"All American Veterans"

THE AMERICAN FLAG: SYMBOL OF LIBERTY

By Lynda A. Holmes

(FOR NON-PROFIT, EDUCATIONAL USE ONLY)

What are your thoughts when you see an American flag waving over homes, businesses, post offices, sports arenas, schoolyards, libraries, or other locations? You may remember our founding fathers and mothers whose efforts in the Revolutionary War against England led to the birth of the USA. Do you focus on the sacrifices of our military and their families for America’s freedom, past, present, and future? You may think of the red, white, and blue colors and the meaning of the stars and stripes. The American flag is a powerful symbol of our nation’s liberty. In 1949, President Harry Truman designated June 14 as national Flag Day, each year.

Various flags were flown around the colonies before the creation of a flag resolution. The Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington thought the Grand Union Flag would represent America. However, it confused the Patriots and the British because it was too much like the British flag, with the Union Jack in the canton (upper left corner). Thus, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress made the first flag resolution, that “the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Those thirteen stars and stripes represented the thirteen original colonies. A star has been added to the flag for each state.

I was nine years old when two stars were added to the forty-eight stars already on the flag, signifying statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. (The fifty-star flag became official on July 4, 1960.) I acknowledged the fifty states by thinking of the USA’s freedom spreading and growing ever stronger, from a child’s perspective.

My father, Ralph J. Adams, was a WWII veteran who served in the U.S. Navy. Years later, Mother received an American flag that was presented to her at his funeral, in honor of his service to the USA. It is in good condition and I consider it a treasured family heirloom. This flag was made in Philadelphia, PA from cotton bunting (loosely woven fabric for flags and decorations).

Although I was taught in elementary school that Betsy Ross made the first American flag, that information may be true or false. According to a recent book of collected research, Betsy Ross and the Making of America, by Marla R. Miller (2010, 2011), evidence does not support the claim as far as government notes and papers, early books written about Betsy Ross and flag history, or receipts.

However, affidavits from family members presented after Ross’s death narrate the famous story as descendants claim Betsy told it to them. The story goes that General George Washington visited Betsy’s shop in Philadelphia and asked her to sew the flag. When he revealed designs for six-pointed stars, Betsy responded by recommending five-pointed stars because they were easier to cut from fabric.

Marla Miller recounts evidence that Betsy Ross did, indeed, know George Washington and saw him at church meetings. On the other hand, Francis Hopkinson claimed to have designed the first American flag. One of the latest books by a descendant of Ross is Betsy Ross’s Five-Pointed Star, by John Harker (2005).

Evidence documents Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole as an excellent upholsterer and seamstress who sewed curtains, bedspreads, chair cushions, flags, and other items. Betsy Ross was a remarkable woman and patriot of the American Revolution era and beyond that time who persevered, along with American independence. She died in 1836, outliving three husbands and having numerous children and grandchildren.

Betsy Ross and others who sewed American flags during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century used animal and plant based fabrics, such as wool, silk, and cotton as they had access to these materials. Stars were painted on many silk flags, particularly those for naval and military use. Stars for other flags were often cut and sewn from cotton (Miller, 2010). Today, American flags are also made from fabrics like nylon and polyester.

The American flag is known by different names. Some WWII veterans recall fighting under “Old Glory,” for example. One story of how Old Glory became a name for the flag dates back to 1831, when Captain Driver, a Massachusetts shipmaster, received an American flag from friends prior to a journey by sea. As he watched the flag unfurling in the breeze, he called it “Old Glory.” After retiring in Tennessee, Captain Driver managed to hide Old Glory from Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. He proudly flew Old Glory, again, after Tennessee was captured by the Union

Just as President Abraham Lincoln would not allow removal of any stars from the flag during the War Between the States, Old Glory represented the re-union of the country. Thus, the flag and that name,” Old Glory,” are powerful symbols of national unity (http://americanhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/the-flag-in-the-civil-war.aspx). Many people associate music with the American flag, particularly our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Francis Scott Key originally penned the lyrics to this song through his poem, “In Defence of Fort McHenry” during the War of 1812, also known as The Second War for Independence. The music for the national anthem is that of an earlier composition, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

Imagine the scene in Baltimore Harbor as Francis Scott Key gazed on the colossal American flag (30 feet by 42 feet, sewn by Mary Pickersgill and her family) visible at dawn, flying over Ft. McHenry. The dark night before was filled with gunfire and the shrill echoes of rockets as the British tried, again, to take over America. Key must have experienced a grand array of emotions in order to write his iconic poem.

Making the gigantic flag, Mary Pickersgill spread out hundreds of yards of wool bunting strips in the basement of a Baltimore brewery – it was the only place big enough for that project. There were fifteen stars on this flag because Vermont and Kentucky had joined the nation. Each star made from cotton fabric was two feet wide. Mary was commissioned to sew the large flag and a smaller one in 1813 and both flags were finished by the time they were needed at Fort McHenry, in 1814 (http://americanhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner). Various songs were played during different wars, for instance “Yankee Doodle,” (Revolutionary War); “Dixie,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (Civil War); and of course, “The Star Spangled Banner” (War of 1812). Bands still play marches in parades, especially on holidays, giving a festive air and stirring feelings of patriotism with music such as “(You’re A) Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan and John Philip Sousa’s classic, “(The) Stars and Stripes Forever.”

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Federal Flag Code. It provides guidelines for display and respect toward the flag. According to the Flag Code, the flag “should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning, when it is in such a condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display.” I attended a flag retirement ceremony (June 14, 2012, Gainesville, GA) with fellow members of the Colonel William Candler Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Our chairperson of the Flag Committee delivered flags collected from our members to the Boy Scout leader and troop in charge. Everyone in attendance was invited to take part in the dignified ceremony. It was an emotional, patriotic experience. I thought of how the retired flags gracefully symbolized America’s liberty, for decades. The scouts and leader remained at the site of the ceremony, in order to bury the ashes in a place of honor. The study of flags is called “vexillology” and people who study flags are known as vexillologists. By the Flag code, “the flag may be displayed with the union down only as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” May our flag ever wave as a national symbol of liberty and the American Spirit. *************

Lynda Holmes, Ed.D, is Vice President of the Northeast Georgia Writers and a member of the Colonel William Candler Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.

RESOURCES:

Team Arts American Flag radio show podcast: http://celebrations.podomatic.com http://team-arts.wikispaces.com

Betsy Ross and the Making of America, by Marla R. Miller (2010, Henry Holt & Co.; 2011, St. Martin’s Press).

Betsy Ross’s Five-Pointed Star, by John Harker (2005, Canmore Press).

http://americanhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner (Smithsonian Institution)

www.pbs.org/capitolfourth/flag.html

http://americanhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/the-flag-in-the-civil-war.aspx

www.ushistory.org/betsy and www.ushistory.org/betsy/flagcode.htm Betsy Ross Homepage

http://www.nava.org North American Vexillological Association

"Under construction."


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