Prominent symbols often hold such a constant presence in daily life that their history can be overlooked, but Veteran’s Day stands as the perfect opportunity to turn attention toward the storied past of the U.S. flag and those who fight to protect and preserve its world-renowned stars and stripes.
In today’s America, with 240 years under its democratic belt, it’s easy to take for granted the presence of the 50 stars and 13 stripes. From media photos capturing its reign over foreign military bases to its gigantic sea of red, white and blue waving above local car dealerships, the flag appears to be an always-present symbol.
It’s beginning, however, stands as less symbolic and more utilitarian, local flag historian John Ellis said.
“The main thing that people don’t realize is that flags were one of the most important pieces of military equipment,” Ellis said, explaining that battle field flag bearers stood as an essential marker for troops searching for guidance in a chaotic scene. “Flags weren’t just to look pretty. They were used for identification.”
For that reason, Ellis said, carrying the flag meant performing one of the most dangerous duties on the field.
“They knew if they could take the flag bearer out…the troops wouldn’t know whether to stop or go,” he said.
Those duties extended beyond the battlefield and onto the coast and the sea, where ships hoisted hand-crafted flags to announce their country of origin, and coastal forts beyond the reach of a lighthouse used massive banners to guide maritime traffic.
That essential duty served as the backdrop for one of nation’s most storied flags: the original Star-Spangled Banner. While the song paints a vivid mental image of the flag’s precarious perch above Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key’s anthem gives little detail about the flag’s size.
For that reason, Smithsonian visitors are likely surprised to enter the banner’s dimly-lit display hall and find a sprawling, 30X34-foot banner.
“They were identification items for ships at sea, and those flags were gigantic,” Ellis said.
Witnessing Key’s musical muse in person is an inspiring moment, but also a visit that evokes curiosity. While few may question the smaller number of stars—–the 1814 flag predates many states’ entry into the Union——the Star-Spangled Banner includes 15 stripes, two more than the original 13 colonies American students learn that today’s red and white stripes represent.
Those two extra stripes represent Kentucky and Vermont’s entry to statehood, Ellis said, and explains why, a century later, Congress recognized the need to establish a standard design of the U.S. flag.
“Most countries have a static design flag,” he said, maintaining the same design regardless of border or domestic policy changes. In the beginning, however, the U.S. flag changed as often as the young country’s borders and diverse population. “We had star patterns and circles, … just every kind of design in the world,” Ellis said.
In 1914, the move by Congress standardized the 13 stripes with a star representing each state, and the U.S. had finally solidified its national banner.
In the years that followed, the flag would experience changes in its warfare role, with other developments taking its place as a beacon.
Today’s high-tech warfare, guided by night vision goggles and GPS coordinates, may require much less directional assistance from the flag, yet its necessity as a symbol of the cause is as critical as ever.
From its defiant rise at Iwo Jima to its pioneering perch on the moon to its proud placement on front porch posts throughout the country, the flag continues to stand as a powerful symbol of the United States, and particularly for veterans celebrated Friday.
“Veterans have a little bit more appreciation of the flag,” Ellis said. “It isn’t just a piece of cloth to them, it’s something they put their life into.”
For information on flag etiquette, including how to properly display U.S. flags and how to dispose of worn flags, visit http://www.legion.org/flag
. For historical information about the original Star-Spangled Banner and the history of the U.S. flag, including an interactive photo and a certificate following the completion of a quiz, visit http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner.
(Reporter’s note: This article was written under the careful watch of a gift that holds a special significance to our family.
In 2013, our friend returned from a deployment to Afghanistan with the Air Force Reserve. During her tour, she purchased a U.S. flag, which was delivered to an F-16 pilot who carried the banner during a combat sortie.
The flag and its certificate hangs in our home as a daily reminder of the sacrifices she and her service members made and continue to make for our freedom, and a grateful remembrance of her safe return.)