This week we celebrated Flag Day (June 14) – a national day of observance for the adoption of the official “Stars and Stripes” we now call the Flag of the United States of America. Every U.S. Navy warship in the fleet today flies a uniform flag, but this was not always the case. The early days of the American flag were marked by a number of variations and design changes. This evolution was significantly influenced by Naval activities on several occasions.
In 1776, the “Betsy Ross” variant of the American flag made its debut on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. A year later, shortly before the newly formed Congress passed the Flag Resolution, naval flag designer Francis Hopkinson submitted his own design for the country’s flag. Hopkinson, a New Jersey native and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department under the Continental Marine Committee.
He claimed that he designed a flag for the U.S. Navy, asking Congress that he specifically be paid for “designing the great Naval flag of the United States.”
The Flag Resolution, which had been passed on June 14, 1777, specified only,
“That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
– The Flag Resolution, June 14, 1777
Due to the lack of specifications in the Flag Resolution regarding the balance of red and white stripes, Hopkinson took the liberty of placing seven red stripes, and six white ones, on his flag design. Given his naval background, he knew the predominance of red stripes would make the naval flag more visible against the sky on a ship at sea – an important aspect for ensuring that other nation’s vessels were able to properly identify a U.S. ship. At the time, other designs called for six red stripes and seven white stripes, and some even included blue stripes, but to this day, the Flag of the United States maintains Hopkinson’s dominant red stripe design.
On the high seas, the American flag was making its presence known as early as 1778. Captain John Paul Jones, while sailing the sloop Ranger in the Quiberon Bay near France, received the first salute from a foreign navy recognizing the ship’s colors. In doing so, France also recognized the fledgling country, represented by the stars and stripes.
The following year, when Capt. Jones captured HMS Serapis at the Battle of Flamborough Head, the importance of flying a recognized national flag on a warship was demonstrated. After Jones’ ship, Bonhomme Richard, sank during the battle, he sailed the captured Serapis into a neutral Dutch port, only to be accused by the British ambassador of sailing a ship with no known national ensign. A hoisted flag clearly communicated the nationality of vessels to other ships on the high seas; those without a national ensign were deemed pirates. In response to the British accusation, Jones ordered the immediate production of a recognizable flag derived from Benjamin Franklin’s design featuring red, white, and blue stripes. The Dutch accepted this flag as representing the United States and the pirate claim was rescinded.
The flag continued to evolve after the tumultuous events of the American revolution and early years of American independence. More stars and stripes were added as more states joined the Union. The second flag act signed January 13, 1794 expanded provision for 15 stripes and 15 stars, and once more, Naval events significantly contributed to the history of the American flag.
The flag flown above Fort McHenry during the naval portion of the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 inspired American lawyer Francis Scott Key to pen the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” It was later titled “The Star Spangled Banner,” and adopted as the United States National Anthem.
Four years after the Battle of Baltimore, the flag was normalized with 13 stripes and one star representing each state. This standardization was about the same time the United States, as a newly founded country, began growing in world influence.
Over the next century, the country and the flag evolved to include 50 states and throughout the years the expansion of the United States’ influence was aided by the Navy’s ability to represent the nation abroad. The latter half of the 19th century witnessed the American flag present when Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to the West in 1854 and when our country intervened on behalf of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam during the Spanish-American War in 1898. By the time the early 20th century came the United States flag was a familiar site across the world.
Today, American-flagged ships are distributed across the globe to protect freedom of maneuver, to secure the
For more information about the U.S. Flag, visit www.usa.gov/flag.