
cloths have had many names: flags, banners, standards, and colors to
mention a few. Two of the oldest records concerning the use of flags are
found in the Bible, Numbers 1:52 and 2:2 respectively:
"And the sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each
man by his own standard, according to their armies."
"The sons of Israel
shall camp, each by his own standard, with the 'banners of their fathers'
Ancient Egyptian carvings and Persian paintings also attest to use of
banners as identification markers and signaling devices for base camps and
military units on the move. Through the ages, the banners became more
elaborate. As villages, clans, and minor kingdoms became absorbed by
modern day nations; banners representing religious, heraldic, or
genealogical backgrounds were replaced by national standards.
During the earliest days of the American Revolution, a series of flags
emerged; most famous are the Gadsden and Culpepper flags, both stating,
"Don't Tread on Me." Gadsden featured a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow
background while Culpepper's was a crawling rattlesnake on a red and white
striped background. Another early Revolution flag, depicted a rattlesnake
broken into thirteen pieces, each piece identifying a colony, above the
words, "Join or Die." General Washington, commanding the siege of
Boston, needed a symbol representing something of higher quality than a
poisonous snake if he ever hoped to give legitimacy to his quest.
Washington addressed this issue with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and
Francis Hopkinson (American statesman, poet, future signer of the
Declaration of Independence, and writer of a parody of Yankee Doodle titled
"Battle of the Kegs"). History cannot confirm, but all evidence
indicates that Hopkinson took the lead. The result was the Grand Union flag.
Thirteen stripes were used, seven red, starting at the top and finishing at
the bottom, divided by six white. In the upper left corner, the British
Union Jack crosses of Saint George and Saint Andrew were placed. Overall,
it was a current version of the American flag with the Union Jack in place
of the stars on a field of blue. On January 1, 1776, Washington raised
this flag at Charlestown, Massachusetts, across the bay from British
The Grand Union flag represented colonial unity against oppression. It
also represented the intent of future reconciliation with Great Britain.
At this time, only among the most die-hard revolutionaries was there a
determination for a complete break with England. New England was heavily
composed of such die-hards. Boston's most adamant revolutionary was also
President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock. It would be short
order before formal rejection of British presence on American soil was
declared. That came six months later, on July 4th, when John Hancock led
the Continental Congress in the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Also by this time, the British had completed their evacuation of Boston.
As went New England, so went the nation.
When the resolve was made by the Continental Congress to remove the British
from this new nation, the need also arose to remove the Union Jack from the
American Flag. It is long since forgotten what person or committee arrived
at the recommendation to replace the Union Jack with a union of thirteen
stars embedded in a field of blue. This union was to represent a new
constellation that would light the skies of freedom. Congress approved
the new flag on June 14, 1777. In this legislation, the Continental
Congress also defined the symbolic meaning of the colors: white was
designated to signify purity and innocence; red for hardiness and valor;
and blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
Almost a century would pass before the grandson of Betsy Ross claimed that
she designed the first American Flag. It is known that following the death
of her husband in 1776, Betsy Ross did manage the family upholstery
business and did make flags for the Continental Army. It is very possible
that she sewed the first flag. It is also likely that most of her
supporting American patriots in the field was for charity. The Continental
Congress was unable to pay for most of the new nation's needs. However,
to claim that Betsy Ross developed a flag that inspired the Continental
Congress into complete acceptance holds the same validity as Washington's
cutting down of the cherry tree. Both are examples of folklore and
storytelling being substituted for facts.
The new flag was manufactured just in time to be initiated into the field
of battle at Saratoga. British General Burgoyne had marched south from
Canada with the intent of breaking New England away from the rest of the
colonies. Just as the Stars and Stripes was baptized in battle at
Saratoga, it was also baptized in victory. This victory resulted in
French support of the colonies, which in turn became a deciding factor
in the successful outcome of the American Revolution. The American Flag
was off to a good start and was destined to witness many rough times
between Saratoga and the final victory at Yorktown.
Almost thirty years later, the Stars and Stripes came ashore at Tripoli. Mediterranean pirates had been warned by President Jefferson to leave American ships alone. When they failed to heed the warning, American Marines were sent to confront them. Less than ten years later, back on American shores during the War of 1812, Old Glory remained aloft throughout the night as British warships shelled Fort McHenry. This stunning sight caused Francis Scott Key, an American detainee of the British fleet, to write,
That Star-Spangled Banner marched into Mexico City where a young lieutenant
named Ulysses Grant pulled his cannon up the stairs into a church tower to
better affect his accuracy. The Red, White and Blue rode with Grant fifteen
years later to the preservation of the Union. It also charged up San Juan
Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and a daring cavalry captain named John Pershing.
Less than two decades later, British and French allies were stalemated in
trenches and left to slugging matches with German armies on European
battlefields. American military forces bearing the Stars and Stripes, and
under the leadership of General John Pershing, turned the tide of victory.
This same banner was in the process of being raised over Pearl Harbor when
an unwarranted air attack came from the East. It was with the American
forces at Wake Island, Bataan, Corregidor, and every other battle zone
during this nation's hour of desperation. Just as it held at Valley Forge,
the burning of Washington, D.C., and the Civil War, the Stars and Stripes
Meanwhile, our military defenses kept fighting. Old Glory was present at
the Battle of Midway, when the Philippine Islands were retaken, and when
American tanks smashed through the gates of Nazi extermination camps.
Anyone who doubts the beauty of the American flag needs only to ask
Holocaust survivors what it meant to them when soldiers displaying this
Flag brought an end to a Hell created by twisted minds.
Our Flag represents more than the military endeavors of this nation. It
stands for all our accomplishments, military and civilian. Just as it flies
over military bases, it flies over courthouses, businesses, and homes. It
flies on American ships, and is displayed on aircraft, both military and
civilian. This Flag belongs to every American: those who have gone before,
we who are here today, and those who will come tomorrow. It also represents
those who have fought our wars, worked our fields, and labored in our
factories. It represents those who have built this nation out of the
resources of the land and out of American ingenuity. While the Constitution
provides our nation with guidance and legitimacy, the Flag provides
Americans with inspiration and unity.
Just as the Flag represents the ideals of this nation, it also represents
the people. From the very beginning, no one star stood for any specific
state any more than any one stripe represented a specific colony. The flag
was forged in unity, like the nation it represents. People came to be
citizens of the United States by many different means. Today this nation
is composed of every race, established religion, national origin, and
background on Earth. It was recognition that this nation and its flag
belong to all citizens that resulted in the 1923 National Flag Convention
change from the original Pledge of Allegiance. Written in 1892, the Pledge
"My flag" became "the flag." The Constitution prevents any
one person or group achieving from sole power. The Flag, representing the
nation, likewise is not to be claimed by any one person.
Unfortunately, there are always those who wish to degrade the American
Flag. To do so is to degrade the entire nation, its Constitution, and the
laws that were set to protect this land and its citizens. So doing would
also be degradation of the people who have built this country and those
who fought to preserve it. The American Flag is still this country's
rallying point. When Americans stand up to protect their Flag from abuse,
they are not just upholding a piece of cloth. They are protecting the
identification of their nation. Too many have died in the field of battle,
fighting for the principles and defense of this nation, to allow the banner
we rally around to be defiled.
From Valley Forge to present day responsibilities, the United States has withstood the test of time. From those early days to the present, the Flag has been with us. What started in ancient times for other people as simple identifications to mark encampments and geographic gathering points, has evolved for this nation into an emblem that symbolizes the heritage and spirit of a people. That spirit was well reflected in a John Wayne ballad:
Just as the United States has always picked itself up after defeats and
setbacks, it has at one time or another picked up just about every other
nation on Earth. Old Glory began symbolizing this nation over two hundred
years ago. General Washington was in want of a standard to rally the
colonies into one nation. He found it in thirteen stripes and thirteen
stars entrenched in a field of blue. Yet, even the father of our country
could not have had any idea how important this Flag would become to the
Each time, America has rallied 'round its flag. For the citizens of the
United States, our country's principles and responsibilities are not just
to remember the past, but to recognize and accept the future. Our past,
our heritage, woven into every stitch of the American Flag, is our guide
to the fulfillment of that responsibility. This nation, whose encampment
is freedom from oppression, is marked by the most colorful and distinctive
national banner on Earth.
Especially in the last century, when the world was caught up in a sea of
darkness and despair, the United States has continued to serve as a stream
of light and hope. Francis Scott Key's words in the second verse of
"The Star-Spangled Banner" are as pertinent today as when they
From Lessons of the Ages
by Lieutenant Colonel Wes Martin
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