Flags of the American Revolution

The British Red Ensign 1707

Queen Anne's Flag

British Red Ensign, also called the “Colonial Red Ensign” and the “Meteor” Flag, was adopted by Queen Anne as the new flag for England and her colonies in 1707.

This was the best known of the British Maritime flags, or Ensigns, which were formed by placing the Union flag in the canton of another flag having a field of white, blue or red. This flag was widely used on ships during the Colonial period. This was the first national flag of the English colonies, and Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown under this flag.

Colonial “Liberty” Protest Flags

Flags with the word “Liberty” on them came to be called Liberty Flags and were usually flown from Liberty poles. They were flags of protest and petition flown throughout the Thirteen Colonies during the five years prior to the outbreak of the Revolution. They proclaimed loyalty to the Crown, but laid claim on behalf of the colonists to the rights of Englishmen, and called for a union of the colonies against current English colonial policies.

Schenectady Liberty Flag 1771

Schenectady Liberty Flag

In 1771, a liberty pole was erected the center of the City of Schenectady, New York, as a protest of British policies and interference in the communities’ affairs. On top of this Liberty Pole hung a homemade blue silk flag measuring 44 by 44 inches with the word “LIBERTY” in white sewed on one side. Later, this Liberty flag was reportedly carried by the First New York Line Regiment, who largely came from Schenectady, between 1776-1777 during the revolution. Today, it is one of a handful of a pre-revolutionary flags known to exist. It is housed in the Schenectady County Historical Society Museum.

Taunton Flag 1774

Taunton Liberty Flag

The Taunton Flag was one of the earliest of the colonial flags, first raised in 1774 at Taunton, Massachusetts. It was simply a Queen Anne Flag with the words, “LIBERTY AND UNION” sewn onto the red field. The Boston Evening Post reported the incident and the idea caught on. Flags with identical or similar mottos began to appear throughout the colonies soon after.

Virginia For Constitutional Liberty Flag c1775

Virginia Liberty Flag

This flag was reportedly flown from the Williamsburg “Liberty Pole” just prior to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.

Huntington Flag 1776

Huntington Liberty Flag

The Huntington “Liberty Flag,” was flown in the town of Huntington, New York, on July 23, 1776 after the townsfolk received the news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The flag was later carried at the Battle of Long Island by the 1st Regiment of Suffolk County Militia. It was reported captured by Hessian troops and taken back to Hess (Germany) by the mercenary soldiers. The flag is reported to have survived in Germany until its destruction by fire in a bombing raid during World War II.

The New York Union (George Rex) Flag 1775

George Rex Flag?
(according to NY Journal)

In March, 1775, a Liberty flag was hoisted in New York, bearing the inscription on one side of “George Rex and the Liberties of America,” and upon the reverse, “No Popery.” The journals say “A Union Flag, with a red Field was hoisted on the Liberty Pole by the Friends of Freedom assembled, and having got in proper Readiness, about 11 o’Clock, the Body began their March to the Exchange. They were attended by Music; and two Standard Bearers carried a large Union Flag, with a blue Field, on which were the following Inscriptions: On one Side, GEORGE III. REX AND THE LIBERTIES OF AMERICA. NO POPERY. On the other, THE UNION OF THE COLONIES, AND THE MEASURES OF THE CONGRESS.” (New-York Journal or General Advertiser – 9 March 1775)

George Rex Flag?

No image exists of these relatively little known revolutionary flags, and experts debate about the true nature of the flag’s designs, some claiming the first flag was a regular Red Ensign, and the second disfigured blue ensign, and recently a completely different flag with a white field as shown here. The problem arrises because apparently there were two flags used, one with a “Union” with a red field (with no further description), and one described as a “Union” flag with a blue field with the multiple inscriptions. The term “union,” unfortunately, also has multiple meanings during this time period and could also have simply been a “Union Jack” (Kings Colors) defaced with writing.

The New England Flag and Ensign

First Flag of New England
1686-1707

The history of the Pine Tree as a symbol of New England predates the European colonial settlements. In eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and the southern corner of Maine, there lived a nomadic tribe of Native Americans known as the Penacook. “Penacook” is an Algonquin word meaning “Children of the Pine Tree.” The Penacook people have been credited with teaching the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony much needed survival skills when the colonists were starving to death during the winter of 1621-22.

Second Flag of New England
1707-1775

A common way to customize English Red Ensigns for ships sailing out of New England was to modify the Cross of Saint George in the canton by adding a pine tree in the first quarter.

After the St. Andrews Cross was added to the St. George’s Cross to make the Union Flag in 1707, the New England Flags sometimes showed the British Red Ensign with the tree in the first quarter as demonstrated in the second variant of New England Flags shown here.

The first variant of the New England flag shown here also became a frequent naval ensign for all New England ships prior to 1707. After that, the second variant appeared to gain popularity.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony Flag 1636-1686

Roger William's Flag

The Massachusetts Bay Colony used the British Red Ensign for public ceremonies.  In 1636, Roger Williams preached a sermon condemning the “unchristian” shaped cross in the flag as a symbol of the Anti-Christ. Governor John Endicott ordered removal of the St. George’s Cross from their flags. Before this was done, however, the Great and General Court of the Colony found Endicott had exceeded his authority and punished him by forbidding him from holding public office for one year.

They also gave permission to any citizen to modify the flag if they wanted, and without exception, most removed all the crosses from their flags. From that time on until sometime about 1685, the unofficial flag of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was red with a plain white canton.

The Sons of Liberty Flags 1765

Stamp Act Flag

The history of the Stamp Act flag began in about 1765, when protests of the duties and taxes and stamps required by Parliament began in the colonies. After a protest of the Stamp Act was held under an Elm tree in Boston, the tree became known as the “Liberty Tree,” and a protest group known as the Sons of Liberty was formed.  The Sons of Liberty continued to meet under this tree, so the British cut the tree down, and the Sons replaced it with a Liberty pole. A flag of nine red and white vertical stripes known as the “Rebellious Stripes” was flown from this pole. The actual date of this flag is speculative.

Colonial Merchant Ensign

When the British outlawed the “Rebellious Stripes” flag, tradition tells us the Sons of Liberty created a new flag by changing the direction of the stripes. Three and a half years after the Boston Tea Party, the nine stripes had grown to thirteen horizontal stripes.

This plain red and white striped flag evolved into a naval ensign and was commonly used as a United States merchant ensign in the period from 1776-1800.

The Bedford Flag

Nathaniel Page's Flag

The Bedford Flag may be the oldest complete flag known to exist in the United States. It’s description matches one made for a cavalry troop of the Massachusetts Bay Militia in the French and Indian Wars. Legend claims it is the flag carried by Bedford Minuteman, Nathaniel Page, to the Concord Bridge on April 19, 1775, at the beginning of the American Revolution. There is, however, no real proof, either from testimonials or diaries that mention any flag flown that day by either side, except one by a British officer (Lt. Barker), who reported that British grenadiers chopped down and destroyed a flag and liberty pole standing on a hill near Concord Center. However, he reports that this was done hours before the Bedford’s militiamen arrived at Concord.

The Latin inscription “Vince Aut Morire” means “conquer or die.” The arm emerging from the clouds represents the arm of God. The original is housed at the Bedford, Massachusetts Town Library.

The Culpeper Minutemen Flag

Patrick Henry's 1st Virginia Regiment

This flag represented a group of minutemen from Culpeper, Virginia. These men formed part of Colonel Patrick Henry’s First Virginia Regiment of 1775. Three hundred Culpeper Minutemen led by Colonel Stevens marched toward Williamsburg at the beginning of the fighting. Their unusual dress alarmed the people as they marched through the country. They had bucks’ tails in their hats and tomahawks and scalping knives hung from their belts. Their flag’s central symbol was a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, and below it the words “DON’T TREAD ON ME.” At each side were the words of Patrick Henry “LIBERTY OR DEATH!”

Albany Congress Cartoon

The rattlesnake was the favorite animal emblem of the Americans even before the Revolution. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette carried a bitter article protesting the British practice of sending convicts to America. The author suggested that the colonists return the favor by shipping a cargo of rattlesnakes to England, which could then be distributed in the noblemen’s gardens.

Three years later the Gazette printed a political cartoon of a snake as a commentary on the Albany Congress. To remind the delegates of the danger of disunity, the serpent was shown cut to pieces. Each segment is marked with the name of a colony, and the motto “JOIN or DIE” below. Other newspapers took up the snake theme. Some contemporary flag companies are selling a “JOIN or DIE” Flag using this drawing. There is no historical documentation to support this flag’s existence.

Pine Tree Flags and Naval Ensigns

The term Pine Tree flag is a generic name for a number of flags used by the New England and Massachusetts colonies from 1686 to 1778. The Pine Tree has been a popular symbol of American independence in New England for years.

Washington’s Cruisers Flag 1775

This flag was used by George Washington on a squadron of six schooners which he outfitted at his own expense in the fall of 1775. This flag was a variation of the New England Pine Tree flag. The Continental Navy, knowing they were up against the greatest naval power in the world, set sail flying a flag with an “APPEAL TO HEAVEN.” They needed all the help they could get.

Washington’s Cruisers
(Type 1)
Washington’s Cruisers
(Type 2)
Washington’s Cruisers
(Type 3)

Unfortunately, there is controversy over the placement of the words, appearance of the trees and leaves, direction of branches, etc., and it “leaves” us with many possible versions of these flags.

The Massachusetts Naval Ensign 1776-1971

Massachusetts Navy Ensign
Liberty Tree Flag
(modern interpretation)

Massachusetts is one of three states with its own naval ensign, the others being South Carolina and Maine. In April 1776, the Massachusetts Navy adopted as its flag (naval ensign) a white field charged with a green pine tree. It also flew this flag over the floating batteries which sailed down the Charles River to attack the British in Boston. This naval militia was active during most of the American Revolutionary War. It was founded to defend the interests of Massachusetts from British forces. The navy used 25 vessels over the course of the war, acting in various roles such as prison ships, dispatch vessels, and combat cruisers. Unlike most other states, the Massachusetts State Navy was never officially disbanded and simply became part of the United States Navy.

The Gadsden Flag

First Marine Flag

In 1775, Colonel Christopher Gadsden was in Philadelphia representing his home colony of South Carolina at the Continental Congress and presented this new naval flag to the Congress. It became the first flag used by the sea-going soldiers who eventually would become the United States Marines.

This flag first saw combat under Commodore Hopkins, who was the first Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Navy, when Washington’s Cruisers put to sea for the first time in February of 1776 to raid the Bahamas and capture stored British cannon and shot.

The New York Naval Ensign 1775

New York Beaver Flag
(modern interpretation)

In the early days of the Revolution the New Yorkers adopted a white flag with a black beaver for the armed ships of New York. According to legend, the New Yorkers hauled down the British flag in 1775 and raised a plain white flag with a drawing of a black beaver centered on it to mark the occasion. The symbol of the Beaver dated back to the early Dutch settlers of New Netherlands and was based on the long and important role the fur trade played in the development of New York.

Although no documented illustration of the original Beaver Flag has been yet discovered, modern interpretations exist. The beaver is still the official state animal of New York State, and is still seen on the great seal of the City of New York.

The “Grand Old Union Flag” or Continental Colors 1775

Grand Old Union Flag 1775

According to legend, one day in 1775 General Washington approached Rebecca Flower Young, a Philadelphia pennant and colors maker, and asked her to make a flag for use by the troops. The flag he designed became known as the Grand Union Flag. Years later, Rebecca assisted her daughter in making an even more famous flag for our country, the “Star Spangled Banner” used at Ft. McHenry.

British East India Company
after1801

This flag was never officially sanctioned by the Continental Congress, but was in use from late 1775 until mid 1777, probably because it was very simple to make. All one had to do was sew six white strips over the red field of a British Red Ensign. According to legend, on January 1, 1776, this flag was first raised at Cambridge, where George Washington took command of the Continental Army. He personally paid to equip the first 1000 soldiers under this flag. Although this flag was known as the Continental Colors because it represented the entire nation, in one of Washington’s letters he referred to it as the “Great Union Flag” and it is most commonly called the “Grand Old Union Flag” today. ( Click here to learn more )

British East India Company
variant after 1801

The Grand Union Flag was also the de facto first U.S. naval ensign. It was first raised aboard Continental Navy Commodore Esek Hopkins’ flagship “Alfred” on the Delaware River on December 3, 1775. (See other variants shown as “American Revolutionary War Privateer and Naval Ensigns.” below)

Interestingly enough, this was also the flag used by the British East India Company (although usually with less than 13 stripes) after the United States gained its independence. Compare these designs with the original British East India Company Flags. (see above – British East India Company c1678-c1801)  Naturally, this all opens the door to debate on how much influence the British East India Company flag and the Continental Colors had on each other.

The Continental Flag 1775
Flag of Lincoln County, Maine 1977-present

Trumbull's Bunker Hill Flag

On the nights of June 16-17, 1775, the Americans fortified Breed and Bunker Hills which overlooked Boston Harbor. Although they had not officially declared their independence, a fight for control of the hills became necessary. When the British advanced up the slope the next day, according to legend they saw a red flag, but we have no real knowledge of which American Flag was actually flown in this battle. But John Trumbull, whose paintings of Revolutionary War scenes are quite famous, talked to eye-witnesses and his subsequent painting depicting the battle displayed the Continental flag as shown here. Many historians think the flag more likely to have been at the battle, if any, was the more common First New England Naval Ensign.

The Bunker Hill Flag (fictitious)

False Bunker Hill Flag

This so-called “Bunker Hill Flag” with a blue field was the result of an error made by a publisher a couple of hundred years ago. On a flag book this flag, representing New England, was correctly printed with heraldic hatching clearly indicating a red field, but it was hand-colored blue by mistake. This error has lived on to this very day.

I guess it is fitting that we have a incorrect flag for the Battle of Bunker Hill, after all, the battle is misnamed as well! The actual Battle of “Bunker Hill” was fought on nearby Breed’s Hill.

The Fort Moultrie Flag 1775

Moultrie Flag

This flag was carried by Colonel William Moultrie’s South Carolina Militia on Sullivan Island in Charleston Harbor on June 28, 1776. The “Moultrie” Flag was designed in 1775, and flew over Fort Sullivan (later named Ft. Moultrie) during the battle. The flag was shot away by the British in the battle, but the British were in turn defeated which saved the south from British occupation for another two years.

Town of Liberty, South Carolina

This became the flag of the South Carolina “Minute Men” and the modern South Carolina State Flag still contains the crescent moon from this Revolutionary War flag.

Another widespread modern version of this flag has the word “LIBERTY” outside the crescent moon on the blue field and is sometimes incorrectly sold as the historical flag. This modern design has been adopted as the civic flag of the town of Liberty, South Carolina, with a few minor alterations of the thickness of the crescent and styling of the lettering.

The Betsy Ross Flag

Traditional First Flag

According to tradition, in June of 1776, Betsy Ross, who was a widow struggling to run her own upholstery business sewed the first flag. Upholsterers in Colonial America not only worked on furniture, but did all manner of sewing work, which for some included making flags. According to the legend, General Washington, Robert Morris, and John Ross showed her a rough design of the flag that included six-pointed stars. Betsy suggested a five-point star because it was easier to make, and demonstrated how to cut a five-pointed star in a single snip. Impressed, the three entrusted Betsy with making our first flag.

This is, of course, a legend started by her grandson 100 years after the Revolution was won, and no proof exists that it ever happened or that the traditional design is of her making.

Hulme’s Pine Tree Flag 1776

Striped Pine Tree Flag
(questionable)

According to Frederick Hulme (1841–1909) this flag, briefly used in 1776, was derived from the New England Red Ensign (1686-1707) by simply adding 6 white stripes to the existing red field. The design also suggests that it might have been modeled after the Continental Colors of 1775.

His book Flags of the World written by Frederick Edward Hulme in 1896, was considered at the time to be very accurate, but modern vexillological researchers have questioned many of the flag designs illustrated in the book. This particular flag is one such flag and many feel that it most likely didn’t actually exist during Revolutionary times, but was a later invention.

George Washington’s Headquarters Flag c1777

Washington's Personal Flag
(Questionable)

This flag has been widely called the “personal” flag of George Washington and reportedly made as a headquarters flag in 1777. According to this tradition he used this flag throughout the whole Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, there has been no proven connection that this flag ever belonged to, or was used by, General Washington. Today, a modern reproduction of this “Washington” flag still flies at his Valley Forge Headquarters, but there is no period documentation or proof to support it ever being an actual flag used during the Revolutionary War.

Simply put, the fact that it was discovered in Valley Forge in the mid-20th Century does not prove that it was there in 1777. In fact, the flag lacks a hem on either the fly or bottom sides, which may indicate it was a canton from a larger Stars and Stripes, and it was not designed to fly on its own. It also has no fringe, nor any obvious header that would indicate that it was pole mounted or hoisted. In short, its association with Washington, the Valley Forge winter, the Revolutionary War, and everything else is just unproven speculation and it is very likely Washington never used this flag at all.

The Hopkinson Flag c1777

Hopkinson's First Design
(speculative)

Many give credit for the design of the first Official “Stars and Stripes” to Francis Hopkinson, a Congressman from New Jersey, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His reported design had the thirteen stars arranged in a “staggered” pattern. Although there is no original example or drawing remaining of this flag, we do have the bill he gave Congress for its design. Congressman Hopkins asked Congress for a quarter-cast of public wine for his work. There is no record of Congress ever paying him.

The flag shown here is the most commonly accepted version, with 6-pointed stars, not 5-pointed ones. Hopkinson may have illustrated a flag with the stars placed in rows of 4-3-4-2. Some favor 5-pointed stars, or rows of 4-5-4, but since Hopkinson’s design-sketch has not definitively survived, it is all just speculation.

The Brandywine Flag 1777

Wilson's Brandywine Flag

An interesting bit of erroneous research done on this flag in 1931 resulted in it being mistakenly tied to the wrong Robert Wilson and to the 7th Pennsylvania Militia Regiment, although no actual connection between this flag and the Pennsylvania’s regiment existed. Recent research by flag scholar John Hartvigsen indicates that this flag was actually the colors of the Chester County Militia, not the 7th Pennsylvania Militia Regiment. According to Hartvigsen’s well-documented research, it was a “Robert Wilson” of Chester County, Pennsylvania, serving as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Chester County Militia, who was responsible for the militia’ equipment, and for this flag’s survival. Several other members of the Wilson family also served with the Chester County Militia and were present at the Battle of Brandywine.

Since both the traditional account and recent scholarly research assures us that this flag was indeed used at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777 (about three months after the Continental Congress resolution had defined the flag of the United States), no authority questions its status as a military flag used during the battle. In fact, it was Richard Harrison, a direct descendant of Chester County’s Robert Wilson, who gave the flag to Independence Hall in 1923, where it is still housed today.

The Bennington Flag 1777

Battle of Bennington Flag

According to tradition this flag flew over the military stores in Bennington, Vermont, on August 16, 1777. There, the American militia, led by Colonel John Stark, defeated a large British raiding force led by British General John Burgoyne in order to protect military supplies at Bennington. The battle was won when Ethan Allen and Seth Warner, who led the Green Mountain Boys, arrived with cannon and supplies taken from Fort Ticonderoga. Colonel Stark was later promoted to general and after the war was given land in the Ohio River Valley. It is Stark County today. When General Stark died he was the oldest (last) Revolutionary War general.

The traditional version of this story gives Colonial Stark’s wife, Molly Stark, credit for making the flag. She followed the accepted rules of heraldry and began and ended the stripes with white ones. Also according to the rules of heraldry, a star must have at least 6 points. Anything with five points or less was called a “spur.”

Unfortunately, some scholars now dispute this whole story claiming that the cotton material and thread used to make the flag dates it more closely to the War of 1812. They claim that it was made by Nathaniel Fillmore (a veteran of the Battle of Bennington) for his son Colonel Septa Filmore and the New York/Vermont militia. It was used at the Battle of Plattsburg (Lake Champlain) in 1814, a battle considered by many as the turning point of the War of 1812.

The Green Mountain Boys Flag

Allen's Green Mountain Boys

Ethan Allen and his cousin Seth Warner came from a part of the New Hampshire land grant that eventual became the modern State of Vermont. They commanded a New Hampshire and Vermont militia brigade known as the “Green Mountain Boys.” A notable victory of the Green Mountain Boys occurred on the morning of May 10, 1775, when they silently invaded the British held Fort Ticonderoga and demanded its surrender. The captured cannon and mortars were then transported across the snow covered mountains of New England. This surprise installation of some of these on the heights over Boston Harbor enabled George Washington to force the British to leave that important harbor.

On August 16, 1777, the Green Mountain Boys fought under General Stark at the Battle of Bennington. This flag’s green field made sense when you realized the Green Mountain Boys carried the flag in the forest. Bright red and white stripes were not very practical there. As in many American flags, the stars here were arranged in an arbitrary fashion. Nevertheless, they signified the unity of the Thirteen Colonies in their struggle for independence.

One final note, the records kept by Seth Warner are fairly complete and according to them his men had little in the way of equipment, so it is possible they never had any flag at all. Some flag historians now believe this flag might have been the regimental colors of a completely different Revolutionary unit (see the Headman Flag) as listed in the mysterious “Gostellowe Return”), but nevertheless, despite these intriguing theories, legend still places the flag firmly in the hands of the Green Mountain Boys.

The Fort Mercer Flag 1777

Fort Mercer Flag

In 1777, two forts were constructed on the Delaware river. One was Fort Mercer on the New Jersey side, and the other was Fort Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side opposite Fort Mercer. So long as the Americans held both forts, the British army in Philadelphia could not communicate with the outside world or be resupplied. General Howe, the commanding British general in Philadelphia, sent Lord Cornwallis with 5,000 men to attack Fort Mercer, landing them by ferry three miles south of the fort. Rather than let the garrison be captured by the overwhelming British forces, Colonel Christopher Greene decided to abandon the fort on November 20, leaving the British to occupy it the following day. The British then began an assault on the neighboring Fort Mifflin.

This unusual 13 star flag that was flown at Fort Mercer for some unknown reason reversed the normal red and blue colors.

The Fort Mifflin Garrison Flag 1777

Fort Mifflin Flag

The Fort Mifflin Flag was originally a Continental Navy Jack. The defenders of Fort Mifflin borrowed the flag because the navy was operating in the vicinity of the Delaware River forts and it was the only flag the soldiers of the fort could get.

During the 5-day siege of Fort Mifflin, the flag remained flying, despite the largest bombardment in North American history up to that point with over 10,000 cannonballs shot at the fort. At one point the flag was shot from the pole and two soldiers were killed raising it once more. This was the only time the flag wasn’t flying throughout the constant barrage. Although the Fort did not surrender to the British, eventually it was evacuated because of the extensive damage and the defenders fled to safety in New Jersey. Today, this flag still flies over the restored fort.

The Texel or Serapis Flag 1779

Jones' Serapis Flag

On September 23, 1779, John Paul Jones lost his first ship, the C.N.S.Bon-Homme Richard, in battle with the British frigate H.M.S. Serapis. As the Bon-Homme Richard sunk he boarded and captured the H.M.S. Serapis, then sailed the badly damaged prize ship into the Dutch harbor of Texel, where it eventually was turned over to the French. The British Ambassador demanded the ships Sherapis and Alliance, and their crews, be seized as pirates “because they flew no recognized flags,” and turned over to them.

The story behind this flag was that our Ambassador to France, Ben Franklin, was then asked what the new country’s flag looked like. A flag based on Franklin’s faulty description was then painted for the French court, who officially recognized it. Copies were then sent to various European ports including Texel, where the harbor master showed John Paul Jones the drawing of Franklin’s version of the American flag. Jones had one made and proudly raised this flag when he sailed back to the colonies on the Alliance.

The George Rogers Clark Flag 1779

Fort Sackville Flag

This red and green striped flag was used by General George Rogers Clark during his attack on the British held Fort Sackville during the American Revolution in 1779. Fort Sackville was a British outpost located in the frontier settlement of Vincennes.

His celebrated capture of Kaskaskia in 1778 and Vincennes in 1779 greatly weakened British influence in the Northwest Territory. Since Clark was the highest ranking Continental officer to operate in the future Northwest Territory, he has often been hailed as the “Conqueror of the Old Northwest.”

The Alliance Flag 1779

C.N.S.Alliance Flag

This was the flag of the 36-gun Continental Navy frigate Alliance, one of finest warship built in America during the Revolution. During the war, the Alliance flew an ensign with seven white stripes, six red stripes, and thirteen eight-pointed stars.

Under Captain John Barry she captured three enemy privateers and three Royal Navy warships during 1781-1783. She carried American diplomats to France for the peace talks, and fired the last shots of the Revolution in an engagement with two Royal Navy warships in 1783. Her final Revolutionary War service was carrying the Marquis de Lafayette back home to France.

Traditional First Continental Navy Jacks

First Naval Ensign

The “Don’t Thread on Me!” and Rattlesnake Ensign has become a powerful American symbol which tradition tells us was used by the Continental Navy in 1775 and is now being used again by the U.S. Navy in the War on Terrorism.

Colonial Merchant Ensign

Although there is widespread belief that ships of the Continental Navy flew this jack, there is no firm bases of historical evidence to support it. We have several fanciful contemporary pictures showing a very youthful Commodore Esek Hopkins (he was actually 58 in 1776), our First Navy Commander-in-Chief, that appeared in Europe during the Revolution that showed flags flying from both the bow and stern of his ships. In some pictures the rattlesnake flag appears, and in others we only have stripes.

In short, there is strong reason to believe that the actual Continental Navy Jack, like the Colonial Merchant Ensign, was simply a red and white striped flag with no other adornment. It should also be noted that the so-called First Navy Jack was probably not a Jack at all, but an ensign. However, by turn of the century the tradition of our navy using the symbol of the rattlesnake with the motto “DON’T TREAD ON ME” was firmly established in American myth.

The John Trumbull Flag

The John Trumbull Flag

American artist John Trumbull painted a collection of paintings for the capitol rotunda, two of which showed this flag. Since Trumbull had been an officer in the Continental Army in 1775, and for a short period was an aide-de-camp of Washington, the assumption is that his paintings are based on his personal knowledge of the people and places he painted.

However, there is debate over the flags shown in Trumbull’s paintings since he was not personally at all of the battles and relied on the descriptions of those who were there to compose his drawings.  From the general composition and evidence in the canvas, Trumbull painted these picture between 1816 and 1824, but he based his compositions on smaller originals he made in the 1780s and 1790s. 

The Hulbert Flag 1775-1776

John Hubert Flag 1775-1776

In July of 1775 a company of Long Island minutemen under the command of Captain John Hulbert moved to Fort Ticonderoga to assist in the campaign to liberate the Champlain Valley. According to legend this flag was made either in Long Island before Hilbert’s company left for Ticonderoga, or during the campaign in the Camplain Valley.

In November the company escorted British prisoners back to Trenton and Captain Hulbert reported on his mission to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, shortly after which the volunteer company was disbanded and they all returned to their homes in January of 1776.

Exactly 150 years later, in 1926, a tattered old flag was found in a house once occupied by John Hulbert. This flag was soon heralded as one of the earliest Stars and Stripes.

The First Official Navy Flag 1777-1795

The First Official Navy Flag 1777-1795
The first official documented US flag had also a staggered star pattern and was used by the navy. On April 24, 1778, Captain John Paul Jones, in command of the U.S.S. Ranger and flying this flag, became the first American officer to have the American flag recognized by a foreign power.

Although very similar to the original Hopkin's flag, this flag replaced the six-pointed stars with the more traditional five-pointed "American" stars.

The first official documented US flag had also a staggered star pattern and was used by the navy. On April 24, 1778, Captain John Paul Jones, in command of the U.S.S. Ranger and flying this flag, became the first American officer to have the American flag recognized by a foreign power.

Although very similar to the original Hopkin’s flag, this flag replaced the six-pointed stars with the more traditional five-pointed “American” stars.

The Cowpens Flag 1781 – The North Point Flag 1812

3rd Maryland Regiment Colors

At the Battle of Cowpens General Daniel Morgan won a decisive victory against the British in South Carolina on January 17, 1781. This colonial victory forced Cornwallis to come to the aid of the defeated British forces and led to another costly battle for the British against Nathaniel Greene’s forces at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.

North Point Flag 1812

The Cowpens Flag, according to legend, was carried at the Battle. In reality, the flag was the regimental flag of the Third Maryland Regiment, and this unit had been disbanded just prior to the battle. Some historians claim that members of the disbanded regiment were reassigned to other units present at the battle, and it was these soldiers who carried their flag, although others claim the flag as one not used until the War of 1812, rather than a Revolutionary flag at all. The most current research seems to indicate that the flag was actually first carried by Joshua F. Batchelor at the Battle of North Point during the War of 1812. Because of this it is also being called the “North Point” Flag today.

The original flag, complete with bullet holes, is still stored in the State House in Annapolis, Maryland. The famous “Spirit of ’76” painting by Archibald MacNeal Willard features the Cowpens flag, not the Betsy Ross design, which is similar.

The Guilford Courthouse Flag 1781

Guilford Courthouse Flag

Tradition tells us that this flag was raised over the Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina on March 15, 1781. There, under the leadership of General Nathaniel Greene, the militiamen halted the British advance through the Carolinas and turned them back to the seaport towns. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War with the British losing over 25% of their troops.

This unique Flag has an elongated canton and blue and red stripes. However, since it was common practice for military units to carry flags that featured common American symbols (such as stripes and stars), but to make them uniquely identifiable for use as their regimental flags, this flag was probably never intended for use as a national flag. Moreover, recent research now dates this flag between 1812-1814, thus making it more likely a North Carolina militia flag of the War of 1812 rather than a Revolutionary War flag as tradition previously believed. 

The South Carolina Naval Ensign 1778

South Carolina Naval Ensign

According to an article appearing in National Geographics Magazine on historical flags (1917), this was the flag of the South Carolina Navy during the American Revolution. The flag is essentially the same as the Continental Naval Jack, but with the motto “DON’T TREAD ON ME” appearing on the third red stripe from the top, and using stripes with the colors of Scotland (blue) and England (red). Prior to the article this flag was not associated with the South Carolina Navy.

This flag is now being mistakenly reproduced by some modern flag companies with the motto “DON’T TREAD ON ME” placed not on the third red stripe down, but on the second stripe from the bottom where they appeared on the First Continental Navy Jack. Unfortunately, the words don’t show up well on the dark blue stripe.

The Fort Independence Flag 1781

Jonathon Fowle Flag

Jonathon Fowle presented this flag to the officers of “Castle William ” (later renamed Fort Independence) in Boston in 1781. The first foreign war ship to visit the new United States after the war was H.M.S. Alligator in 1791. She saluted the American flag with 13 guns and the fort returned the salute. The flag is now part of the Massachusetts State House collection.

The United States-French Alliance Flag 1781-82

US-French Alliance

In 1781 and 1782, in honor of the end of the American Revolutionary War and the help of France in that conflict, a special U.S. Flag appeared. It consisted of 13 red and white stripes with a very long (11 stripes long) canton bearing either 12 or 13 white stars and a gold fleur-di-lis. The stars are shown in contemporary illustrations either as 5 pointed or as 6 pointed in rows of three (with a single star below if there are 13) and the fleur at the top.

The Buell Flag 1783

Buell Flag 1783

In 1783, a Connecticut printers named Abel Buell published “A New And Correct Map Of The United States Of North America,” in which this image of an American flag was reproduced. Much like Paul Revere, he was an American silversmith and engraver. He engraved a number of maps, including maps of the Florida coast and a large wall map of the United States, the first produced in America after the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Battery Park Flags – Evacuation Day 1783

Battery Park Flag (possible)

Tradition tells us that John Van Arsdale climbed the greased flag pole in Battery Park (New York City) on November 25, 1783, to remove the British Flag nailed to the pole and raise the new American Flag. Now called Evacuation Day, this event marked the last vestige of British authority in the United States when its troops in New York departed from Manhattan.

Battery Park Flag (possible)

Tradition also claims the last shot of the American Revolution was fired the same day by a British cannon on one of the departing ships, whose shot fell well short of the shore, but was still aimed towards the crowd gathered to see the departure. Since no contemporary accounts survive of the event describing the flags involved, it is left up to historical speculation on the star pattern used, or which British flag was removed.

British Union Flag

We assume the British flag removed was either the King’s Colours (British Union Flag 1606-1649, 1660-1801) or the British Colonial Red Ensign (1707). Experts disagree on which one was used, some argue that King’s Colours were normally flown on all British land fortifications at the time. Others argue that in the American colonies the use of the Red Colonial ensign was common on land, especially on coastal forts and other land-based installations. It should also be noted that some 19th Century illustrations do show what appears to be a British Red Ensign being removed, but, of course, the accuracy of these 19th Century illustrations is very questionable. I personally would like to believe that it was the Red Ensign taken down (if there was actually a flag left behind), because the thought that the British military would leave the King’s Colours behind to be torn down by the Americans in disrespect, doesn’t fit in with my image of British national pride.

Colonial Red Ensign

As for the US Flag used to replace the British flag, there was no such thing as a “typical” United States Flag in this era, but several designs were fairly popular during this period. One possible version would include a 3-2-3-2-3 horizontal star arrangement, which was common on many U.S. flags of the era. Another version could be a 4-5-4 horizontal arrangement, also popular.

My particular favorite, artistically, would be a version with a circular design of twelve stars in a circle, and the thirteenth placed in the center, also based on several questionable 19th Century illustrations. Several second-hand descriptions of this flag being used do exist, dating from the 1800s, which show the circular pattern of stars with a single larger star in the center, but like the Betsy Ross flag, they are not based on any real documentation or historical evidence. Obviously, the flag image and its size ratio shown here is also speculative. The point is, all of these flags have to be speculative, and unless some as yet undiscovered documentation surfaces, we will probably never know for sure.

The Ft. Harmar Flag 1786

Ft. Harmar Flag

The Congress, created by the Articles of Confederation, ordered Fort Harmar built in 1784. Colonel Josiah Harmar was dispatched to the Ohio frontier with orders to discourage illegal settlers from moving into Ohio. In 1785, Harmar ordered the construction of Fort Harmar at the junction of the Ohio River and the Muskingum River, near near present day Marietta. During construction a crude drawing was made of the walls, probably by workmen, which showed this flag. It is of interest because the five-pointed stars, placed in a 4-5-4 pattern, were placed in a diagonal pattern.

Strangely enough, rather than discouraging squatters, the fort encouraged settlement because the settlers believed Harmar’s troops would protect them from Native American attacks. In 1789, the Treaty of Fort Harmar, between the United States and the Six Nation federation (Wyandot, Delaware, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi and Sauk) met with Northwest Territory Governor Arthur St. Clair at Fort Harmar. Unfortunately, the new treaty didn’t stop the violence which continued for another six years, until the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The Treaty of Greenville (1795) forced the tribes to give up most of what is now the State of Ohio.

The Nathan Beman Flag 1791

Beman Flag
(14 Stars - 10 Stripes)

This rare flag is one of only a very few known United States flags displaying 14 stars, representing Vermont’s admission as the 14th state in 1791. This flag only had 10 stripes and appears to have been a parade and rally flag that was originally given as a gift to Nathan Beman, one of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys,” at some time between 1795 and 1815. Nathan Beman assisted Ethan Allen during the surprise attack and capture of Fort Ticonderoga. It was the capture of its cannons and the eventual delivery to Dorchester Heights in Boston that allowed Washington to beat the British and win Boston in the early days of the Revolution.