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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Sunday, February 17, 2008

More Questions on the “Grand Union Flag”

Back in January I wrote a couple of posts about the flag that the Continental Army raised in Cambridge in early January 1776. Gen. George Washington referred to that banner in a letter as “the union flag.”

By the late 1800s, that phrase had evolved into “the Grand Union Flag,” which became the standard label for the design pictured at right: a banner with the British union flag as a canton and thirteen red and white stripes.

This month, flag scholar Peter Ansoff alerted me to “The Flag on Prospect Hill,” an article he wrote for the 2006 issue of the journal Raven, published by the North American Vexillological Association. The nicely illustrated article is available for downloading at the top of this index. Peter argues that the flag Washington watched go up in January 1776 “was not, in fact, the so-called ‘Grand Union’, but simply a British Union flag.”

Interesting. I strongly agree with Peter that in early 1776 the Continental Congress and army commanders still saw and presented themselves as fighting for traditional British liberties, not yet for American independence.

At the same time, people within the siege lines saw the 2 Jan 1776 flag-raising as significant, implying it represented some change from whatever banner they had seen flying on Prospect Hill before. Even Washington, without describing the flag itself, said that “the day...gave being to the new army,” and the flag was raised “in compliment to the United Colonies.” So he was trying to signal something “new,” whether or not the signal itself was new.

Of the two witnesses in the British forces, a sea-captain said the “union flag” was a change from an “entirely red” banner. Lt. William Carter of the 40th Regiment wrote that the Continentals “hoisted a union flag (above the continental with the thirteen stripes).” Peter writes, “it seems fairly clear from [Carter’s] phrasing that he is talking about a Union Flag flying above another, striped flag,” as opposed to a Union canton over stripes within the same banner.

However, that begs the question of what “the continental with the thirteen stripes” would have been. Peter notes that by January 1776 the Continental Congress had planned a naval ensign that Richard Henry Lee described as “a Jack [sic] with the Union flag, and striped red and white in the field”—in other words, the “Grand Union.” But he feels that flag hadn’t yet made its way to Cambridge headquarters yet. It’s not mentioned in Washington’s correspondence with the Congress.

Definitely more for flag scholars to think about.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, John, for a fine critique of my article! You put your finger on one of the most puzzling points, namely, just what Lt. Carter was referring to as the "continental with the thirteen stripes." As we've discussed before, the origins of the stripes as an American symbol need much further research.

I think that your 2 January post was correct in identifying the source of Preble's spurious "anonymous letter" as Westcott's Q&A item, rather than the convoluted explanation that I proposed in the Appendix of my paper. I was not aware of the Q&A item at the time I wrote the paper; my colleague Michael Larsen subsequently pointed it out to me. It's curious that Westcott used the term "grand union" in the Q&A item, but later reverted to "great union" in his 1884 history of Philadelphia. This may have been where Preble got the term "grand union."

Concerning the date of the flag-raising: The "Pennsylvania Packet" article says that it occured on 2 January; however, Washington stated that it was "on the day which gave being to the new army," which was 1 January. The folks in Somerville do their reenactment on 1 January, and I think that it's the generally accepted date.

Finally, before someone else points it out, there's a major error on page 82 of my article. The map of Boston was the work of Sr Thomas Hyde *Page*, not "Thomas Hyde." The error is repeated on the back cover of the printed version, where it's captioned as the "Hyde map." My humble apologies to Sir Thomas!

Peter Ansoff

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I hope you're doing well. I've put up John B. Torbert's address to the U.S. Department of the Interior in June of 1915 which mentions the origin of the striped flag that General Washington hoisted at the Continental Army headquarters on the first day of January, 1776.


Best Regards.

J. L. Bell said...

That's an interesting essay, but I think it says far more about Torbert's time than 1776. There don't seem to be many, or perhaps any, quotations about what the Continental Congress meant in establishing the new naval flag in late 1775. Instead, Torbert wrote such things as: "On this hitherto red ensign were placed six stripes that are significant from a historic point of view representing the six European countries from which America had been chiefly peopled…" Immigration and ethnic identity was much more important politically in 1915 than 1775.

Anonymous said...

There are actually no quotes about the Grand Union Flag, nor any records in the journals of the Congress, in your presupposition that the Continental Congress established the flag.

"The official origin of the grand union striped flag at Cambridge, and the striped flags worn by the fleet of Commodore Hopkins, is involved in obscurity. It is singular that no mention of their official establishment can be found in the private diaries of the times, the official or private correspondence since made public of the prominent actors of the Revolution, the newspapers of the times, or the journals of the Provincial and Continental Congresses. We only know, from unimpeached testimony, that there was a stripped continental flag, representing the majesty and authority of the thirteen United Colonies."
—U.S. Admiral Preble

J. L. Bell said...

Surely you're not still relying on Preble. Not only did he manage to produce the phrase "Grand Union Flag" by misquoting Washington, but he made the statement above without knowing about the Congress's letter to the Virginia Convention describing its new naval banner.