J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Did the Union Flag Disappoint Boston’s Loyalists?

Yesterday I quoted Gen. George Washington’s January 1776 report that Loyalists in Boston were hopeful that the Continental Army’s new Great or Grand Union Flag (shown at right, as available from FlagandBanner.com) indicated that American soldiers had heard George III’s admonitory speech and decided to capitulate. But was that report well founded?

I rounded up my usual sources from inside the besieged town: selectman Timothy Newell, Col. Earl Percy, Capt. John Barker, merchant John Rowe, and the Boston News-Letter, which was the one newspaper still being printed there. And I found no discussion of the Continentals’ new flag or a renewed hope that they had decided to surrender. And that seems like the sort of thing those people might mention.

In fact, three British reports about the American activity on 2 Jan 1776 indicate that people saw nothing in it but continued defiance. Peter Force’s American Archives includes a letter from the captain of a British ship to his employers in London, dated 17 January, which says:

I can see the rebels’ camp very plain, whose colors, a little while ago, were entirely red; but on the receipt of the king’s speech, which they burnt, they hoisted the union flag, which is here supposed to intimate the union of the provinces.
At the end of the year, the Annual Register, Edmund Burke’s London news round-up, reported (perhaps based on that very captain’s letter):
The arrival of a copy of the king’s speech, with an account of the fate of the petition from the continental congress, is said to have excited the greatest degree of rage and indignation among them; as a proof of which, the former was publicly burnt in the camp; and they are said upon this occasion, to have changed their colours, from a plain red ground, which they had hitherto used, to a flag with thirteen stripes, as a symbol of the number and union of the colonies.
We can gauge the popularity of the Annual Register from the fact that nearly the same sentence, word for word, appeared in James Murray’s An Impartial History of the Present War in America (1780); Robert Beatson’s Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783 (1804); and R. Thomas’s A Pictorial History of the United States of America (1847). Plagiarists cannot hide from Google Books. Schuyler Hamilton’s History of the National Flag of the United States of America (1853) quoted both those sources, with citations. George Henry Preble’s 1872 history of the flag had a short and inaccurate quotation of the Annual Register passage, to match its short and innaccurate quotations of other sources; those, in turn, were reprinted in a number of later flag histories.

Finally, Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston quoted a British officer.
Lieut. [William] Carter...was on Charlestown Heights, and says, January 26: “The king’s speech was sent by a flag to them on the 1st instant [i.e., of this month]. In a short time after they received it, they hoisted an union flag (above the continental with the thirteen stripes) at Mount Pisgah; their citadel fired thirteen guns, and gave the like number of cheers.”
None of these British sources hint that people in Boston saw the new thirteen-stripe flag as a sign of imminent American capitulation. And why would they have done so? The Continentals had been flying a flag with a Union Jack in the corner and a red field—a traditional British flag. This new “great union flag” shifted a little away from that standard by adding symbols of the thirteen colonies. Its Union Jack canton still displayed the Whigs’ allegiance to traditional British rights, but it was now a banner exclusive to America.

Granted, those three British reports all date from two weeks or more after the new flag appeared, so there might have been time for Loyalist hopes to rise and fade. But as far as I can tell, our only source for the belief that people inside Boston expected a surrender is the one anonymous person who came out of the town on 3 Jan 1776 and told Washington something the commander-in-chief was pleased to hear. The whole anecdote might have been based on nothing more than a short conversation between a couple of guys.
“Huh. New flag. What do you think it means?”

“Maybe they’re giving up.”

“You really think so?”

“Well, we did just send them the king’s speech.”

“I guess. Still, that’s a lot to hope for.”

“We’ll see in a few days, I’m sure. You coming for dinner Thursday?”

“Thursday? You know, I might be out of town...”
[ADDENDUM: But a flag expert has raised questions about the traditional interpretation of these sources—did the “Grand Union Flag” even exist?]

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