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Representing a New Constellation

It is June 14th, 1777. General Washington started 1777 with a victory at Assunpink Creek, and followed up with a win at Princeton. General Arnold harassed British regulars near Ridgefield, reforming militia and artillery repeatedly in a running battle that saw British forces fall at a three to one rate of American.

At both of those battles, American standard bearers of the Continental Army were most likely to have been carrying what is now referred to as the Grand Union Flag, but was then known as the Continental Colors. The thirteen stripes are well-represented here, but the canton featured the flag of Great Britain. It is purported that General Washington found the use of the British flag to be both confusing, and to be bad for morale, as that flag represented loyalty to something the Americans were trying to break away from. For this reason, it was General Washington who asked the Continental Congress to sanction a new flag for the new nation. In June of 1777, that Congress was engaged in the work of writing the Articles of Confederation, but did take time for other pursuits, including the release of this resolution: "Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

Manufacturing in 1777 being what it was, this meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and the flag we recognize today as the Betsy Ross Flag was one of numerous designs for that early flag. The resolution mentions no specific arrangement of the stars, nor which type of stars, so early flags were made with five-pointed stars, and six-pointed stars, and in some cases with stripes in other colors. Much like manufacturing today versus 1777, communication today is vastly improved from how it existed in 1777. Even American leaders didn't always understand what was happening, as we can see in a letter from French ambassadors, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, to the Ambassador of Naples. "Sir: We are this moment honored with your excellency's letter of the 8th of this month, and we thank your excellency for the information that his majesty the King of the Two Sicilies has ordered the ports of his dominions to be open to the flag of the United States of America. We should be glad to have a copy of his majesty's edict for that purpose, in order to communicate it to Congress, who, we are confident, will be much pleased with this mark of his majesty's benevolence.

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."

This description has long made me laugh, because at no point did Congress add blue stripes, but for some people this is the only description they saw, being more familiar with the Franklin/Adams description than the resolution from Congress. This description was the only one available to US Navy Captain John Paul Jones. In need of a recognizable naval ensign to avoid being called a pirate, Captain Jones commissioned the stitching of what is called the Serapis flag to fly on the mast of his ship. It does feature 13 stripes, alternating red, white, and blue in a pattern I struggle to understand, and it does feature a blue field with 13 stars. This is one of the few flags (that I remember studying) that features eight-point stars, as five and six were far more popular on early flags. The flag of the United States was (officially, and most likely) flown for the first time above the Washington Cantonment in Bridgewater Township, New Jersey. Since that first flag our Stars & Stripes have undergone numerous changes, with as many as fifteen stripes on the flag, and of course the now current fifty stars. It was the fifteen stripe, fifteen star, version of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key penned the poem, "Defense at Fort M'Henry", which is now far better known as the Star-Spangled Banner. Watching the flag rise into the air is inspirational, and has planted indelible imagery into the minds of Americans at important moments in history; whether it be Marines at Iwo Jima or firefighters at Ground Zero, and today we celebrate Flag Day in the United States, began by a proclamation from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

I find that more and more, American holidays pass in a celebration without understanding. What is this day? What does it celebrate? It seems over the course of decades we've become disconnected from the meanings behind these days, and that saddens me. American history is rich in great moments that should be celebrated, as well as egregious errors of thought and action that should be examined and considered so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, and I find that historical context important for both of those things. Join me today as we remember the history of the American flag, which is also the birthday of the United States Army. Happy birthday soldiers, and happy birthday flag.

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