AMERICAN NAVAL FLAGS
OF THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR
American naval flags of the Revolutionary War were in no way standardized, though eventually the Stars & Stripes came to be the recognized war ensign of the United States. Besides the various flags authorized by the Continental Congress, there were many others adopted by naval commanders or by the legislatures of individual states. A common feature of many of these flags was the field of thirteen stripes symbolizing the unity of the Thirteen Colonies.
NEW ENGLAND NAVAL ENSIGN • 1775
WASHINGTON'S CRUISERS FLAG • 1775
As war began between Britain and her rebellious American colonies in 1775, various proposals for an American naval ensign were brought forward. George Washington's military secretary, Colonel Joseph Reed, suggested that all American warships fly an ensign with the Massachusetts naval ensign in the canton and a field of stripes for the Thirteen Colonies. The pine tree had long been recognized as a symbol of the New England colonies.
The ensign known as the Washington's Cruisers Flag was first flown by two floating batteries that were placed by the Americans in the Charles River during the siege of Boston. Later it was also flown by a number of small armed vessels of "The United Colonies of North America," commissioned under Washington's authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The artistic rendition of the tree and the exact wording of the motto varied from flag to flag. In April 1776, the Massachusetts legislature made this flag official for the naval forces of the state. A similar flag, with no motto, is still the official ensign of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
THE CONTINENTAL COLORS • 1775-77
ENSIGN OF THE BRIG LEXINGTON • 1776
The Continental Colors (also known as the Grand Union Flag) was the first national flag of the United States. The Union Jack canton symbolized the colonies' continuing loyalty to the Crown, while the field of thirteen stripes symbolized their unity in the struggle to preserve their liberties. The flag was designed in late 1775 and was first hoisted near Washington's headquarters, on Prospect Hill, Somerville, Massachusetts, on 2 January 1776. Though never officially adopted by the Continental Congress, the Continental Colors served as the national flag and naval ensign until 1777, when the Stars & Stripes was adopted.
The brig Wild Duck was purchased by the Continental Congress, refitted, armed and commissioned as Lexington in 1776. Under the command of Captain John Barry, she enjoyed some success against British shipping before being captured by HMS Alert in 1778. The Lexington's ensign was a variant of the Continental Colors, with stripes of red, white and blue.
FIRST NAVY JACK (1775)
Though called the First Navy Jack, this flag was probably used as an ensign. It was hoisted in the fall of 1775 by Commodore Esek Hopkins as he took command of the Continental Navy forces in the Delaware River. The stripes, rattlesnake, and motto were all widely employed as symbols of the Patriot cause. A flag with a field of thirteen alternating red and white stripes was flown by the Sons of Liberty.
VARIANT NAVAL ENSIGNS • 1777-85
In 1777, the Continental Congress passed an act establishing a national flag for the United States of America. The flag law specified a field of thirteen stripes and a blue canton or "union" with thirteen stars, but no precise details as to proportions, color shades or design details were provided. Accordingly, early versions of the Stars & Stripes varied widely in design, with flag makers following their own fancies regarding the order of the stripes, the arrangement of the stars and the flag's overall proportions. The two flags shown above represent common variants, as do the Alliance and Serapis ensigns, below.
The ALLIANCE ENSIGN
THE SERAPIS ENSIGN
The 36-gun frigate Alliance is generally considered to have been the finest warship built in America during the Revolution. She was constructed at Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1777-78, and commissioned for service in early 1779. Her first captain, a Frenchman named Pierre Landais, proved an erratic commander and he was eventually replaced by John Barry. Alliance fired the last American shot of the Revolution in an engagement with two Royal Navy warships in March 1783, about a month after the conclusion of peace between Britain and the United States. (Neither side was aware that a peace treaty had been signed.) She was also the last ship of the Continental Navy to be decommissioned, in August 1785. During the war, Alliance flew an ensign with seven white stripes, six red stripes, and thirteen eight-pointed stars.
The Serapis Ensign was hoisted on board the captured British frigate HMS Serapis after the battle between Serapis and the American ship Bonhomme Richard, Captain John Paul Jones commanding, off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, on 23 September 1779. It was during this engagement that Jones, when asked by the British captain if he had struck his colors, gave his famous reply: "Struck, sir? I have not yet begun to fight!" Bonhomme Richard herself was so badly damaged that she sank with colors flying.
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