A History of Our Flags

Betsy Ross 1776
The circular design of this flag was credited to George Washington, Robert Morris and Betsy Ross around 1776. The Continental Congress, however, did not specify an arrangement for the stars in the canton, as a result there are many variations in the flags that followed until 1912. There is much controversy as to who, what, and when regarding the design and credit of this flag, yet it remains one of the most popular “versions” to be displayed and remembered as a flag used in the War for Independence.

First Official Flag 1777-1795 Official, also known as First Navy Stars and Stripes
Most people believe that the Betsy Ross flag was the first design, but the first documented U.S.A. flag was the staggered star pattern. This flag was first flown by Captain John Paul Jones on the USS Ranger. On April 24,1778, John Paul Jones, in command of the Ranger, became the first American officer to have the American flag recognized by a foreign power. The design of the first Official Stars and Stripes is credited to Francis Hopkinson, a popular patriot, a lawyer, and Congressman from New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, poet, artist, and distinguished civil servant. The flag had the thirteen stars arranged in a “staggered” pattern technically known as quincuncial because it is based on the repetition of a motif of five units. This arrangement inevitably results in a strongly diagonal effect. In a flag of thirteen stars, this placement produced the unmistakable outline of the crosses of St. George and of St. Andrew, as used together on the British flag. There is no original example of the very first flag still left. Another version is shown here with a 6 point star design.

Grand Union (Continental Colors)
This flag was never officially sanctioned by the Continental Congress but was in use from late 1775 until mid-1777. This flag was an alteration of the British Ensign or Meteor flag. In its blue canton was the red cross of St. George and the white cross of St. Andrew. The thirteen stripes signified the original colonies. The white stripes were actually sewn on many of the British Ensigns. Retaining the British Union in the canton indicated a continued loyalty, as the Americans saw it, to the constitutional government against which they fought. On 1 January 1776, this flag was first raised on Prospect Hill, which was then called Mount Pisgah, in Somerville, MA. At this time, the Continental army came into formal existence. 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 Union today.


Mistakenly referred to as “The Bicentennial Flag” because of its popularity in 1976. The Bennington Museum in Bennington, VT, houses the flag. Oral tradition states that it flew at the Battle of Bennington in 1777. This tradition is now known to be a myth. The museum’s fiber analysis of the flag in 1995 places its probable creation circa 1814 for use during the War of 1812. Revolutionary war veteran Nathaniel Fillmore may have been responsible for its creation. The “76” reference in the design would be an expression of his patriotic enthusiasm during the second war with England. It is the earliest known flag made entirely of cotton. While her exact origin may remain a riddle, The Bennington Flag is one of America’s most beloved historical flags.


Guilford Courthouse
One of the bloodiest battles of the war occurred on March 15, 1781 at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. Under American General Greene, the British inland advance was hurled back to the seacoast by the American militia units, with the British losing a quarter of their troops.


Washington’s Commander-In-Chief
This was the personal flag of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. It flew in front of his headquarters in camp and accompanied him to mark his position on the battlefield.



Bunker Hill
On the nights of June 16 and 17, 1775, the Americans fortified Breed’s and Bunker Hills which overlooked Boston Harbor. Although they had not officially declared their independence, a fight was brewing. The British advanced up the slope the next day and saw this flag, possibly a red or blue banner. So one might find two variations of this flag. Many early Colonial flags had been made by altering the English flag and most still contained a reference to England. The Colonists still saw themselves as British subjects but were declaring their right to be free from violation of their liberties.


This flag was first used by Commodore Esek Hopkins, who was the first Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Fleet. When his ships were put to sea for the first time in February, 1776, flags with the symbol of the rattlesnake were flown. The rattlesnake flags were very popular at time. Colonel Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina copied this flag and presented it to the Continental Congress. It is also referred to as the Gadsden flag.


This flag uses a version of the British Red Ensign or Meteor flag with a green pine tree substituted for the British Union flag in the canton. The Continental flag is believed to have been one of the flags carried at the Battle of Bunker Hill.



First Naval Jack
This flag is believed to have flown aboard the Continental Fleet’s flagship Alfred in January, 1776. This flag or one of it’s variations was used by American War ships throughout the Revolution. Currently it is flown by the oldest active ship in the Fleet.



Fort Moultrie
This flag was carried by Colonel William Moultrie’s South Carolina Militia on Sullivan Island in Charleston Harbor on June 28, 1776. The British were defeated that day, which saved the south from British occupation for another two years. Some versions of this flag have the word “LIBERTY” in the crescent moon. The South Carolina state flag still contains the crescent moon from this Revolutionary War flag.


Green Mountain Boys
A notable victory of the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen occurred on the morning of May 10, 1775, when they silently invaded the British-held Fort Ticonderoga and demanded its surrender “In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” The captured cannon and mortars were transported across the snow covered mountains of New England. This surprise installation on the heights over Boston Harbor enabled George Washington to force the British to leave that important harbor.


Contrary to what many think, this isn’t a revolutionary flag, but was in use a hundred years before then, as a symbol of New England in general and Massachusetts in particular. Once war broke out, it was swiftly adapted by the Americans in various forms, and in April of 1776, it became the official flag of the Massachusetts Navy.


Culpeper Minutemen
The Minutemen of Culpeper County, Virginia, chose a flag that looks generally like the Gadsden flag. “Their flag was special. Philip Slaughter described its central symbol as a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, and below it the words ‘Don’t tread on me!’ At each side was the inscription ‘Liberty or Death!’ – those words of Patrick Henry, spoken that March at the second Virginia revolutionary convention. The flag appears to predate the more famous Rhode Island rattlesnake banner presented by Col. Christopher Gadsden to the South Carolina Provincial Congress in February, 1776.