Fort McHenry

Stories from the Past and Present: Five Famous Flags

As July 4th approaches, Past and Present Home Gallery would like to celebrate America’s independence by sharing some fun and interesting stories about one of our nation’s most beloved symbols: the American Flag. Throughout our country’s history more than 27 flags have served as our nation’s banner and here are the stories behind five of the most famous.

1.    The Betsy Ross Flag of 1776
Legend is told that during the throws of the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvanian upholstery worker Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross was approached by a special committee charged with creating a national flag to inspire and unite the fighting colonies. George Washington himself was a member of the committee and presented Betsy with several sketches of the proposed design. Slight alterations were made during their meeting including the change from a six-pointed star to a five-pointed star. When the gentlemen left her shop, Betsy Ross and her team sewed the very first American flag. The design consisted of thirteen stripes, alternating red to white, with a blue field on the top left. Within the blue canton, thirteen stars were arranged into a circle. Although this amazing story cannot be proven nor disproven, Betsy Ross has gone down in history as one of the many amazing women who served our country in the Revolutionary War.

2.    The Fort Stanwix Flag of 1777
As the war for America’s independence raged on, the Second Continental Congress adopted the first flag resolution that declared 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.” Information traveled slowly, but reinforcements arriving at Fort Stanwix (also known as Fort Schuyler) in New York informed their commanding officer of the resolution. Immediately the officer ordered a flag of the new design be assembled. Soldiers cut up their own linen shirts for the white stripes and stars, red flannel was taken from the officer’s wives petticoats, and the blue field was created using the coat of Captain Abraham Swartwout. The flag was hoisted on August 3, 1777 during the Siege of Fort Stanwix which lasted until August 22. Congress later compensated Captain Swartwout for the use of his coat.

The 42-foot long garrison flag from Fort McHenry helped to inspire Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would later become our nation's anthem.

The 42-foot long garrison flag from Fort McHenry helped to inspire Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would later become our nation's anthem.

3.    The Star Spangled Banner of 1814
Major George Armistead took command of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1813 and commissioned flag maker Mary Pickersgill to sew two new flags for the Fort. Using the current 15 star and 15-stripe design, one flag was to be a “storm flag” and the other a larger “garrison flag.” The garrison flag was much larger than other garrison flags of the time, measuring a total of 42 feet long with each star being approximately 2 feet in diameter. The War of 1812 against the British was not going well, the invading force had successfully burned the nation’s capitol and had turned its sites on the city of Baltimore. On September 13, 1814, British warships began a 25-hour assault on Fort McHenry, which guarded the river just outside the city. The defending Americans were outgunned by the British forces who were using 10-13in bombshells that whistled and exploded the entire stormy night. But Major Armistead and his men refused to surrender. As the storm subsided and the sun rose, the British ships admitted defeat and began to retreat. Major Armistead ordered the garrison flag be raised to signal the victory. Meanwhile, Francis Scott Key had observed the entire battle while being held on a truce ship eight miles down river; when he saw the garrison flag being raised, he new that not only was the city safe, but the nation as well. He then wrote a poem that would eventually become our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

William Driver hid  Old Glory  during the Civil War by having it sewn into a bed quilt.

William Driver hid Old Glory during the Civil War by having it sewn into a bed quilt.

4.    Old Glory of 1824
Although historians cannot completely settle on when the American flag was first called Old Glory, everyone agrees where this name came from. William Driver was a young, 21-year-old sea captain setting sail for his first command upon the Charles Doggett. As a farewell gift, he was presented with a 17 foot, 24 star flag to hoist up his main mast. The flag flew proudly over his ship for 13 years and was named “Old Glory”. Upon Captain Driver’s retirement from seafaring, he flew Old Glory from his new home in Nashville, Tennessee. As the Civil War approached, the American flag became a proud symbol of national unity, Driver even had the ten additional stars sewn onto his flag. However, having Old Glory fly over his home became a source of contention within the Driver household, as two of his sons were loyal to the Confederate cause and enlisted with the Confederate army. After the state of Tennessee seceded from the Union, many attempted to seize Old Glory from Driver, even coming armed to the captain’s home. This led Driver to hide the flag by having it sewn into his bed quilt. In 1862, Nashville was the first Confederate capitol to fall to the Union army. Accounts taken after the battle record Driver arriving at the Union camp and requesting an audience with the commander in charge, William “Bull” Nelson. When General Nelson approached, Driver proceeded to cut Old Glory out of the bed quilt in front of a crowd of very confused onlookers. Driver presented the flag to General Nelson and requested that it be flown from the Nashville Statehouse in replacement of the Confederate flag. The on looking men from the Sixth Ohio regiment cheered and later adopted “Old Glory” as their motto. Old Glory stayed with the Driver household through the remainder of the war.

The first American flag on the moon was placed there by astronauts Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission.

The first American flag on the moon was placed there by astronauts Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission.

5.    The First American Flag on the Moon, 1969
On July 20, 1969, history was made when the first humans walked on the moon. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin landed the Lunar Module Eagle on the Sea of Tranquility and raised the American flag approximately 27 feet away. The flag had been flown to the moon inside a special Flag Assembly Kit designed by Jack Kinzler to specifically withstand the extreme temperature and pressure changes while in space flight. The kit included the flag and a special telescoping pole system for the flag to hang from. The flag itself was a simple 3 foot by 5 foot piece made of nylon and had been ordered from a governmental supply catalog for approximately $5.50. It had been modified slightly by having a curtain rod-like pocket sewn into the top seam. This is where one of the poles would be inserted to keep the flag unfurled as if in the wind.  The flag shown proudly as the astronauts saluted it and left various other approved artifacts marking their journey. However, upon the take off of the Lunar Module Eagle, Buzz Aldrin admitted that the flag had been knocked over by the exhaust from the rockets. NASA has since sent 5 additional American flags to the moon and has been able to confirm via the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) that several of them remain standing today.

If you found these stories interesting come into Past and Present Home Gallery to discover three levels of stories and nostalgic pieces from American history. Our selection includes 48-star flags, vintage military items, and much more. Also shop our store and find select furniture pieces on sale up to 20% off! We can’t wait to see you at Past and Present Home Gallery, the antique store with character!