A Flag for the Fourth

Happy Independence Day!

We’ll begin in our usual way. To mark the occasion this year, we’re flying the “Bunker Hill Flag” which is a bit different from our usual July 4th flag; its not one of the variations of the stars and stripes. It’s famous for flying at the Battle of Bunker Hill the first major conflict of the Revolutionary War, except that it isn’t. I’ll explain. It’s a story reminiscent of the history of the Bennington Flag.

The Bunker Hill Flag, so named because many believe it was flown by the colonists at its eponymous battle, has a blue field with the red St. George Cross on a white background in the canton. In the upper left hand corner of the canton is a pine tree which to the colonists symbolized liberty.

There are no contemporary accounts of this flag being flown at the battle and most likely the colonists flew what is known as the colonial flag; a red ensign with a pine tree shown in the canton. Both of these flags are modeled on British flags with only the addition of a pine tree because at the time, many colonists still believed that reconciliation with Great Britain was possible.

The evidence that the blue Bunker Hill flag was flown at Bunker Hill consists entirely of a painting done by Jonathan Trumbull, an eye witness to the battle, and an interview of the daughter of a veteran of the battle.

But the daughter’s account only said that her father claimed to have raised a blue flag at the battle while an earlier version of Trumbull’s painting showed the blue flag colored red; that painting is considered to be evidence that the Continental Flag was used.

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There’s one piece of direct evidence that the Bunker Hill Flag was actually flown at the battle, a book published early in the 19th century. The book contained a picture of the flag but the description described it as red rather than blue. This is generally considered to be a printing error.

Despite it’s questionable origins, the Bunker Hill Flag became a symbol of both the Revolution and of New England. It remains in use as a flag of New England today.

This seems fitting. Despite Bunker Hill being the original objective of both the Americans and the British, most of the fighting occurred a third of a mile south on Breed’s Hill. Some even cal it “The Battle of Breed’s Hill.”

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The Serapis Flag

The Serapis Flag

There are many variations of the United States Flag that were used in the early days of the republic. One of the more interesting is the Serapis Flag which we are now flying. Its existence is intimately tied to the Battle of Flamborough Head fought 240 years ago 0n 23 September 1779.

John Paul Jones

The story of the Serapis flag begins with the story of John Paul, a ship captain. Paul fled his native Scotland after killing a crewman who mutinied over wages, presumably refusing to trust his fate to an Admiralty Court. Paul emigrated to the colonies, renamed himself “John Paul Jones” and befriended Benjamin Franklin. He joined the Continental Navy, rose through the ranks and became the United States’ first famous naval commander. He is sometimes called the Father of the U. S. Navy. By 1779, Jones was in command of the Bonhomme Richard, named in honor Franklin’s pseudonym from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The Serapis vs. the Bonhomme Richard

Bonhomme Richard was a former merchant ship that had been armed and upgraded to a ship of war. It led, under Jones’ command, a small squadron of ships. Near Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, this squadron encountered a British convoy under the protection of the HMS Serapis. Conflict ensued and Bonhomme Richard took severe damage from the better armed Serapis. When the British captain asked if the Richard had struck her colors (meaning that they had lowered their flag as a sign of surrender) Jones is said to have replied with the famous “I have not yet begun to fight!” The flag, in fact, had been destroyed in the battle.

Eventually, the tide of the battle turned and Jones managed to lash Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis. The American crew was able to board and capture the British ship while their own ship, badly damaged and on fire, sank into the North Sea.

But what does this have to do with the Serapis Flag? Only this. Jones, now in command of the Serapis, put into a neutral Dutch port for repairs. British officials accused Jones of being a pirate and demanded his arrest. He was, after all, sailing a captured ship which was not flying the colors of any known nation. Bonhomme Richard’s flag, remember, had been blown into the sea. A flag was hastily created for Jones’ ship and entered into the Dutch records, allowing the Dutch to officially recognize the captured ship.

The Serapis Flag was created according to a description of United States flag that was provided by Benjamin Franklin, who was then Ambassador to France.

“It is with pleasure that we acquaint your excellency that the flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white, and blue; a small square in the upper angle, next the flagstaff, is a blue field, with thirteen white stars, denoting a new constellation.”

The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States

And thus, this slightly garbled recounting of the Flag Resolution of 1777 is responsible for the distinctive look of the Serapis Flag. Because of this, the flag is also known as the Franklin Flag. It remains popular today and is frequently used in historical displays because of its uniqueness and its recognizably American character.

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Happy 4th of July! Bennington Flag


Happy Independence Day everyone! Last year to celebrate, we flew the Betsy Ross flag. This year we’re flying what is, at least according to legend, another Revolutionary War flag, the Bennington Flag. Legend has it that this flag was flown by General John Stark and his men at the Battle of Bennington, which happened in Walloomsac, New York on 16 August 1777. General Stark’s forces, including troops from the Republic of Vermont, defeated the British forces under the command of Lt. Colonel Friedrich Balm. This was a turning point in the war, leading to the defeat of the British at the Battles of Saratoga.

So, the Bennington Flag is purportedly an “early US” flag that stands beside many others. The “Betsy Ross” flag is probably the most recognizable but others include the Cowpens Flag (below, right) and the flag designed by Francis Hopkins for the US Navy which used 6-pointed stars and arranged the stars in rows with a 3-2-3-2-3 pattern.

Two Early US Flags

Why so many? Well, on 14 June the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution of 1777.

Resolved: 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.

This leaves a lot unspecified, namely the arrangement and orientation of the stars, the kind of star, the size of the union (or “canton”) and whether there are 7 red stripes or 7 white stripes. Individual flag makers made their own decisions on these points leading to the plethora of variants. The Bennington Flag mostly adheres to the Flag Resolution with some distinctive variations, including the arrangement of the stars inside a canton that is taller than it is wide. The choices to make the outer stripes white and to use 7-pointed stars are also uncommon. The one departure is the addition of the large “76” in the canton to reference the passage of the Declaration of Independence.

The legend claims that the original Bennington Flag was flown at its namesake battle and was carried off the battlefield by Nathanial Fillmore He passed the flag onto his nephew, Septa Fillmore who carried it in the Battle of Plattsburg, the turning point in the War of 1812. Subsequently, the flag was passed down to other relatives including President Millard Fillmore and Philetus Fillmore who flew the flag during the centennial celebrations for American Independence and the Battle of Bennington. Because of its close affiliation with the family, this flag is also called “the Fillmore Flag.” If I were determining the nomenclature, I’d probably keep the term “Fillmore Flag” for the original flag that now resides in the Bennington Museum.

The Green Mountain Boys Flag

That Fillmore Flag was examined by Grace Rogers Cooper, Curator of Textiles at the Smithsonian Institution. She determined it to be of 19th century origin and dated it to around 1820. The flag itself is made of cotton and sewn with cotton thread neither of which would have been readily available in 1777. Various theories exist as to its possible origin; it may have been made during the War of 1812 to evoke the spirit of the Revolution or it may have been made to celebrate the visit of Lafayette to the US in 1824 or the semicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. One thing that’s generally agreed upon is that that particular flag could not have been at the Battle of Bennington. What was flown at the battle? The “Green Mountain Boys Flag” shown above, a regimental standard know to have been flown by General Stark and his men. The Green Mountain Boys Flag is currently the flag of the Vermont National Guard.

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