by Colonel Wes Martin

"We will rally 'round the flag boys, we will rally once again, shouting the battle cry of freedom…We will rally from the hillsides, and gather from the plains, shouting the battle cry of freedom."

Long before this Civil War call-to-arms song was written warriors of many nations and causes have rallied to markers identifying their assembly points. Because a field of battle is fluid, the markers were moved as the forces moved. The markers required ease of both identification and mobility. Pieces of cloth on staffs or poles well served both requirements. These cloths have taken many names: flags, banners, standards, and colors to mention a few.

Two of the oldest records concerning the use of identifiers are found in the Bible, Numbers 1:52 and 2.2 respectfully: "And the sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each man by his own standard, according to their armies," and "The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers' households." Ancient Egyptian carvings and Persian paintings also attest to use of banners as identification markers markings and signaling devices for base camps and military units on the move. Through the ages, the banners became more elaborate. As villages, clans, and minor kingdoms became absorbed by modern day nations, banners representing religious, heraldic, or genealogical backgrounds were replaced by nationalistic standards.

During the earliest days of the American Revolution, a series of flags emerged. Most famous are the Gadsden and Culpepper flags, both stating "Don't Tread on Me." Gadsden featured a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background while Culpepper's was a crawling rattlesnake on a red and white stripped background. Another early Revolution flag, depicted a rattlesnake broken into pieces, each piece identifying the colonies, above the words "Join or Die." General Washington, commanding the siege of Boston, needed a symbol representing something of higher quality than a poisonous snake to give legitimacy to his quest.

Washington address this issue with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and Francis Hopkinson (American statesman, poet, future signer of the Declaration of Independence, and writer of the Yankee Doodle parody, "Battle of the Kegs"). History cannot confirm, but all evidence indicates that Hopkinson took the lead, the result being the Grand Union flag. Thirteen stripes were used, seven red starting at the top and finishing at the bottom, divided by six white. In the upper left corner the British Union Jack crosses of Saint George and Saint Andrew were placed. Overall, it was a current version of the American flag with the Union Jack in the place of the stars on a field of blue. On January 1, 1776, Washington raised this flag at Charlestown, Massachusetts across the bay from British occupied Boston.

The Grand Union flag represented colonial unity against oppression, as well as intent of future reconciliation with England. At this time only die-hard revolutionaries expressed determination for a complete break with England. New England was heavily composed of die-hard revolutionaries, the most adamant in Boston being President of the Continental Congress – John Hancock. It would be short order before formal rejection of British presence on American soil was declared. That came six months later, on July 4th, when John Hancock led the Continental Congress in the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Also by this time, the British had completed their evacuation of Boston. As went New England, so went the nation.

When the resolve was made by the Continental Congress to remove the British from this new nation, the need also arose to their remove symbol from the American flag. It is long since forgotten what person or committee arrived at the recommendation replace the Union Jack with a circular union of thirteen stars embedded in a field of blue. This union was to represent a new constellation that would light the skies of freedom. Congress approved the new flag on June 4, 1777. In this legislation the Continental Congress also defined the symbolic meaning of the colors: white was designated to signify purity and innocence; red for hardiness and valor; and blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

Almost a century would pass before the grandson of Betsy Ross claimed that she designed the first American flag. It is known that following the death of her husband in 1776, Betsy Ross did manage the family upholstery business and did make flags for the Continental Army. It is very possible that she sewed the first flag. It is also likely that most of her work supporting American patriots in the field was for charity. The Continental Congress was unable to pay for most of the new nation's needs. However, to claim Betsy Ross designed a flag that inspired the Continental Congress into complete acceptance holds the same validity as Washington's cutting down of the cherry tree. Both are examples of folklore and story-telling being substituted for facts.

The new flag was manufactured just in time to be initiated into the field of battle. British General Burgoyne had marched south from Canada with the intent of breaking New England away from the rest of the colonies. Just as the Stars and Stripes flag was baptized in battle at Saratoga, it was also baptized in victory. This victory resulted in French support of the colonies, which in turn became a deciding factor in the successful outcome of the American Revolution. The American flag was off to a good start and was destined to witness many rough times between Saratoga and Yorktown.

Almost thirty years later, the Stars and Stripes came ashore at Tripoli. President Jefferson had warned Mediterranean pirates to leave American ships alone. When they failed to heed the warning, U.S. Marine were sent to confront them. Less than ten years later, back on American shores during the War of 1812, "Old Glory" remained aloft throughout the night as British warships shelled Fort McHenry. This amazing sight cause Francis Scott Key, an American detainee of the British fleet, to write: "Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight, O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming! And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."

That Star-Spangled Banner marched into Mexico City where a young lieutenant names Ulysses Grant pulled his cannon up the stairs into a church tower to better effect his accuracy. The American flag rode with Grant fifteen years later to the preservation of the Union. It also charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and a daring cavalry captain named John Pershing. Less than two decades later British and French allies were stalemated in trenches and left to slugging matches with German armies on European battlefields. American military forces bearing the Stars and Stripes, and the leadership of General John Pershing, with sheer volume of forces, resources, and fighting spirit were critical into turning the stalemate into allied victory "Over There."

This same banner was in the process of being raised over Pearl Harbor when the unwarranted air attack came from the east. It was with the American military at Wake Island, Bataan, and Corregidor during our nation's hour of desperation. Just as it held at Valley Forge, the burning of Washington, D.C., and the Civil War, the Stars and Stripes remained flying.

Meanwhile, our military forces kept fighting. Old Glory was at the Battle of Midway, when the Philippines were retaken, in North Africa, on the beaches of Normandy, the race through France, and into Germany. It was the soldiers and tanks smashing through the gates of Nazi extermination camps as American liberators brought an end to living hells created by twisted minds.

Our flag represents more than the military accomplishments of this nation. It stands tall for all our accomplishments, military and civilian. Just as it flies over military bases, it flies over courthouses, businesses, and homes. It flies on American ships and is displayed on aircraft, both military and civilian. This flag belongs to every American, those who have gone before, those who are here today, and those who will come tomorrow. It represents those who have fought the wars, worked the fields, and labored in the factories. It flies for those who have built this nation out of the resources of the land and out of American ingenuity. While the Constitution provides our nation with guidance and legitimacy, the Flag provides American citizens with inspiration and unity.

Just as the Flag represents the ideals of this nation, it also represents the people. From the very beginning, no one star stood for any specific state any more than any one stripe represented a specific colony. The Flag was molded together, like the nation it represents. People came to be citizens of the United States by many different means. Today this nation is composed of every race, established religion, national origin, and background on Earth. It was recognized that this nation and its flag belongs to all citizens that resulted in the 1923 National Flag Convention change to the Pledge of Allegiance. Written in 1892, the Pledge originally stated: "pledge allegiance to my flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." "My flag" became "the flag." The Constitution prevents any one person or group achieving from sole power. The Flag, representing the entire nation, like the Constitution, is not to be claimed the possession of any one person.

Unfortunately, there are always those who wish to denigrate the American flag. To do so is to denigrate the entire nation, its Constitution, and the laws that were established to protect this land and its citizens. It is also a denigration of the people who have built this country and those who fought to preserve it. The American Flag is still this country's rallying point. When Americans stand up to protect their flag from abuse, they are not just upholding a piece of cloth. They are protecting the identification of their nation. Too many have died in the fields of battle, fighting for the principles and defense of this nation, to allow the banner we rally around to be defiled.

From Valley Forge to present day responsibilities, this nation has withstood the test of time. From those earliest days the Flag has always been with us. What started in ancient times for other people as simple identification to mark encampments and geographic gathering points has evolved for this nation into an emblem that symbolizes the heritage and spirit of the people. That spirit was well reflected in John Wayne's ballad: Face the Flag, son, and face reality. Our strengths and our freedoms are based in unity. The flag is but a symbol, son, of the world's greatest nation, And as long as it keeps flying, there's cause for celebration."

Just as the United States has always picked itself up after defeats and set-backs, it has at one time or another picked up just about every other nation on Earth. "Old Glory" began symbolizing this nation over two hundred years ago. General Washington was in want of a standard to rally the colonies into one nation. He found it in the thirteen stripes and thirteen stars entrenched in a field of blue. Yet, even the father of our country could not have envisioned how important this country would become to the entire world.

Each time this nation has rallied 'round the flag, for the citizens of the United States, its principles and its responsibilities are not to just remember the past, but to recognize and accept the future. Our past, our heritage, woven into every stitch of the American flag is our guide to the fulfillment of those responsibilities. This nation, with is dedication of freedom over oppression, is marked by the most colorful and distinctive national banner ever created. When the world has been caught up in a sea of darkness and despair, the United States serves as a stream of light and hope.

Francis Scott Key's words in the second verse of The Star Spangled Banner are as pertinent today as when they were written" "In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream. 'Tis the Star Spangled Banner, Oh, long may it wave... O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."

©2021 Wes Martin