The television show “The Big Bang Theory” and Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s “Fun with Flags” vlog is sort of my inspiration for this post. I have always been very interested in the various flags I have seen from the American Revolution on the continental side. It is also interesting to see how those flags have developed into the flags that the people of the United States continue to use today.
The British Red Ensign was approved and adopted by Queen Anne in 1707, though it was largely used as a naval ensign it became the flag for Great Britain and the colonies. When General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, this is the flag he surrendered to Washington. In Washington’s surrender to the French at Fort Necessity, the French allowed washington and his forces to leave with the Red Ensign flying.
The flag below is known as the Bedford Flag, the picture on the left is the original flag, known to be the oldest complete flag known to exist in the United States. The photo on the right is a flag carried by the Massachusetts Bay Colony Militia during the French and Indian War. It was also carried by the Bedford Minutemen in the Battle of Concord Bridge on April 19, 1775. The inscription “Vince Aut Morire” means Conquer or Die.
As the sentiment against the british taxes on the colonies began to grow, a Liberty Pole was raised in Schenectady NY, on that pole was a blue silk 44×44 inch flag with the word “Liberty” sewn into it. This Liberty Flag quickly became a symbol for those opposed to British taxation and acts against the colonies. This same flag was reportedly carried into battle by the First New York Line Regiment, the unit was largely from Schenectady. The Liberty Flag is the first known Revolutionary flag.
The First Flag of New England, shown above, shows the pine tree in the upper left left hand corner becomes a common theme in flags in the rebelling colonies. The pine tree symbolism comes from the Penacook Native American tribe that lived along the coast of the areas that are now Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Southern Maine. The Penacook were credited with the survival of the Mayflower colonists in the first Thanksgiving story. The Penacook name comes from Algonquin meaning, children of the pine. This flag, and many like it were carried into battle during the revolution by some rebel units, and was made into several other variants that you will see below.
Very similar to the Flag of New England above is the Continental Flag was also called the Trumbull Flag. A flag carried at the Battle of Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill), The British soldiers only recalled seeing a red flag flown, but recollections from the rebel side account the pine tree on the Continental flag. The reason this flag is also called the Trumbull flag is because it appears in a painting by John Trumbull who fought one the rebel side at the Battle of Breed’s Hill. The painting, called “The death of General Warren” shown below has caused some confusion over the years, as the painting has aged, the flag appears to be blue with the pine tree in the corner, The British Ensign is also discolored and appears green. This confusion caused later production of the Continental Flag to be made of blue cloth with the pine tree in the upper left corner.
Other flags with the Pine Tree portrayal range from several different areas. In 1775, George Washington outfitted six schooners to patrol along the coast, these ships were called Washington’s Cruisers, They were armed with a single cannon (likely a 3 pounder) and small arms, these ships were meant to harass and evade, drawing fire away from land attacks by the British naval vessels. The Cruisers flew a simple flag, a Pine Tree on a white background with “Appeal to Heaven” in black letters. Massachusetts also used the Pine tree as the ensign for its own Naval Militia.
Why the Pine Tree? In 1722, the British had depleted healthy forests with thick mast trees for their navy, so a proclamation was listed that any white pine tree measuring 24 inches in diameter was now the property of the Crown and furthermore, any White Pine measuring 12 inches in diameter could not cut down. Colonists were also forbidden from selling these “Mast Trees” to anyone else, including colonial shipbuilders. While this order from the Crown did not have much descent at the time, in 1772, with other taxation orders like the Stamp Act and the Tea Tax, the Mast Preservation Clause became yet another reason to fight the power of Britain. Sawyers and Millners began to refuse to cut the trees for British ships leading to the Pine Tree Riots (future article teaser) and making the Pine Tree a symbol of liberty.
The next group we’ll call “The Snake Flags,” flags developed very likely from the “Unite or Die” political cartoon that was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, to get the colonies to unite against the French during the Seven Years War ( French and Indian War). The Snake became a symbol of unity an the onset of disagreements with the British government. The Culpeper Flag was carried into battle in Colonel Patrick Henry’s unit, the Culpeper Minutemen. The Culpeper flag feature a coiled snake with a bannerline “The Culpeper MinuteMen” and also “Liberty or Death” and “Don’t Tread on Me” in letters around the coiled snake. The flag the gets a little more notoriety is the Gadsden Flag, the Gadsden Flag was made as a naval ensign for the new United States Navy designed by South Carolina Congressman Christopher Gadsden. The design featured a yellow flag with a coiled snake on grass and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” along the bottom. The Navy Jack soon became a standard on U.S. naval vessels, it featured an uncoiled snake across thirteen red and white stripes and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” on the lowest white stripe.
The next group we’ll call the Stars and Stripes group, these flags were largely what inspired the modern U.S. flag. The first of these would be the Sons of Liberty flag, the Sons of Liberty were a rebel group initially based on Boston. The Sons of Liberty were known to gather under a tree that was called the Liberty Tree in Boston, when the British found out about the Liberty Tree, they had it cut down. The Sons of Liberty placed a pole at the site of the tree which would then be called the Liberty Pole at the top of that pole flew a flag of thirteen simple red and white stripes, this flag became the flag of the Sons of Liberty. The Grand Union Flag was the original United States Flag kept the British Union Jack in the upper left hand corner and the stripes of the colonies throughout the rest of the flag, some historians believe that it was a way to show respect to the Crown and hope for a peaceful ending and a reasonable outcome with self rule and remaining British Subjects. The Grand Union Flag was replaced on June 14, 1777 (which became Flag Day). Legend says that George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross took a drawing to Betsy Ross, asking her if she could create a flag from a paper drawing. The Betsy Ross Flag followed with thirteen horizontal red and white stripes and a blue field with thirteen five pointed stars in a circle. The Betsy Ross Flag would be the model for all future U.S. Flags.
The Thirteen Star Flag is the flag that was actually approved by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 as the United States Flag, the Congress however never specified the layout of the stars in the blue field. The Green Mountain boys flag had a simple layout, a green flag (the shade of green varied a bit based on who made the flag) and in the upper left corner a blue field of thirteen, five pointed stars. The Green Mountain Boys were the New Hampshire Militia led by Ethan Allen and Seth Warner who took Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point during the revolution. The Bennington Flag was carried into the battle of Bennington by Nathaniel Fillmore. The flag has the usual 13 stars and stripes, but is unique because the stars have seven points and the stripes are white on the outer edges instead of the familiar red, and also displays the number “76” for the year of the Declaration of Independence. The Guilford Courthouse Flag was carried into the Battle of Guilford Courthouse as a member of the Granville County, North Carolina militia. The Flag had thirteen eight pointed blue stars on a white field and thirteen red and blue stripes. The Serapis Flag was made out of necessity, when John Paul Jones captured the HMS Serapis in a sea battle, he lost his flag the USS Bonhomme went down sank during the same battle. Jones sailed the Serapis into the dutch port of Texel, the British immediately wanted the ship returned to British custody and jones hanged as a pirate. Benjamin Franking who was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to France sent a Crude description of the new U.S. flag via courier the Serapis Flag was quickly made and raised on the now U.S.S Serapis was able to leave the Port of Texel.
This is not the only flags that existed in the development of the United States during the revolution. It shows the individuality of the flags and an idea of their history and a new avenue to explore.
National Park Service – Articles of Capitulation Fort Necessity: https://www.nps.gov/fone/learn/historyculture/capitulation.htm
Revolutionary War and Beyond – Revolutionary War Flags: https://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/american-revolution-flags.html
National Flag Foundation – https://nationalflagfoundation.org/where-to-see-famous-american-flags/