The Bedford Flag: Its History and Meaning

The Bedford Flag is the oldest intact flag in the United States, possibly the oldest flag carried into battle in the history of America. There is, of course, some controversy, which we will look at briefly. First, though, let’s look at the banner itself:

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… or at least a reproduction of it; the original is painted on red silk damask and, while intact, is not in the best of condition. Note the almost square shape; most modern flags are rectangular, in roughly a 2:1 to 4:3 ratio. This probably indicates it was a cavalry flag.

The flag is asymmetrical, with the obverse and reverse having slightly different designs. Here, we view the obverse, where the sword is extended behind the ribbon, gripped in the right hand, and the inscription on the ribbon reads from top to bottom. The reverse has the sword in front of the ribbon, held in the left hand, and the inscription climbing. That Latin inscription is Vince Aut Morire, meaning Conquer or Die.

The exact date of manufacture is unknown, but it was already an heirloom when it was carried into the Battle of Concord (or was it?) on April 19, 1775, by Nathaniel Page. Analysis of the pigments on the flag indicates the presence of the pigment Prussian Blue, invented in 1704, so that limits its creation to after that period.

The damasking suggests further that its likely creation is in the early 1700s; the floral pattern of pomegranates, grapes, and leaves was common in that time period. Also, the Page family is mentioned in military rolls at the time as being dispatched as cornets, who carried the flag for their companies, by 1737 at least. Presuming they brought this flag with them, it certainly indicates it was possible to have been carried to North Bridge in Concord at the appropriate time.

Unfortunately, the ephemera from the battles do not indicate the presence of such a flag. Surely someone at the battle would have taken notice of such a unique flag and made mention of it; most flags are readily identifiable – which is the point, really – and would have been listed in a debrief of a battle, so that the companies and units that participated would be properly recorded. Sadly, the lack of any such notice means that, despite the lore, Mr. Page probably did not actually carry the flag into any such conflict.

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That doesn’t mean that its position as the oldest flag in the United States is in danger, though, especially since it’s in very good shape for a three-hundred-year-old piece of cloth. In fact, the symbolism of the flag is pretty interesting, so let’s turn from the sorrow and embrace the heraldry.

The armored arm was a fairly standard heraldry symbol, used throughout Europe to indicate a powerful leader, specifically a person endowed with qualities of leadership rather than just a person in charge by circumstance. The sword, unsurprisingly, is also very commonly seen, indicating military honor and justice.

The cloud is a touch more obscure, indicating mystery, but flag designers were never totally immune to the idea that some things simply look awesome, and a sword-wielding arm emerging from a cloud to declare that it must “Conquer or Die” falls directly into that category. Three cannonballs are suspended in the air; in heraldry this generally means the bearer of the flag has faced such a weapon in battle.

To sum up: A strong military leader who is willing to face cannon and not back down? Definitely a good choice for a unit of Minutemen to rally behind. It is probable that the Page family carried the banner into maneuvers and meetings, even if they likely didn’t commission nor procure it for the company, as that was the company commander’s duty.

Even if it was absent at the first battle of the American Revolution, the long history of the flag ensures that it will command interest for a long time to come. The Bedford Library currently holds the flag in a special room in its history area, where it is available to view at any time the library is open. Seeing such an artifact in person connects the viewer to its original position in a way that is difficult to convey, although now you can acquire an excellent reproduction to re-experience that feeling at any time.

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