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, June 15, 2017

EXTRA: Celebrating “Grand Union Flag” Day in Somerville

Somerville usually celebrates the flag-raising on Prospect Hill on the anniversary of that event. Unfortunately, that’s on 1 January—not always the most comfortable time to be outside on a New England hilltop. So this year the city is celebrating that event on the Saturday after Flag Day, or 17 June.

Now that date happens to be the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the major historical event in neighboring Charlestown. Which Somerville split off from 175 years ago—an event the city is celebrating all this year. But Charlestown had its Bunker Hill parade last weekend because that ceremony is always on the Sunday before the exact anniversary. So 17 June was up for grabs.

The Somerville celebration is scheduled to take place from 10:00 A.M. until 12:00 noon. Vexillologist Byron DeLear will speak about the significance of the “Grand Union Flag.” There will be tours of Prospect Hill Tower, colonial-era music, and other happenings. The event is sponsored by the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission and Historic Somerville.

[ADDENDUM: In addition, DeLear will speak in more detail about his research and conclusions on Sunday, 18 June, at the Somerville Museum. That event will start at 2:00 P.M., and a reception will follow at 3:00. The museum’s address is 1 Westwood Road.]

Byron DeLear also spoke about the flag on Prospect Hill a few years back, but that was, you know, in January. He argues that the “Grand Union Flag,” more formally the American naval flag, was not only “flown atop Somerville’s Prospect Hill in 1776” but was also “not just the first flag of the united colonies, but the first flag of the United States.”

Another vexillologist, Peter Ansoff, has expressed doubts about the standard [get it?] story of the “Grand Union Flag,” noting that contemporary accounts are far from clear that it was a single banner with a new design. Supporting that hypothesis is the lack of any document from the Continental Congress informing Gen. George Washington about the naval ensign it had just adopted or enclosing a flag for him to fly near Boston.

One of the most likely candidates for sending that flag to Washington was Joseph Reed, the Philadelphia lawyer who had served as his first military secretary. Reed had shown an interest in flags, proposing that the army schooners fly the “Appeal to Heaven” banner. On 4 Jan 1776 Washington wrote back to Reed about how the army had “hoisted the Union Flag in compliment to the United Colonies.” So should we look for evidence of the Congress’s new flag in Reed’s letters to Washington?

Unfortunately, those letters don’t survive. For late 1775 and early 1776, we have only Washington’s side of the correspondence. He alluded to many letters from Reed that must have been mislaid or destroyed sometime after their falling-out at the end of 1776. So what, if anything, the Congress told its commanding general about a new flag remains a mystery.


Charles Bahne said...


I'm curious about the artwork that you selected to accompany this post. It's clearly of more recent origin, I'm guessing maybe 1950s. But instead of Prospect Hill, it depicts the flag being raised at a formal ceremony in front of the General's headquarters in Cambridge. (Somehow it reminds me of the Dorothy Dudley myth of a ceremony under the Washington Elm in July 1775.)

I see an artist's initials "D.H." and a copyright by the A.T.C.B.S.A. A quick Google search leads me to an article on "Flags of the Free" in Boys' Life, June 1969, with this and other images by Don Hewitt. The copyright line appears to be Allegheny Trails Council, Boy Scouts of America.

Any other thoughts about its origin?



J. L. Bell said...

That image also shows Washington’s Cambridge headquarters painted yellow with a porch on its left side. When the general was there the house was probably gray, and Andrew Craigie added the porches in a 1790s remodel.

I thought the image was so obviously a latter-day depiction that it fit the topic of the “Grand Union Flag”—a term that itself dates to a century after the event in question.