Rally 'Round The Flag

"We will rally 'round the flag boys,
we will rally once again,
shouting the battle cry of freedom...
We will rally from the hillsides, and gather from the plains,
shouting the battle cry of freedom."

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' households."

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 occupied Boston.

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,

"Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming!
And the rockets red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there."

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 remained flying.

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 originally stated:

"I pledge allegiance to my flag
of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one nation, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all."

"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:

"Face the Flag, son, and face reality.
Our strengths and our freedoms are based in unity.
The flag is but a symbol, son, of the world's greatest nation,
And as long as it keeps flying, there's cause for celebration."

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 entire world.

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 were written:

"In full glory reflected,
now shines on the stream.
'Tis the Star-Spangled Banner,
Oh, long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."

From Lessons of the Ages
by Lieutenant Colonel Wes Martin


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