Today’s presentation is an annual event for Southtowne Rotary, just before Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, and Independance Day. The history of our flag as told by Bert Toepel, a highly decorated Master Army Aviator, is accompanied by flags hung all around the room making for one of the most festive and interesting meetings of our year. We managed to capture it on video this year (see bottom of article and also here for a video of all the flags) and Bert was kind enough to share his written presentation:.
The Evolution of our Flag by Bert Toepel
Each year, during the months of May, June, and July, we celebrate four holidays—Armed Forces Day (3rd Saturday in May), Memorial Day, Flag Day (June 14) and Independence Day (July 4)–all within a period of less than seven weeks. In commemoration of these important days, it is appropriate that we take time to review a portion of our nation’s history with a discussion of the evolution of some of its symbols—the flags here on display.
The first national flag to fly on the North American continent was the Viking flag in the 11th century. Since then, we have seen flags from Spain, France, Sweden, Holland, England, Scotland and Russia flown on our shores.
I’ll not go into the various “visitors” that have flown a flag on our shores but will focus on the evolution of the stars and stripes as we know it today.
Nearly a thousand years ago, many Christian countries in western Europe joined forces to regain the Holy Land from Moslem control. England was one of the European countries that participated in these crusades against the Moslelms. English crusaders would often wear the red Cross of Saint George, England’s patron saint, into battle. By 1450, the red St. George’s Cross on a white field had become England’s national flag. English explorers to the New World brought the Cross of St. George to Newfoundland in 1606. Scotland, to the north of England, had a patron saint much earlier than England did. The cross of Scotland’s patron saint, St. Andrew, became that country’s national emblem in 1385. Over time, the white Cross of St. Andrew on a blue field became Scotland’s national flag. As you can see, the Cross of St. Andrew is shaped like and X.
Queen Elizabeth I of England had no heirs, so when she died in 1603, her cousin, King James VI of Scotland became the King of England also. As King of both England and Scotland, he was known as King James I. To show unity between the two countries, he decided to have the Scottish and English flags combined. The new flag was adopted on April 12, 1606, and was called the King’s Colours. Twenty years later, this flag was given a new name – the Union flag. This is significant to us because it brought together the red, white, and blue on one flag, which became our national colors.
The oldest known Colonial flag in existence is called the Bedford Flag; it was made sometime after 1660 in England and the original now rests in the public library in Bedford, Massachusetts. The Bedford flag was present at the battle of Concord on April 19, 1775. It was carried by Nathaniel Page, a Bedford Minuteman. The Latin inscription “Vince Aut Morire,” means “Conquer or Die”. The mailed arm, sword in hand, emerging from the clouds represents the arm of God.
Queen Anne flag or Red Duster. Queen Anne modified the Union Jack flag in 1707 to what is now referred to as the Queen Anne or Red Duster Flag. The Colonials modified this flag later on by adding white stripes to the field.
The first flags adopted by our Colonial forefathers were symbolic of their fight against Britain. Their coats of arms and the navy ensigns of the day inspired the flags. Beavers, pine trees, rattlesnakes, anchors and other insignia with mottoes such as Hope, Don’t Tread on Me, Liberty, Liberty and Union, In God we Hope,and An Appeal to Heaven were found on many different banners and flags in Colonial America.
The Bunker Hill or Pine Tree Flag was a New England flag with a pine tree in the union, and was seen at the Battle of Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill on June 17th and 18th, 1775. Probably at least one form of the flag was flown on the battlefield, but whether it had a blue or red field has been the subject of much scholarly debate. It is probably the second oldest colonial flag, and it dates back to 1686.
In December of 1775, when Commodore Esek Hopkins was commissioned as America’s first naval commander-in-chief, his personal rank flag included a yellow field with a coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike if attacked, beneath which was the familiar motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.” This flag is referred to as the Gadsden Flag. As an aside, Colonel Christopher Gadsden, whose name it bears, had nothing to do with its design or usage. He only had a copy made for the legislature of his home state of South Carolina. Commodore Hopkins was also known to have carried on his ship an ensign (flag) of thirteen red and white stripes without the union, or field, of stars, but with a rattlesnake rippling diagonally across the stripes and with the same defiant motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
The first flag of the colonists to have any resemblance to the present Stars and Stripes was the Grand Union Flag. This flag was also referred to as the Congress Colors, the Cambridge Flag, the First Navy Ensign and the Continental Colors. It has thirteen stripes, alternating red and white, representing the thirteen colonies, with a blue field bearing the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew (the Union Jack) signifying the union with the mother country. The Colonial Fleet in the Delaware River first flew this flag in 1775. In January 1776 it became the standard of the continental Army. This flag was carried on the flagship Alfred on December 3, 1775, as the Navy ensign of the thirteen colonies. General Washington raised it in January 1776 at Cambridge, Massachusetts as the standard of the Continental Army. In the early years of this country the symbolism of the stripes, rather than their color mattered most. There were many variations of the red and white stripes, including green and blue. As late as July 4, 1807, the Volunteer Company of Rangers in Augusta, Georgia, had a flag with green and white stripes, and a union of blue with stars of white.
On June 14, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution establishing the first official criteria for the American flag. There were to be 13 stripes alternating red and white and 13 stars, white in a union of blue, “representing a new constellation” composed of thirteen Colonies united nearly one year earlier by the Declaration of Independence. However, they did not specify the star arrangement and, over the years, we have seen a number of variations of the star configuration on our flag.
One version is shown here, with the alternating rows of three and two stars with the top, middle, and bottom rows having three stars. Much evidence exists pointing to Congressman Francis Hopkinson as the person responsible for its design.
Some say that Betsy Ross made the first Stars and Stripes flag with the thirteen stars arranged in a full circle on the blue union. Historians dispute this. Since she had done sewing for the family of President Washington, it is suggested that he asked her to make him his own personal flag. Thus, it has become known as the Betsy Ross Flag. However, according to latest research, it did not make its appearance until the 1790s.
Fourteen months after the new flag was established, the Bennington Flag, identified with a 76 in the middle of the union with eleven stars in a semi-circle with one star in each of the upper corners of the union, appeared in the Battle of Bennington on August 16, 1777, in New York State. Many historians believe that this is the oldest version of the Stars and Stripes.
Whatever its design, the only president to serve under the 13-star flag was George Washington, from 1789 to 1797, a period of 18 years.
Then, two more states, Vermont and Kentucky, joined the United States in 1791 and 1792, respectively. It was clear that the thirteen stars and thirteen stripes were no longer representative of this new nation. When the bill changing the flag’s design came before the House of Representatives, much windy debate ensued. Arguments of those in favor ranged from a desire to broadcast to the world word of the new states to a desire to “pass the bill and get it over with.” Opponents called the bill frivolous and protested that new flags would cost $60 apiece for every ship in the country. And Benjamin Goodhue of Massachusetts cautioned that making this change would mean altering the flag repeatedly as the country grew. Finally, by a vote of 50 to 42, the House passed the bill. It stipulated that after May 1, 1795, “the flag of the United States be fifteen stripes, alternate red and white; and that the union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field. This flag was prominent in many historic events. It was the first flag to be flown over a fortress of the Old World when American Marine and Naval forces raised it above the pirate stronghold in Tripoli on April 27, 1805; it was the ensign of American forces in the Battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813; and it was the flag that flew over Fort McHenry, Maryland, during the British bombardment of September 13-14, 1814, when Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is by law the only national flag of the United States to have other than 13 stripes.
Following admission of four additional states—Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana and Mississippi—the problem of flag design was referred to a Congressional committee that had heard arguments against increasing the number of stripes in the flag. Naval officers claimed that the American flag of 13 stripes was more easily identified at sea. Most people recognized that it was foolish to consider adding more and more—narrower and narrower—stripes. The advice of Samuel Chester Reid, a naval captain and hero of the War of 1812 was sought. It was Reid’s view that the 13-stripe flag honored the original Colonies and that new states could be honored by the relatively simple addition of stars. Reid’s view prevailed in the House and Senate and, on April 4, 1818, President James Monroe signed into law the Flag Act of 1818. And the flag as we know it today was born—almost. The committee had not specified the arrangement of the stars. Congress, in a most independent American fashion, had left the pattern flexible.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), with 34 stars on our national flag, a new flag appeared. What is now often called “The Confederate Flag” or “The Confederate Battle Flag” (actually a combination of the Battle Flag’s colors with the Second Navy Jack’s design) and, despite never having historically represented the CSA as a nation, it has become a widely recognized symbol of the South. It is also called the “rebel” or “Dixie” flag, and is often incorrectly referred to as the “Stars and Bars” (the actual “Stars and Bars” was the South’s First National Flag, which used an entirely different design). This flag is not properly in the lineage of our flag as we know it today; however, it is shown as one that was present and involved as our nation grew and strengthened itself in the world scene. Although some favored the removal of stars representing those states that has seceded from the Union, President Lincoln steadfastly refused to permit this to happen.
More states were added, and an executive order by President Taft on June 24, 1912, established proportions for the flag and decreed that the stars would be arranged in six horizontal rows with eight stars each, a single point of each star pointing upward. This 48 Star Flag flew from 1912 until 1959—the longest time (over 46 years) for any configuration to date. Americans saluted this flag during two world wars, the growth decades of the 1920s and 1950s, and the Great Depression.
On January 3, 1959, Alaska was added to the Union, bringing with it a 49-Star Flag. This version had the shortest tenure of any of the flags and is quite rare today.
Seven months later, on August 23, 1959, Hawaii was admitted, giving us the 50-Star Flag as we see it today. This flag was placed on Mount Everest in 1963 by Barry Bishop, and on the moon in 1969 by Neil Armstrong. In 2006, this version of the Stars and Stripes surpassed the tenure of the 48 Star Flag, which, as I mentioned, had flown over 46 years. In August 2012, the 50 Star Flag will have served our nation for 53 years.
I now ask each of you to stand, if you are able, and join me in the pledge of allegiance to this stirring symbol of our great nation and veteran of World War II.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Chronological Sequence (Click here to see all of the flags on video)
1. St. George
2. St Andrew
3. Union Jack
4. Bedford Flag
5. Queen Anne
6. Pine Tree
8. Grand Union/Congress Colors/Cambridge Flag/First Navy Ensign
9. Stars and Stripes
10. Betsy Ross
12. Star Spangled Banner
13. Confederate Battle Flag