The American Flag


From: tipcat@wam.umd.edu (Frank Young)
The red, white and blue of the American flag derive their origins fundamentally from the Union Jack amd the ensigns of the squadrons of the Navy.

The origins of the three principal squadrons of the Royal Navy in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and earlier nineteenth centuries seems to stem from a reorganization originally undertaken by the General at Sea Robert Blake about 1650. It quickly evolved into a fixed hierarchy of ten ranks encompassing three fleets, which was maintained -- at least on paper -- until 1864. The hierarchy was:

             Rear Admiral of the Blue
             Rear Admiral of the White
             Rear Admiral of the Red
             Vice Admiral of the Blue
             Vice Admiral of the White
             Vice Admiral of the Red
             Admiral of the Blue
             Admiral of the White
             Admiral of the Red
             Admiral of the Fleet

Of course, there were more than ten admirals serving at one time on most occasions, but all those beneath the rank of rear admiral of the blue had commands that were officially ad hoc -- unlike those who held the ten offical commands, whose rank was permanent and who rose strictly through seniority, based upon the date on which their names were enrolled as captains in the Navy List.

Generally -- and there were many variations -- the white squadron controlled the waters around Britain itself, the coasts of France, and the Mediterranean; the red squadron had the rest of the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, as well as the northern South Atlantic; the blue had the rest of the South Atlantic, and all of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Take a look at the national flags of many former British colonies and note the fields of the standards -- they often reflect the fields of the standards of the fleets that patrolled in these respective regions. In the case of the US, the blue canton with the seme of stars is of the same proportion as the canton of the old British naval ensign, and the olf field of red is still apparent in the red stripes. Similarly, Australia and New Zealand have blue fields, while Canada's flag, before the Maple Leaf, was red, as Bermuda's is still.

After the reorganization of 1864, the three standards were reassigned according to the type of naval service: the Royal Navy got the white ensign, the Royal Naval Reserves got the blue; and the Merchant Service got the red -- which retained its old nickname of the "red duster."

Assuming that you have some familiarity with naval history in general, you must recall the full name and titles held by Great Nelson on the occasion of the last and greatest triumph:
Vice Admiral of the White Horatio Nelson, KCB, Viscount Nelson of the Nile, Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk, Duke of Bronte.

The present American flag went through a series of transformations from the original Union Jack to the present design. One major step was the flag now called "The Continental Colors," first used on January 1, 1776 [NB: before independence], at Prospect Hill [Boston]. Here, the design exhibits the thirteen alternating red and white stripes [six white, seven red, both topmost and bottommost red] with the Union Jack in the canton. Earlier, at Bunker Hill, the "Pine Tree Flag" seems to have been flown. It used the red field of the red fleet's ensign with a white canton surcharged with a green pine tree.

The act of the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 [June 14 is now sometimes celebrated as Flag Day in some parts of the United States] which called the present design into official being was drafted by Francis Hopkinson, a member of Congress from Pennsylvania. Whether he also was responsible for the design that is codiefied in the act is still strongly questioned, but the slightly prevailing view is that he probably did execute the design as well as draft the legislation. The design of the field was adopted from "The Continental Colors" of two years before to which was added a canton of blue "surcharged with thirteen white stars forming a new constellation in the firmament of nations."

There is a special remembrance of this in the naval history of the United States. When the first Naval Bill was passed under President Washington, it specified the construction of six frigates, three of forty-four guns and three of thirty-six. These ships were to be named <Constitution> <United States> <President> <Congress> <Chesapeake> and <Constellation>. The names of the first four are self-explanatory, the fifth requires recalling that the Chesapeake Bay was the largest unique feature of geography in the original United States. While the Bay is not truly or wholly fresh water, it was then [and often still is] described as the "largest fresh-water estuary in the world." The sixth name, <Constellation>, is the most difficult for modern Americans, since they are now taught so little history in school -- it recalls the language of the Act of 1777, and comemorates the flag with its "constellation in the firmament of nations."

Article written by Frank Young


See also the Flags of the World page on the US flag.


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Last modified: Apr 01, 2000