Flags in Popular Culture

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The Spirit of '76

Even though it was painted over 125 years ago and most people have no clue as to the artist's name, The Spirit of '76 is still one of the most easily recognized paintings in this country. Thousands of people each year visit the Town Hall of Marblehead, Massachusetts, where it now hangs. Perhaps the resolute determination so apparent in the faces of thee young drummer boy, his elderly partner, and the bandaged fife player provide some comfort in a time of national stress.

Though the painting itself is well known, few are aware of the fascinating story that lies behind it. The artist was Archibald M. Willard, born in 1836 in Bedford, Ohio. Young Willard became an apprentice carriage painter and became well known for his distinctive ornamentation featuring landscapes and animals. After serving in the Union army during the Civil War, he began to paint humorous storytelling paintings of Americana, much like the work of Norman Rockwell. His first success was titled Pluck, a rollicking illustration featuring excited children holding on for dear life as the dog pulling their dogcart frantically chases a rabbit. Another more sober painting titled Minute Men of the Revolution showed a father and son leaving their home together for battle.

Willard's popularity was growing fast. He decided to produce something spectacular in honor of the upcoming American centennial in 1876. His first plan was to do another humorous painting called Yankee Doodle, showing a fife and drum band capering in riotous enthusiasm. After a few attempts, however, he realized that the centennial called for a work in a more serious vein.

He retained the idea of illustrating a fife and drum band, however. He turned to real life for his models: the forceful and determined old drummer was his father; the bandaged fifer was an old wartime buddy, Hugh Mosher; and the drummer boy was Harry Devereux, son of Civil War general J. H. Devereux. For the flag, Willard painted the ubiquitous "Betsy Ross" banner with its thirteen-star circle. Though debate still rages whether this flag ever really existed, Willard's painting further encouraged the belief that this was the "true" Revolutionary War banner.

The painting became a huge success. It was first exhibited in the window of a Cleveland art store, and the sidewalks were soon jammed with viewers. It then went on to its intended destination, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia; from there it traveled to Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and many other cities.

The painting was finally purchased by the drummer boy's father, General Devereux; he then donated it to the town hall of his hometown, Marblehead, Massachusetts, where it soon picked up the nickname The Spirit of '76.

One newspaper reviewer noted: "It shows features which could be kind, but now are set like a flint in the face of the enemy. It is not the unreasoning courage of the professional soldier but the courage of men who have put character and thought and prayer into the music through which they utter their patriotic purpose. Those three men will stand and play until they the, or by their contagious heroism will turn the tide of battle.

Hitting the Charts

In late September of 2001, the music industry saw a massive surge in the sales of songs or artists who featured a patriotic element. Bruce Springsteen, Lee Greenwood, and even Kate Smith were among the top in-demand artists in the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation.

One of the hottest-selling singles had actually been recorded and released ten years earlier, when our country was in the middle of the Gulf War. Whitney Houston's performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was originally taped during Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. In the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Arista Records and Whitney Houston responded to the president's call for all Americans to proudly fly the American flag by immediately re-releasing the patriotic anthem to radio stations across the country.

The Arista label shipped over 750,000 copies of the single, which went on sale September 27 for $3.99. Both Whitney Houston and her label donated their royalties and net proceeds to the New York Fraternal Order of Police and the New York Firefighters 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund.

The Flag of Iwo Jima

One of the most famous American flags is the one that was raised by six marines on February 23, 1945, on the embattled Pacific island of Iwo Jima. Four days earlier U.S. Marines had stormed the flanks of what the Japanese had considered their impregnable fortress—Mount Suribachi. The mountain was honeycombed with caves and tunnels that provided cover for a desperate Japanese army. Days of intense and bloody battle ensued, with both sides taking horrible casualties. At last, however, the maze of passages within and the craggy rocks above fell silent—the Americans had taken Mount Suribachi.

James Bradley, in his splendid book Flags of Our Fathers, tells the story of Iwo Jima and its famous image from a unique perspective—his father, John "Doc" Bradley, was one of the six men raising the flag in the photograph.

Bradley relates how, after the mountain stronghold had finally been taken, forty marines crawled up the precipitous SSO-foot sides while carrying a small American flag. Using pieces of pipe ripped from the fortress as a makeshift flagpole, they raised the American flag at the top at 10:20 A.M.—it was the first foreign flag to fly on Japanese soil. Thousands of marines and sailors cheered and naval ships offshore blared mighty blasts of their horns.

Perhaps because of the din, a small contingent of Japanese soldiers came racing out of hidden tunnels and another, smaller, fire-fight ensued, but the marines prevailed once more.

At this point an LST ship pulled up on the beach and a sergeant came running up to the group of marines. He was carrying a flag much larger than the one they had raised only a few hours before, measuring eight feet by almost five feet. The flag had originally flown on one of the ships that had been sunk in Pearl Harbor.

As he handed the flag over to the men, the sergeant said, "Colonel Johnson wants this big flag run up high so every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island can see it!"

The six marines again made their way to the top and reenacted the flag raising. This time a few photographers captured the historic moment on film, including Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press wire service photographer. It all happened so fast that he wasn't sure if he even got the picture.

Later, however, when the AP photo editor saw the print, he exclaimed, "Here's one for all time!"

The photo appeared in papers across America only two days later, on Sunday, February 25. The dramatic tension and the sense of victory against all odds the photo conveyed gave new hope to the American people, weary and discouraged after years of war.

Joe Rosenthal, a modest man, always took pains to point out that his photo was of the second raising, not the first. "Good luck was with me," he said, "that's all—the wind was rippling the flag right, the men in fine positions, and the day clear enough to bring everything into sharp focus."

Today, the very flag whose image atop Suribachi thrilled millions of Americans as they read their Sunday newspapers can be seen in the Marine Corps Museum in Washington, D.C.