Each morning, across America, our nation’s youth pledge allegiance to our flag. The brave men and women of our nation’s armed forces defend that flag each and every day. The “Stars and Stripes” is flown the world over as a symbol of liberty and justice, representing the great republic that we have grown from humble beginnings. From a small collection of independent colonies, through the passion and valor of brave men and women who raised first their voices and then their arms against tyranny, these colonies have grown into a continent-spanning nation.
However, the “Stars and Stripes” flag that we fly today is but the latest incarnation in a long line of flags, stretching back to the 1760s, that have represented our burgeoning nation, the groups who fought for its creation, and the growing republic birthed out of the turbulent decades of the late 18th century. Looking back at these flags is like looking back at the history of our nation itself, from the idea of rebellion, to the birthing of a nation, and then its expansion across the continent.
The Bedford Flag 1775
From antiquity through the 18th century, military unit flags, banners, and other emblems served many roles. They were the emblem of the unit, the symbol by which it was recognized, but they were also the rallying point for the unit on the battlefield. As the political unrest in the 13 colonies turned violent,many militia groups arose to protest the tyranny of British rule by force of arms.
In April of 1775, the famed “Shot Heard Round the World” was let fly at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Flying at the battle was the flag of the Bedford Minutemen. This banner bears the emblem of an arm enclosed in medieval armor holding a dagger. It includes the inscription “Vince autMorire,” which translates to “Conquer or Die.” Certainly an apt motto for the small militias that were about to take on the largest and most professional army in the world at the end of the 18th century.
Remarkably, the original Bedford Militia banner has survived to this day and is currently on display at the Bedford Free Library, in Bedford, Massachusetts.
Sons of Liberty – The Rebellious Stripes 1767 & 1775
Another militia group from the early Revolutionary period was the Sons of Liberty. Early in their formation they adopted a flag that was known as “The Rebellious Stripes.” As with the Bedford banner, the original still exists.
This flag was composed of 9 vertical stripes. The exact meaning of the design is unknown, but it has been suggested that the 9 stripes might represent the 9 colonies that were coming together to determine how they would handle protesting new taxation imposed on the colonies by Great Britain.
Later the group would adopt a more familiar-looking flag, with the design including 13 horizontal red and white stripes that would eventually come to be ubiquitous with American flag design.
Interestingly, the Sons of Liberty were also associated with other flags of 13 horizontal stripes, but in colors ranging from red and black to green and white, and also yellow and white.
Forster – 1775
Also flying at the Battle of Concord and Lexington was the flag of a group of Minutemen led by Samuel Forster. His men marched under a red banner with 13 white stripes. For this reason, it could be argued that this flag was the first to represent the 13 colonies that would become the United States.
Just as militias were being put together hastily, so, too, was this banner. The original was a red banner with the British Union flag in the upper left (known as the canton of a flag). Over top of this was quickly sewn a red patch with 13 white stripes.
Very few of these flags remain in existence. In 2014, one of the originals was put up for auction, with the owner hoping to raise between 1 and 3 million dollars for it. Despite its history and provenance, the flag failed to sell.
The Continental Flag or Trumbull’s Flag – c1775
The Continental flag has a controversial “history.” This flag, a simple red banner with a white field and green pine tree in the canton, was allegedly flown by colonial fighters at the second battle of the Revolution, the Battle of Bunker Hill. While these symbols were common enough on flags within New England at the time, there is no hard evidence that the flag was flown at the battle. In fact, there are precious few references to any flags at all among the colonial fighters. Among the accounts of the British soldiers taking part in the battle, most make no reference to any flags, and only a few allude to a red flag with no other details.
How, then, does the flag enter into the history books? In this case, the earliest clear “evidence” for the flag being at Bunker Hill is from a painting known as “The Death of General Warren at the Battle Bunker Hill,” by the artist Jonathan Trumbull, which is the source of its alternate name, the “Trumbull flag.”
Trumbull was a soldier, and he did observe the battle from a distance, through a looking glass. Though he was well known for his drawing skill, having been employed to draw maps of Boston, the painting was completed more than 10 years after the battle by someone who had not been present. Thus we are left with only legend and artwork to provide context for whether or not this flag truly flew at Bunker Hill.
Moultrie – 1775
Many of these early flags, representing either the burgeoning nation, regions, or militia units also lead us back to the individuals who were leading the way toward the birth of the United States. In many cases, these individuals would be considered the great men of history: militia leaders, regional military commanders, and George Washington himself. However, history is more than the story of the famous and well known people of our past; it also belongs to individuals, often forgotten, whose bravery made the success of those great men possible. The Moultrie or Liberty flag is one that carries the weight of history, both of the great and of the small.
In 1775, war with Great Britain imminent, a colonel from South Carolina by the name of William Moultrie commissioned and designed the Liberty Flag, a simple design of a blue field with a white crescent moon inscribed with a single word “Liberty” in the canton of the flag.
Under this banner his men successfully defended Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charleston harbor in June of 1776. During this battle, Moultrie and his men survived 10 hours of bombardment by British artillery, and then forced the British to retreat. The brave men of Moultrie’s 2nd South Carolina Regiment saved Charleston from the British.
During the battle the flag was shot down by British fire. Risking his life, William Jasper, a sergeant in Moultrie’s regiment, ran out from under cover, braving the British guns, and retrieved the flag, hoisting it once more. While the retrieval and re-hoisting of the Liberty Flag may not have had the full rallying effect legend has ascribed to it, it does stand as a testament to the lengths that our early forebears went to ensure our liberty, as emblazoned on the banner.
The history and meaning of the banner continue to grow, to the point that at the end of the war in 1782 the banner was presented to General Nathan Greene as the first American flag to be flown in the South.
Culpeper Minutemen – 1775
“Liberty or Death” and “Don’t Tread on Me” are two famous phrases that have come down to us from the days of the Revolution. The flag of the Culpeper Minutemen was a white banner emblazoned with both mottos surrounding a coiled snake. While the meaning of the coiled rattlesnake is not expressly mentioned in the documentation of the flag, one could imagine a Minuteman seeing himself as a coiled snake, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
The Culpeper Minutemen formally originated at the Virginia Convention in May of 1775 and was to be made up of men from Culpeper County, Virginia. The unit was not officially organized until later that summer, legends say, under an old Oak Tree on Catalpa Farm. Another legend states that one local man thought the motto too severe, and he would only enlist if the motto was changed to “Liberty or be Crippled.”
The men wore simple uniforms of brown shirts also bearing the mottos found on the flag, and they took part in the first battle of the Revolution to take place in Virginia, the Battle of the Great Bridge. After that battle, the unit was absorbed into official Continental Regiments by the Act of Assembly in October of 1776.
Nearly 100 years later, when war again came to Virginia, the Culpeper Minutemen were reformed, supposedly under the same oak tree as the original Minutemen. They carried the same banner into battle as part of a Virginian Infantry Regiment in the Confederate army during the American Civil War.
Gadsden – 1775
Unlike others discussed here, the Gadsden flag is one which the modern American is likely already familiar. In fact, it is available for sale here on AmericanFlags.com. Today, the flag has come to be a symbol of those who feel, as our ancestors did, that their rights are being troddenupon. As with the flag of the Culpeper Minutemen, the Gadsden Flag was emblazoned with a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase “Dont tread on me,” (no apostrophe), but this timeset on a yellow field.
The central images of the coiled rattlesnake and “Dont tread on me” phrase can be found across the colonies in the days leading up to and during the Revolution. In addition to banners and flags, these motifs could be found in newspapers, on buttons, and even on money printed in the Colonies. The history of this flag, though, is rather simple.
When Congress established this first Colonial Navy, it needed a flag for the ships of that small fleet to fly, and thus was born the Gadsden Flag: the first Ensign of the original American Navy, and also, by extension, the first symbol of the five companies of Marines that were mustered to accompany the fleet.
The flagship of that fleet, a captured British frigate renamed “Alfred,” the others that would join the growing navy, and the marines that fought along with the navy played a necessary role in the eventual victory of the Thirteen Colonies.
Of course, there is a story as to how this banner came to be known as the Gadsden flag. When Congress established the Continental Navy, it enlisted a man to be commander-in-chief of the Navy. For this role they chose Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island.
At this time, a man by the name of Colonel Christopher Gadsden,believing a distinctive banner was required for the prestigious role, presented the newly minted Commodore Hopkins with a flag as described in the South Carolina Congressional Journals:
“Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, “Don’t Tread on Me!”
Thus the Gadsden banner takes its name from the Colonel who presented the now famous banner to the first Commodore of a Continental Navy, to represent the Commodore, his fleet, his sailors, and his marines.
Washington’s Cruisers Pine Tree – 1775
The “Pine Tree Flag,” also known as the “Appeal to Heaven Flag” and “Washington’s Cruisers Flag,” was initially the naval flag of a series of 6 vessels commissioned by George Washington in 1775. It continued to be flown as the flag of the Massachusetts navy as well as that of privateer vessels that set sail from Massachusetts.
This was a simple white banner with the phrase “An Appeal to Heaven” above a green pine tree. As we have already seen, the pine tree was a very common emblem on the banners of New England during this era. The phrase “an appeal to heaven” also has an intriguing provenance and was used during the revolution on more than just this banner. It could be said, in fact, that based on the origin of the phrase, the entire Revolution was an appeal to heaven.
British Philosopher John Locke had written extensively about the “divine right of kings” and of the rights of a people to rise up against a tyrannical monarch. Without delving too deeply into philosophical tangents, Locke wrote in his Second Treatise on Civil Governmentthat a people have a divine right to rise up against tyranny. He states that when a long series of abuses are suffered by a people, and those people have attempted to remedy these injustices through all earthly means, they are left with no choice but to appeal to heaven and the morally supreme justice of God.
Locke’s influence on the founding fathers is well known and well documented, so it is no surprise that his ideas would find expression in the emblems and documents of our revolution.
Washington’s Commander-in-Chief – 1775
In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed General George Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Although no particular flag was assigned for the position, the “Commander-in-Chief Flag” has come to be recognized as the flag of General Washington and his command. The flag is of relatively simple design with 13 white 6-pointed stars arranged on a dark blue field. There have been varying descriptions and depictions of the arrangement of those stars, but the most common seems to be with the stars arranged in rows of 3-2-3-2-3. In fact, there is one flag which has survived from the Battle of Valley Forge with this arrangement. In 1912 the surviving flag was donated to the Valley Forge Historical Society by a descendant of Washington’s only sister, Betty Washington Lewis.
Continental Colors/Grand Union – 1775
If any flag can lay claim to being the first truly national flag of what would become the United States of America, then that honor belongs to the “Grand Union Flag,” also known as the “Continental Colors,” and “Congress Flag.”
This flag was comprised of the 13 red and white stripes representing the 13 colonies, but, unlike later American flags where a blue field and white stars would adorn the canton of the flag, this contained the British Union Flag. Here we have an example of another flag undergoing changes over time. The flag, now known as the “Union Jack,” includes all of the elements of the Union Flag, but with the red Cross of St. Patrick added to reflect the addition of Ireland to the United Kingdom.
This flag, signifying Colonial Unity, was well liked by George Washington, and he had the flag flown to celebrate the first anniversary of the formation of the Continental Army on January 1st, 1776.