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History and Heritage

Old Glory Turns 241:

3 Ways the Navy Helped Design the American Flag

The Star Spangled Banner; the Stars and Stripes; the Red, White and Blue; Old Glory - first adopted June 14, 1777, the American flag has been a symbol of freedom ever since those dark days of revolution. This Flag Day, All Hands looks at the Navy's role in the evolution of the national standard.

1. The First Flag

The first national flag of the united colonies, the Grand Union flag, was a naval ensign. Then-Lt. John Paul Jones became the first person to raise it above a Continental warship when he hoisted it on the Navy's first flagship, Alfred, Dec. 3, 1775, while she was anchored in Philadelphia on the Delaware River, according to "Our Flag," by the Government Printing Office. Jones later called it the "flag of Freedom," and said he "attended it, with veneration, ever since on the ocean."

Featuring seven red stripes and six white to recognize the 13 colonies, with a British flag in canton (the upper left corner), the Grand Union flag closely matched the flag of the British East India Company. No one knows who designed the American version or why, although a seamstress in Philadelphia named Margaret Manny sewed flags for the Alfred around this time. It would have been easy to sew white stripes on existing red Royal Navy ensigns, and the Sons of Liberty flag already alternated red and white stripes.
Three photos: Painting of the Alfred; Grand Union flag; painting of the raising of the Grand Union flag

Denmark and the Netherlands became the first countries to officially salute the United States, when their ships returned gun salutes from American ships flying Grand Union flags in the Caribbean in the fall of 1776.

Many historians believe the Grand Union flag was also the flag newly appointed Commander-in-Chief Gen. George Washington hoisted on Prospect Hill during the Siege of Boston, Jan. 1, 1776, to a 13-gun salute, both in defiance of a British order to surrender and to honor his reorganized Army. As a result, the standard is also known as the Continental Colors.

2. The Flag Designer

In 1777, after the fledgling country declared its independence, the Continental Congress wanted a new flag, one without a throwback to Britain. The Marine Committee, "Resolved," June 14, "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 new constellation."

American legend says that this is the flag Washington had asked Betsy Ross to sew the previous year, and that it was Ross who suggested five-point stars. The story is plausible: Ross' uncle-in-law was George Ross, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the men who gave Ross the commission. She also had connections to Washington and to Robert Morris, who served on the Marine and Maritime Committees, and donated the ship that would become Alfred to the Continental Navy. And records show the Pennsylvania State Navy Board did in fact pay Ross a large sum of money for making flags - "ship's colours" - in 1777. However, there's no proof that the flag she sewed was actually the first Stars and Stripes, and because the claim dates from her grandson in the 1870s, most historians are skeptical.
Three photos: Hopkinson's "Great Seal Design;" Hopkinson's flag design; black and white sketch of Hopskinson

Instead, they point to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Francis Hopkinson was a member of the Continental Naval Board and a New Jersey congressman, a poet and a lawyer, a musician and a judge, an artist and a civil servant, according to author and flag historian Earl P. Williams Jr. Incidentally, Hopkinson was also treasurer of loans and a consultant for a committee created to design the Great Seal of the United States. In addition, he claimed to have designed the Continental currency and seals for the Admiralty and Treasury boards. A fourth seal, one for the Continental Board of War and Ordnance, is also credited to Hopkinson, but was never adopted.

Those seals are important, for no examples of Hopkinson's original flag exist, according to Williams. Based on images and symbols in his heraldic designs, historians believe Hopkinson's flag featured six-pointed stars in a staggered pattern, although parallel placement became more popular. The version of the flag with the stars in a circle, the one most associated with Ross and pictured in a 1779 portrait of George Washington, was never regularly used, according to "Our Flag." In fact, the placement of the stars wasn't standardized until 1912.

In May 1780, Hopkinson wrote to the Continental Admiralty Board, saying that while his designs were "Labours of Fancy," favors he provided to his country free of charge, he would appreciate a "Quarter cask of the public wine" as a reward. His claim was eventually rejected, on the grounds that as a civil servant, Hopkinson had already been paid for his work. Congress also said he hadn't worked alone, although he remains the only person known to have taken credit for designing the Stars and Stripes. That doesn't mean, of course, that Betsy Ross couldn't have sewed it.
Two photos: painting of Betsy Ross sewing the American flag; Flag Day poster 1917.

3. The Number of Stripes

As new states joined the union, officials added not only a new star, but a new stripe. In fact, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore and so inspired Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, the flag immortalized as the Star-Spangled Banner in the future national anthem, featured 15 stars and 15 stripes. But as time went on, and the States continued to grow, this practice began to seem more and more impractical. According to a House of Representatives history, Congress formed a special committee to update the flag in 1817. Recognizing how important such emblems were in identifying ships at sea, the committee turned to a naval hero for advice.

Captain Samuel C. Reid, who had served in the regular Navy in the 1790s, commanded the privateer General Armstrong during the War of 1812. General Armstrong arrived in Fayal in the Azores, Portugal, in the fall of 1814, where she encountered a British squadron that was preparing to join the invasion of New Orleans, according to Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Armstrong in an article for the Naval Institute. Under Reid's command, General Armstrong repelled several nighttime British attacks and enemy attempts to board via grappling hooks, Sept. 26. Reid knew another attack would probably cost him his ship, however, so to keep her from falling into enemy hands and to save the lives of his crew, he ordered General Armstrong scuttled. The delay he caused the British supposedly forced them to postpone their attack in Louisiana. Then-Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson reportedly thanked Reid for buying him time to complete his defenses.
Four photos: Star Spangled Banner; Samuel Reid designs; black and white photo Fort McHenry flag; painting of Reid.

Reid proposed three designs: a "People's Flag," for general use with 20 stars forming a larger star and 13 stripes, a "Government Flag" for federal use with stripes and an eagle in the canton and a "Standard of the Union" for celebrations. This version featured four sections: one with stripes, another a star made of smaller stars, the Goddess of Liberty and the eagle.

Congress approved the simplest design in April 1818, and the committee chairman was "pleased with its form and proportions," although the large star proved less enduring than the 13 stripes. The Flag Act of 1818 also specified that after the entry of a new state, the updated flag design would become official on the following July 4.

Reid died in 1861. Four U.S. Navy ships - three destroyers and a frigate - have been named in his honor.
Infographic on Flag Day

Flag Day Infographic: Patriotism Freedom Honor
Evolution of the Flag

Betsy Ross Flag, 1776
Although not official, legend has it Betsy Ross sewed the first American Flag from a pencil sketch drawn by George Washington.
Original 13 Star Flag June 1777
Congress passed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777. The flag had 13 stars and 13 stripes to represent the 13 colonies.
Civil War Union Flag 1861
Flown by North during the first half of the Civil War, the flag had 34 stars to represent all the country's states.
Present American Flag 1960-Present
This flag became the official American Flag on July 4, 1960. A 17-year old student designed the flag as it appears today. In anticipation of Alaska and Hawaii becoming states, Robert G. Heft created the 50-star flag as part of a history project (for which he received a B-) before submitting it to Congress for consideration. In August of 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Heft's design over 1,500 other applicants and informed him of the news over the phone.
Proper Flag Folding:
1. While Holding edges taut, fold the lower half of the stripe section lengthwise over the field of stars.
2. Fold the flag again lengthwise with the blue field on the outside.
3. Make a triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to meet the open/top edge of the flag.
4. Turn the outer (end) point inward, parallel to the open edge, to form a second triangle.
5. The triangular folding is continued until the entire length of the flag is folded.
6. When completely folded, the triangular blue field of stars should be visible.