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THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

June 11, 2017

Clare and I recently purchased a new flag to display on the front of our home. For years we have proudly hung the flag that draped the casket of Clare’s father, Mr. Jack, Jackson S. Long. Mr. Jack served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.  His honor flag was presented to Clare at his funeral.

Over time the old flag that served us well for so many years became worn and faded. Made of cotton, the flag could not last forever.

The new flag is fashioned from heavy synthetic material purported to be more durable than the old cotton banner. We hung it on our front porch just before Memorial Day and will display it there until Labor Day. In the near future we will invite a local Boy Scout troop to help us properly retire the former flag.

Our grandchildren have been keenly interested in the new flag. They enjoy rubbing the shiny surface and watching it blow in the wind. Some of the older children have taken an interest in the history of the flag. Perhaps this brief refresher will help all of us appreciate the history of our flag.

June 14 is celebrated in the United States as National Flag Day. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on that date in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day; in August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. While Flag Day is not an official federal holiday, many Americans mark the day as our family does by displaying the flag. As Flag Day approaches on June 14, these reminders may help us pause and give the flag the honor it deserves.

The early flags of the United States of America were all hand sewn. Each flag has a unique history. For Flag Day, allow me to repeat some of those best-known stories.

The Stars and Stripes

Legend holds that George Washington visited Betsy Ross on July 4, 1776, and commissioned her to make the first American flag. Elizabeth Griscom was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She married John Ross in 1773. The couple began an upholstery business together, drawing on her needlework skills.

John Ross was killed in January 1776 on militia duty. Betsy married an American sailor who died as a prisoner of war. Then she married a soldier who died from the wounds of war. Betsy was three times the widow of patriots.  She continued the upholstery business, supporting and rearing her seven daughters.

The story of Betsy Ross’ commission to make the first American flag, as told by her grandson, was first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1873.  The account received wide acceptance. By the 1880s, many school textbooks included the story.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, establishing the standard for flags of the United States. The wording of that document describes the Stars and Stripes: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Tradition says that Betsy Ross made the flag, using fabric from a white petticoat, a red shirt, and a blue coat. The colors held symbolic significance – white for purity, red for valor, and blue for loyalty. The stars were placed in a circle to show equality among the original states.

The American flag was lightly regarded during the early years of the nation. Long before it flew on the moon or fluttered over the White House; long before it reached the North Pole or the summit of Mount Everest; long before it was hoisted by Marines at Iwo Jima, folded by an honor guard into a triangle at Arlington National Cemetery, or unfurled by firefighters above the ashes of the World Trade Center, the American ensign was just a patchwork of cloth. That all changed during the War of 1812.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The British fleet made preparations for an attack on the United States. In Baltimore, Major George Armistead at Fort McHenry was ready to defend the harbor. He expressed a desire for a large flag to fly over the fort, one the British could see from out at sea, miles away.

Mary Pickersgill, a prominent Baltimore flag maker, received the order for an oversized American flag to measure 30×42 feet. Pickersgill was an experienced maker of ships’ colors.

She and her assistants spent seven weeks designing and stitching the garrison flag. They sewed by candlelight, sitting on the floor of Claggett’s Brewery, the only space in East Baltimore large enough to accommodate the project. They assembled the dark blue field and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting.  Each of the fifteen horizontal red and white stripes measured two feet wide.  Each of the fifteen five-pointed white cotton stars measured two feet across. They were sewn into the upper left quarter, forming the flag’s canton, the rectangle of deep blue fabric which measured 16×21 feet. In all, the large flag required 300 yards of fabric.

Pickersgill’s flag was flying over Fort McHenry when the British fleet attacked on September 12, 1814. Intense bombardment targeted Fort McHenry on the evening of September 13. Heavy shelling continued for twenty-five hours.  British ships were unable to pass the fort and penetrate the harbor. The attack ended and the fleet retreated.

As dawn broke on the morning of September 14, the battered flag still flew above the ramparts of the fort. Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, celebrated the sight of the flag in a poem. His words became our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Old Glory

In 1820, William Driver, a young sea captain, was presented a flag by his mother in Salem, Massachusetts. The hand-sewn flag was designed to be flown from the mast of the whaling vessel Charles Doggett. The flag had twenty-four stars and included a small anchor stitched in the corner of its blue canton.

As he left the harbor for a trip around the world, Captain Driver was the first to hail the flag as Old Glory. It served as the official flag throughout the voyage.

Driver retired from the sea in 1837 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, taking his cherished flag with him. He flew his beloved flag on all patriotic occasions. When the Civil War broke out some thirty years later, he stuffed Old Glory as batting inside a comforter to conceal it from the Confederate Army.

The Pledge of Allegiance

In 1985, I traveled with a group of scouts to the National Boy Scout Jamboree.   En route, we visited the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. We stood gazing at the original Star-Spangled Banner, the same one flown over Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words of our national anthem. We marveled at the large size of that tattered flag.

Spontaneously, an Eagle Scout from Georgia snapped to attention, saluted, and recited, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

Immediately, a host of scouts and other visitors joined in as we honored our flag and affirmed loyalty to our country.

On this Flag Day, we might all salute and to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

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