People and nations keep relics, and these relics connect us to our own lives, our family’s experiences, and our nation’s history. These connections help form, in Lincoln’s words, the “mystic chords of union” which tie us together.
Powerful connections are made with historical American flags. They remind us of key events in our nation’s life. Like a 21-gun salute, here are 21 places you can experience these important symbols of the American experience.
THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER
Heading any list of top places must be the Star Spangled Banner. The flag flown over Fort McHenry in Maryland during the War of 1812, prompting Francis Scott Key to write the poem which became our national anthem, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Set in a gallery providing a full context for the War of 1812, the bombardment of Ft. McHenry, and the subsequent preservation of the flag, this large flag is truly the national flag.
THE IWO JIMA FLAGS
One iconic image from American history is the raising of the flag by U.S. Marines on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. What is less well-known is the flag in the photograph is the second one flown from the top of Mt. Suribachi that day. The first was small and borrowed from one of the ships offshore.
The U.S. Marine Corps Museum, in Quantico, Virginia, owns both flags. The first only flew for a few hours. The second flew for the remainder of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The museum is located 36 miles south of Washington, D.C.
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MUSEUM
The American Civil War Museum has an excellent collection of captured Confederate battle flags. This museum houses the largest single collection of Union and Confederate flags.
Many were donated to the Museum of the Confederacy in the late 1800s. Some were given to the museum in 190 5 and 1906 by Congressional mandate as agreed to by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
USS ARIZONA FLAG
The flag flown by USS Arizona on December 7, 1941, is on display at the Arizona State Capitol Museum. The flag and other artifacts from the sunken ship remind us of that day of infamy which forced our entry into World War II. The remains of over 1,100 sailors are entombed in the hull of Arizona in Pearl Harbor.
CUSTER’S LAST FLAG
One of the flags borne by Custer’s troopers at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, near Hardin, Montana, is held by the South Dakota Historical Society Museum in Pierre. For many years, a family owned it and it is the best-preserved of the five flags, or guidons, lost by the 7th Cavalry. It is certainly better preserved than one which sold for $1.9 million in 2010—that guidon is in a private collection.
The Little Bighorn was the last significant Indian victory during the Indian Wars. Over 260 U.S. cavalrymen were killed, most under Custer’s direct command. Two other detachments could resist the Lakota and other tribal warriors for two days before slipping away.
FLAG OF THE BRAVE
One of the exhibits at the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas, is a flag stitched together by POWs held by the Japanese. They made it with a nail and the silk strands from a parachute. Throughout their 42-month captivity, they risked execution because of their possession of the flag.
Fredericksburg is the birthplace of Admiral Nimitz, who commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet from just after Pearl Harbor through the Japanese surrender in 1945. Nimitz’s boyhood home is part of the Museum.
OUT OF THE ASHES
September 11, 2001, was, for Americans, the worst day of the 21st Century. One of the iconic images from that day was the raising of an American flag by three firemen over the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York City. Lost for many years, the flag was recovered in 2016 and donated to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It is now on display in the museum.
411 emergency responders, including 343 members of the Fire Department of New York, died during the collapse of the World Trade Center following the attacks. The Memorial includes two reflecting pools, each about an acre in size, sited on the footprint of the Twin Towers.
CONNECTICUT’S 13-STAR FLAG
The New London, Connecticut, Historical Society has what is generally regarded as one of the few remaining authentic 13-star flags flown during the American Revolution. Named after its original owner, the Nathaniel Shaw flag has been restored and is now displayed with archival materials.
This flag is a very rare item. Not even the Smithsonian Institution has a thirteen-star flag from the Revolution.
THE BEDFORD FLAG
Not all important or significant flags are national flags. The Bedford flag, displayed in the Public Library in Bedford, Massachusetts, was the flag of the Bedford militia. Dated to 1737, it was most likely carried by the Bedford Militia to the Battle of Concord. It is certain that the militia’s “Cornet,” or flag-bearer, was at Concord.
After repelling the British from the Old North Bridge in Concord, the Minutemen pursued them back to Boston, using the surrounding trees as cover. It marked the first American success in the Revolutionary War.
THE HALL OF FLAGS—BOSTON
In the Massachusetts State House, the Hall of Flags and Great Hall both display an array of replica and real flags. The Massachusetts collection of flags—including many regimental colors from the Civil War and more recent conflicts—is currently in storage for preservation purposes. Transparencies of many of the flags are on display.
The Great Hall includes flags from the cities and towns throughout Massachusetts. The State House is open for tours.
THE TAUNTON FLAG
The Taunton flag, raised in October 1774, was one of the first signs of outright rebellion. Raised by the local Sons of Liberty, its current design is a British red ensign with the words “Liberty and Union” emblazoned across it. The design is based on a contemporary newspaper description—the red ensign or “Meteor” flag was commonly in use throughout the colonies.
Each October, Taunton commemorates the raising of the flag with the “Liberty and Union” Festival, held downtown. The flag itself flies daily in the town square, below the U.S. flag.
OLD BUT NOT QUITE OLD ENOUGH—THE BENNINGTON FLAG
The Bennington flag, held by the Bennington Museum in Vermont, is a variation on the standard American flag, with a “76” in the blue field in addition to the thirteen stars. The flag was long thought to have been carried by the Green Mountain Boys and other troops who defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Bennington.
It’s become clear this flag may date from fifty years after the Revolution, possibly made to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of national independence. It’s still part of our history and can help one ponder the connection between history and legend.
The museum also holds the canton of the flag for Green Mountain Boys. This flag, a field of green with a blue canton bearing stars, serves as the flag of the Vermont National Guard.
THE CALIFORNIA COLLECTION
The State Capitol Museum in Sacramento, California, has a collection of fifty flags from California military units from the Civil War to World War I. Only four are displayed at any given time, owing to the fragility of the flags.
One flag in the collection came from an incident on the streets of San Francisco. It is a Confederate flag taken from a Southern sympathizer on July 4, 1861, after a street fight.
RATTLESNAKES AND MOTTOES
The Gadsden flag, depicting a coiled rattlesnake and bearing the motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” was the flag of the first Commodore of the United States Navy. Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolina member of the 2nd Continental Congress, designed it while in Philadelphia. The rattlesnake had been a continental emblem since Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon of 1754.
The Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania holds a variation on the Gadsden flag. It features a rattlesnake appearing to strike at the British flag in the canton. It is a variation on the British red ensign. A battalion of troops carried it from Westmoreland County. It is believed to be the only Rattlesnake flag remaining from the Revolutionary War period.
“COME AND TAKE IT”
One of the little-known flags raised in the U.S. is the Gonzales flag. Also known as the “Come and Take It” flag, it was displayed by the Americans who had settled in Gonzales, Texas. The Mexican government had lent the settlers a cannon to scare Indian raiders off. When Mexican troops demanded the return of the cannon near the start of the Texas War of Independence, the settlers apparently pointed at it, and said, “There it is—come and take it.”
Subsequently, the ladies of the settlement made a flag with the cannon and motto on it. The original no longer exists but is reproduced at several places in Texas, including the Bullock State History Museum.
“JOIN, OR DIE”
Another famous motto is Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die,” coupled with the first use of the snake to represent the country. Back in the 18th Century, it was believed that the cut-up parts of a snake could regenerate into a whole—hence the cartoon Franklin created.
While it’s not clear if anyone flew a Join or Die flag in the Revolutionary Era, the motto was well known throughout the Thirteen Colonies. The slogan, originally meant to unify the colonies before the French and Indian War, became a call for unity in the face of increased British taxation and oppression.
NEW YORK STATE MILITARY MUSEUM
Located in Saratoga Springs, this museum has over 2,000 flags in its collection. It has the largest collection of State battle flags from the Civil War. The museum has an active conservation program.
The museum site also features many resources to track unit histories, including those of the New York regiments raised for the Civil War.
THE VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE
The Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, Virginia, has a long and distinguished history. Seven alumni have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Jackson Memorial Hall, named in memory of “Stonewall” Jackson, just off the parade ground on the post. The imposing oil painting on the eastern wall depicts the charge of the Corps of Cadets at the 1864 Battle of New Market.
Twenty-six state flags are hung around the gallery of the Hall—one for each state in the Union at the founding of the Institute. The VMI Museum is on the lower floor of the Hall.
THE CONFEDERATE MUSEUM
Many Confederate and Louisiana regimental flags from the Civil War are housed in the Confederate Museum in New Orleans. The museum keeps many on display at any given time. Museums work to preserve these artifacts. The cloth is fragile with age, and they are all sensitive to light.
TEXAS STATE ARCHIVES
Flags are fragile—many cannot be displayed publicly. To ensure people can still have the experience of those flags, some repositories have made their collections available online. The Texas State Library has put images of 39 of their flags online.
These flags include historical flags from the Mexican War and the Civil War. The collection includes the flags from several Texas regiments.
ZARICOR FLAG COLLECTION
Another online place, the Zaricor Flag Collection has an extensive collection of U.S. and state flags, as well as many historical flags from around the world. The Zaricor occasionally exhibits some of its holdings in various locations around the country.
One of their special items is a rare 29-star flag. The stars on this flag are in the “Fort Sumter flag” pattern—a diamond of 25 stars with 4 in the corners of the blue canton. The original Fort Sumter flags, flown in April 1861 and February 1865, are in the Fort Sumter museum.
Finding iconic, historical flags around the nation can take some effort. Most flags have long since deteriorated, although some may still be hidden in attics and trunks around the country. These twenty-one places, two virtual and nineteen real, are places where you can experience the range of flags raised in this country and reinforce your connection to it and to the people the flags represent.