The Stars and Stripes

After the victories of Trenton and Princeton, the Continental Army swelled with new recruits and the skirmishing between foraging parties and raiding between patriots and loyalists over the winter and spring of 1777 was fierce. In early spring, LTG George Washington moved the Continental Army out of winter quarters and encamped at a strong position at Middlebrook, New Jersey to prevent Gen William Howe’s British Army in New York from moving on Philadelphia overland. 1777 was expected to be the decisive year. Washington needed every advantage he could muster and mitigate every issue possible. One small issue was the Continental Army’s colors. 

The Grand Union Flag which by this time was carried by the majority of the Continental regulars caused quite a bit of confusion. It had a Union Jack in the upper left corner on a field of alternating red and white stripes. Many patriots disliked the flag by 1777. Some saw it as a loyalist flag, including British troops. Moreover, it didn’t look particularly different from the Union Jack on the battlefield. At the very least, the Grand Union flag didn’t symbolize a complete break from Great Britain as was promised by the Declaration of Independence. Washington needed a new flag. In response to Washington’s request, on 14 June 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first flag law. It read, “Resolved. That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” 

This resolution left quite a bit to the imagination, such as the size and location of the blue field, the position of the stars, even the shape of the flag and the direction of the stripes. These details were filled in, not by Betsy Ross as in the popular American myth, but by Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration and Congressional delegate from New Jersey. 

Hopkinson was a talented designer and had a keen interest in designing the symbols for the new Republic. It was his recommendation that the blue field with stars replace the Union Jack in the Grand Union flag carried by the Continental Army. Although his first design was not a circle but alternating columns of two and three stars. This meant that the current colors could easily be “fixed”, without the problems of sewing a brand new flag and replacing the existing ones. (Hopkinson would go on to design just about every American symbol from the Great Seal to the dollar bill.) 

Whether the first original flag of the new United States of America was sewn by Betsy Ross is so far lost to history. The entire Betsy Ross story is based on a single written testimony by her grandson given nearly a hundred years later in 1870. The story is not backed up by any physical evidence or written records whatsoever: no committee records, no bills of payment, and no journal entries in anyone’s diary or memoirs. Nothing. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that there is no solid evidence for it at all. The first flag had to be sewn by someone, Betsy Ross is as good a choice as any, and better than most.

The British began their invasion of the United States the same day as the flag resolution, 14 Jun 1777, when Gen John Burgoyne and his Indian allies crossed into New York from Canada, and Howe began a series of maneuvers against Philadelphia. 1777 would be a momentous, if frustrating, year for America. To meet the threat, the Continental Army would have a new flag for her regiments to rally around: a flag of thirteen alternating red and white stripes with a blue field in the corner upon which there was a circle of thirteen white stars.

The original Stars and Stripes of the United States of America.

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