The birth of our nation occurred at a tumultuous time, amid battles, cannons, and a fight for freedom. Flags became a part of the scene to unite, inspire, and rally the colonists to win the war against the British so that all those living here in America could do so without tyranny or taxation without representation. To have a better understanding of the Revolutionary War, and the role flags played in the unification of our country, we will be taking a look at the flags that have enriched our history with their own unique stories.
Cartoon turned flag, the Join or Die flag was a rallying standard which Benjamin Franklin originally created on wood in order to spur the colonies to unite. First used during the French and Indian War, then as a symbol of freedom in the Revolutionary War, this flag represented the thirteen colonies with a snake cut into eight pieces. The head of the snake symbolized the whole of New England, followed by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Franklin knew that the dream of a free nation would not survive unless the colonies united, much like a snake cut into pieces would surely die.
In keeping with the rattlesnake theme, the Gadsden flag was the first flag of the U.S. Marine Corps, commissioned in 1775. Depicting a rattlesnake with thirteen coils and the motto “Don't tread on me,”it served as a warning to the British that America was not to be taken lightly or trivialized. In December of 1775, a letter was written by “An American Guesser” who historians now agree was Benjamin Franklin, and it was published by the Pennsylvania Journal: “I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal: Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her. Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?” There is still some debate today as to whether or not the eagle should have been our nation's symbol, and not the American Timber Rattlesnake, as Franklin deemed it so fitting for America.
Widely accepted as the first flag of America, the Grand Union flag is said to have been first raised in Charlestown, Massachusetts by George Washington's army on New Year's Day 1776. Consisting of 13 stripes and the British Union Jack in the corner, it was to represent the Second Continental Congress which was now the recognized, de facto government of the colonies. Though it was only the flag for a short time (approximately a year), it was the first of our country and has a firm place in our history.
The Battle of Brandywine Creek was fought on September 11, 1777 and was the longest battle of the Revolutionary War, lasting 11 hours, with continuous fighting between the forces of British General, Sir William Howe and George Washington's army. It was the largest battle of the war; also, and because of these honors, there is a flag representing this battle which hangs today in Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park, though it was not a flag of George Washington's army, but a militia banner representing Captain Robert Wilson's Company, the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment. Because there were no specific guidelines or flag regulations, it was made with 13 red stars and 13 red and white stripes, representing the colonies, and was the first flag with stars and stripes flown, according to some historians.
The oldest complete flag in our rich history is the Bedford flag. There are no records of who made it or when it was first used as a rallying standard; however, it can be loosely traced through the Page family history to the 1720s. It is most famously known as the flag that Nathaniel Page brought to the battle at North Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts, which is infamous as the first battle of the Revolutionary War. The Page family has a long history of being the Cornet of the Troop of the horse, which is simply the standard bearer for the cavalry. It is believed that the Bedford flag was the inspiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson's stanza in the poem Concord Hymn:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.
The flag is made from damask silk, depicting a mail-encased arm reaching out from the clouds holding a sword. The banner on the flag reads “Vince autMorire” which means “Conquer or Die”―an apt slogan for the period. The flag is still displayed at the Bedford Library in Massachusetts.
The Serapis flag has a unique and interesting story tied to it, involving U.S. Navy Captain John Paul Jones. In 1779 at the Battle of Flamborough Head, Jones captured the Serapis, a British frigate, but in the process his own ship the Bonhomme Richard sank. He wanted to dock the foreign ship at the nearby port, Texel, which was controlled by the Dutch United Provinces. However, without a standard and sailing a captured ship, there was argument that he was a mere pirate. So, hastily, with the description Ambassador Franklin had given the French of the U.S. flag (for international recognition), they made a standard that consisted of “thirteen stripes, alternately red, white, and blue; a small square in the upper angle, next to the flagstaff is a blue field with thirteen white stars, denoting a new constellation.” Hence, the Serapis flag was born.
History is not without controversy. During the Battle of Bennington, General John Stark's militia, with reinforcements from Colonel Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys, fought valiantly against a detachment of General John Burgoyne's regiment as part of the Saratoga campaign. While it may have been a minor defeat to the British, it led to a larger victory for the Patriots.
It is said that the Bennington flag was flown during this battle, named for the town in which it was fought, carried by Stark's men. However, there is much evidence to suggest that the flag once thought to have been at this battle was actually made for either the 50th or Centennial celebration of our nation's birth.
The Moultrie flag was made famous from the decisive battle fought in South Carolina, where Colonel William Moultrie defended Sullivan's Island from the British fleet and resulted in a resounding victory for the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. The battle saved Charleston, turning the British fleet on its heels. Moultrie commissioned the flag in advance of the war with the British, knowing he would need a rallying standard under which his men could gather. During the battle, the flag was shot off its post, and, in a daringly brave move, Sergeant William Jasper ran out in the open to grab it and re-hoisted the flag until a new post could be had. This act of bravery, along with the victorious win, made the Moultrie flag part of our rich history and the hearts of South Carolinians.
The Battle of Cowpens was a turning point in the war for the Americans. With a stalemate in the north, the British had turned their focus south in hopes of gathering support from Loyalists and planned to use them against the colonists still fighting for freedom. Initially, their plan seemed to work. Then Washington put Major General Nathanael Greene in charge of the campaign in the Carolinas. The series of battles that ensued began to turn the tide of war in favor of the colonists. Initially, their plan seemed to work. Then Washington put Major General Nathanael Greene in charge of the campaign in the Carolinas. The series of battles that ensued began to turn the tide of war in favor of the colonists.
Carrying on the victory wave, Major General Greene faced the seasoned forces of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis on the steps of the Guilford Courthouse. The British lost significant troops in against Greene, and he had underestimated the will of the colonists. This battle was the pivotal engagement of the Revolutionary War, as it sent Cornwallis out of the Carolinas up to Virginia, where he fought and lost at Yorktown and surrendered to Washington after the final battle of the war. This battle was the pivotal engagement of the Revolutionary War, as it sent Cornwallis out of the Carolinas up to Virginia, where he fought and lost at Yorktown and surrendered to Washington after the final battle of the war. Charles James Fox, a British statesman, said of the battle, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army.” The flag is unique, as the stripes are red and blue instead of the standard red and white. It was never intended to be a national flag, but a regimental flag, and now is a reminder of the incredible victory that changed our nation's course in the Revolutionary War. At the close of the war, after the Treaty of Paris had been signed on September 3, 1783, Washington and the citizens of the United States waited for the British to disassemble seven years’ worth of infrastructure and military encampments from New York. It was no small feat, and was finally completed on November 25th. The celebration, known as Evacuation Day, was planned to commence once the last British ship sailed from the coastline, with a procession through the city which would end at Fort George, where the British flag would be taken down and the American flag would be hoisted in its place. The British had one last move to make, which served as a parting practical joke. They had removed the halyard of the Union Jack flying over Fort George and greased the flag pole.
When the Americans went to take the British standard down, they realized what the freshly departed soldiers had done.Fearful of Washington's procession arriving while the Union Jack was still in the air, they tried every way possible to take the flag down, short of cutting down the flag pole. Well, Washington's procession arrived, and there the British flag flapped in the breeze. A young sergeant from New York, John Van Arsdale, with help from a run to the local hardware store, climbed the pole while nailing cleats in as he went to get to the flag. With Washington looking on, Arsdale got close enough to grasp the flag and tear it down, with cheers and roaring from the crowd below: Such an end to a hard fought war for freedom, showing the true spirit for which we Americans are known for today.