The Journey of the American Flag
The American Flag is the nation’s most powerful and enduring symbol. For over 200 years, after it first appeared in 1777, the flag has been a part of America’s defining moments.
It is our symbol of the “stitching together” of the Union – state by state, star by star – the story of America. - Peter Keim & Kevin Keim, A Grand Old Flag: A History of the United States Through its Flags
A 50 Star Flag
The National Flag of the United States of America is known by many beloved titles:
- The Stars and Stripes
- The Red, White and Blue
- Old Glory
- The Star-Spangled Banner
- The American Flag
- Our Flag
American Flag Terminology
- Field – the entire flag excluding the canton
- Canton (Union) - the upper left quadrant next to the pole
- Fly – the end of the flag furthest from the pole
- Hoist Strip – the reinforced strip that attaches to the rope or pole
- Halyards – rope attached to the flag used to raise and lower it
- Obverse – the front side of the flag
- Reverse-the opposite side of the flag
The U.S. Code, Title 4, Chapter 1 contains information on the proper display and care of the Flag. While this law was enacted by Congress, it was never intended to be enforced with penalties.
The Flag Protection Act of 1968 prohibited mutilating, defacing, defiling or burning the American Flag. In 1990, the Supreme Court (United States vs Eichman) voted it not enforceable and unconstitutional.
Grand Union to 13 Stripes
On December 31, 1775, British commander Major General William Howe watched a group of colonists on Prospect Hill in Boston raise a ship’s mast into place. The next day, January 1, 1776, he realized it was a flagpole. Atop the pole flew a flag with 13 red and white stripes and the Union being the British Flag. Our first flag of the united colonies, the Grand Union Flag (also called the Continental Colors).
Second Flag Act
13 to 15 Stars
Second Flag Act – In 1794, after both Vermont and Kentucky were admitted as new states, Congress passed the Second Flag Act. Signed by President George Washington the act defined the new Flag – 15 stars and 15 stripes.
Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry in Baltimore enlisted a seamstress, Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore, to make a Flag for the Fort. Along with her daughter, two nieces and an indentured servant, Grace Wisher, she made a 30’ by 42’ 15 star, 15 stripe Flag and was paid $405.
That 15 star, 15 stripe Flag became known as the Star-Spangled Banner and is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The Star-Spangled Banner remains the only official American Flag to bear more than 13 stripes.
Third Flag Act
15 to 35 Stars
By 1818, five more states (Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi) were admitted to the Union. Southern and northern states were added in alternating order to preserve the Congressional balance of “slave” and “free” states.
After lengthy debate, Congress agreed on a Flag reverting to thirteen stripes. An additional star would be added for each new state, with the provision that the star would be added on the fourth of July following admission to the Union. If more than one state was admitted between July 5th and the following July 4th, the new stars would be added together on July 4th. While it was specified that the stripes were to be horizontal it did not identify a regulation for their colors or an arrangement for the stars. This allowed flag-makers to take liberty in their work and some included blue stripes in the design.
Between 1818 and the start of the Civil War in 1861, 13 more states were admitted to the Union, stretching from Florida to Maine to California. Texas, the 28th state was “annexed” rather than “admitted” to the Union in 1845.
The allegiance and passion toward the Flag continued to grow as it was displayed more across the nation. It was becoming the “fabric” of our nation.
From the Civil War to the 100 Year Anniversary Celebration in 1876
On February 22, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was en route to Washington to assume residency and stopped in Philadelphia to raise a 34 star Flag over Independence Hall. Although seven southern states had seceded, Lincoln insisted that stars would not be removed from the Flag.
On April 13, 1861, Major Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to the Confederate Army. He lowered the Flag and took it with him.
During the War, three more states (Kansas, West Virginia and Nevada) were admitted to the Union.
In opposition of Virginia’s secession, the people of western Virginia formed their own government in Wheeling. In 1862, President Lincoln approved statehood for West Virginia with the caveat that abolition of slavery be written into the state’s constitution.
Four years after the surrender of Fort Sumter, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses Grant in Appomattox, VA ending the Civil War on April 9, 1865. Five days later, Anderson raised the same Flag over Fort Sumter, bringing closure to the War. President Lincoln elected not to come to the Fort for the celebration, instead going to a performance at Ford Theater in Washington, DC. Just hours after the Flag was raised at Sumter, John Wilkes Booth aimed his pistol at President Lincoln and pulled the trigger.
A train dubbed “The Lincoln Special” departed Washington on April 21, 1865 carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln to his final resting place in Springfield, IL. It passed 180 cities on its 1,654-mile journey.
The train carried 300 people, including his eldest son Robert and the remains of his son Willie, who had died three years earlier of Typhoid Fever at age 11. President Lincoln and Willie were buried in the family plot 13 days later. The railway car had been built in January 1865 to serve as a lavish presidential office on wheels. This 19th century version of Air Force One was titled the “United States.”
39 to 48 Stars
The 39th and 40th states admitted to the Union were the Dakotas. Originally intended to be one state, Congress elected to divide it into two doubling the allotted Senate seats. President Harrison intentionally did not know which admission he signed first leading North Dakota to be recognized as the 39th and South Dakota as the 40th by alphabetical order. The admission of the Dakotas completed statehood of the territory purchased by President Thomas Jefferson from France in the Louisiana Purchase.
Three more states (Montana, Washington and Idaho) were admitted within the same year – jumping from a 38 to a 43 star Flag.
Idaho, the 43rd state, was admitted on July 3, 1890 making the 43 star Flag official. Wyoming was admitted as the 44th state only 6 days after the 4th of July, making the 43 star Flag the rarest Flag as most flag-makers jumped from 38 star Flag to the 44 star Flag.
In 1890, Wyoming was granted statehood. Its government was the first in the world to grant women voting rights. It wasn’t until 30 years later that America granted women the right to vote.
In 1892, the children’s monthly magazine, “The Youth’s Companion”, edited by Francis Bellamy, printed the first Pledge of Allegiance. Several changes have been made over the years, most recently in 1954 with addition of “under God.”
By 1912, four more states were admitted to the Union and by Executive Order of President Taft the 48 star Flag was born. Finally, the arrangement of the stars was defined. Six horizontal rows would feature eight stars evenly aligned with all stars pointed upward. The Executive Order detailed everything about the Flag, including official size and the dye lots for red and blue.
There was no better display of the growing symbolism of the Flag than by the raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima during WWII and in 1949, President Truman Designated June 14th as National Flag Day.
49 to 50
In January of 1959, Alaska was admitted as the 49th state. President Eisenhower introduced the new Flag with 49 stars arranged in seven horizontal rows. Each row featured seven stars with alternating alignment.
Later that year in August, Hawaii became the 50th state. An Ohio high school student, Robert G. Heft, won the competition for the design of the 50 star Flag. It was officially raised for the first time at Fort McHenry Historic Site on July 4, 1960. Only nine years and 16 days later, it was planted on the Moon.
And 32 years later in 2001, it waved over the ruble at Ground Zero in New York as volunteers searched for survivors.