The US Flag, with its thirteen red and white stripes and fifty white stars arranged on a blue background, is the most recognizable national flag in the world. The Stars and Stripes, as it is sometimes called, has been present at some of the greatest military engagements in modern history, was unfurled by astronauts on the surface of the moon, and is raised and lowered each day outside the homes of millions of patriotic American citizens. The Stars and Stripes is an important part of the fabric of American society, and yet there remain many mysteries surrounding its creation and early appearance.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, a number of flags were used by colonial Americans to express their dissatisfaction with British rule, including flags like the one above bearing a pine tree motif.
In the British colonial era in America preceding the American War of Independence, the flags flown at government buildings and military fortifications were the English Cross of Saint George, which consisted of a red cross on a white background, and the Union Jack, which combined the wlue and white Scottish Cross of Saint Andrew with the red and white Cross of Saint George.
In the decades preceeding the Revolutionary War, however, a number of flags were devised by groups of colonial Americans as expressions of their dissatifaction with British rule. Variations often featured one of three design elements, the most common of which were the rattlesnake, the pine tree, and symbols of liberty. The Sons of Liberty, a secret revolutionary group founded in 1765, used a flag comprising nine vertical red and white stripes. This so-called "liberty" flag is thought to be the first time that a flag with red and white stripes was used in America to symbolize independence from England.
In June 1775, following the battles at Lexington and Concord, which marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington commander of revolutionary forces. By the end of 1775, while camped near Boston with several thousand troops, Washington and his advisors decided the army needed a common standard to identify themselves to the enemy and to each other on the battlefield. Some historians believe Benjamin Franklin and two other advisors appointed by the Continental Congress to assist Washington in forming the new Continental army may have assisted in designing the new flag. It is further believed that this flag, which featured thirteen red and white horizontal stripes, and a canton consisting of the British Union Jack, was first flown by the Continental navy by Lieutenant John Paul Jones over the USS Alfred on December 3, 1775. It was first flown on land by General Washington on January 1, 1776. Thereafter, the flag became known as the Continental Colors, although it is sometimes called the Cambridge Flag, the Somerville Flag, the Union Flag, or the Grand Union Flag.
In the absence of any official designation from Congress, however, the Continental Colors was not consistently used by all American revolutionary forces. American naval forces, for instance, continued to fly flags other than the Continental Colors, among them flags depicting rattlesnakes or pine trees. It was not until the close of 1776 that the Maritime Committee of the Continental Congress formally established the Continental Colors as the flag that would epresent American naval forces.
On July 4, 1776, the final version of the Declaration of Independence was approved, signaling to the world that the thirteen American colonies were uniting to form a new, independent nation. Despite this development, the Continental Congress still did not take action to establish an official flag for the newly independent colonies until the following year, when it opened a short session on June 14, 1777. The flag was the third item on the agenda for that session and was addressed in a resolution that stated: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
Legend has long had it that Betsy Ross created the first Stars and Stripes for George Washington in either 1776 or 1777, but there is no evidence to suggest that this was the case. Records show that Ross sewed flags during the American Revolutionary War but that they were ships' standards, not the Stars and Stripes, and that they were made for the Pennsylvania State Navy Board. The idea that she created the first Stars and Stripes did not emerge until her grandson began making this claim in 1870. Some historians now believe that it is possible that members of a committee established to design the Great Seal of the United States worked on designing the national flag.
Historians in this camp believe that the primary designer of the Stars and Stripes was Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Continental Congress as well as the Great Seal Committee and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. In May 1780, he wrote a letter to the Continental Board of Admiralty in which he claimed that he had created a design for "the Flag of the United States of America." Be this as it may, many other historians assert that there is no independent evidence to support Hopkinson's claim.
Though questions remain about how the earliest version of the Stars and Stripes came to be, historians do know that early examples of the flag featured variations in appearance. Because the First Flag Resolution of 1777 did not stipulate the arrangement of the stars in the canton or prescribe specific dimensions for the new flag, early versions of the flag reflected different intrpretations of the resolution's description. Furthermore, historians question whether George Washington or the revolutionary forces under his command immediately adopted the Stars and Stripes. Revolutionary militia regiments are well known to have sometimes incorporated the general concept of thirteen stars and thirteen stripes into their flags after the time of the First Flag Resolution, but it is still unclear when the first flag that modern Americans might identify as the Stars and Stripes was flown in battle.
Two flags have long been contenders for the honor of being recognized as the earliest representations of the Stars and Stripes to be flown in battle. One is the Bennington Flag, which consisted of a total of thirteen horizontal red and white stripes with a blue canton which contained the number 76, surrounded by an arc consisting of 13 stars. Some historians believe that this flag was flown at the Battle of Bennington, on August 16, 1777; however, other historians assert that the Bennington flag dates from the War of 1812 or later. The other flag that some believe may have beenone of the earliest interpretations of the Stars and Stripes to have been flown in battle is the Brandywine Flag, which may have been flown at the Battle of Brandywine, on September 11, 1777. This flag was red with a red and white striped canton containing a smaller white canton with thirteen red stars. Doubts surround this claim as well, and some historians believe that it was probably the flag of a militia unit.
Two flags have long been contenders for the honor of being recognized as the earliest representations of the Stars and Stripes to be flown in battle. One is the Bennington Flag, which consisted of a total of thirteen horizontal red and white stripes with a blue canton which contained the number 76, surrounded aby an arc consisting of 13 stars. Some historians believe that this flag was flown at the Battle of Bennington