Friday, May 6, 2011

The First Flag: The Grand Union

In the fall of 1775, Mr. James Wharton arrives at Mistress Margaret Manny’s Philadelphia millinery shop with over 100 yards of red, white and blue bunting from which the good seamstress is to make a ship’s flag. In this case, the ship is the Alfred, one of the first war ships in a navy that has but a handful of ships – literally. (Sources vary in their count, placing the number of ships anywhere between 4-6.)

The Alfred, a 30-gun frigate manned by 300 sailors, anchors in Philadelphia’s Delaware River. On December 3, 1775, her new First Lieutenant, John Paul Jones, has the honor of raising, before a cheering crowd of sailors and civilians alike, the first flag to fly over any American war ship.

“I hoisted, with my own hands, the flag of freedom,” says Jones later (

The flag Lt. Jones raises is new as well as familiar: With a bold design of 13 stripes in alternating colors of red and white, it also contains, in the upper, left-hand corner, the British Union Jack.

This first flag of the Revolution is called the Grand Union. ... And yep, in the heat of battle, things could have gotten confusing!

A post script:
The Union Jack, interestingly, is its own hybrid. Its design is made from superimposing England’s red St. George’s cross on top of Scotland’s white St. Andrew’s cross. These are laid against a dark blue field.

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