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29 Little-Known, Fascinating Flag Facts From the Book 

1. Although many have speculated, we do not know why the American flag contains stars and stripes, nor why the colors red, white and blue were chosen.

Betsy Ross Flag2. There is no historical evidence that Betsy Ross made the first American flag—nor that she helped design it. The preponderance of historical evidence points to the fact that Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, designed the Stars and Stripes.

3. The American public did not learn the Betsy Ross story until 1870, when her grandson, William Canby, held a press conference in Philadelphia to report that his research, based on family stories, showed that his grandmother made the flag at the behest of George Washington.

Continental Colors4. The Stars and Stripes was not flown by Washington’s forces in the Revolutionary War. The flag most widely used by his forces was the Continental Colors, which had thirteen red and white stripes and the Union Jack in the canton. After-the-fact paintings such as “Washington Crossing the Delaware” that depict the Stars and Stripes in the war are inaccurate.

5. U.S. Navy hero John Paul Jones has three flag firsts. As senior lieutenant on the Alfred in December 1775, he was the first person to unfurl the Continental Colors on a naval vessel. On February 14,1778, Jones arranged for his ship, the Ranger, to exchange salutes with a French Admiral in Quiberon Bay, marking the first time a foreign nation saluted the American flag. On April 24, 1778, Jones and the Ranger captured the British sloop Drake off the English coast—the first victory at sea for a U.S. Navy ship flying the American flag.

6. Martin Van Buren was the first U.S. President to be born as an American citizen under the Stars and Stripes. Van Buren, our 8th president was born in 1782 in Kinderhook, New York. Andrew Jackson, his predecessor, was born in 1767, ten years before Congress adopted the first Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777.

"Star-Spangeled Banner"7. The Star-Spangled Banner, the historic flag made by Mary Pickersgill in Baltimore in 1815, had 15 stars and 15 stripes. Three years later, Congress enacted the third and final Flag Resolution, mandating that official flags thereafter would have thirteen stripes and one star for each state.

Francis Scott Key8. Francis Scott Key witnessed the Battle of Baltimore from a ship in the harbor after negotiating the release of an American prisoner of war, Dr. William Beanes, taken by the British in the Battle of Bladensburg several weeks earlier.

9. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which Key wrote in 1815, did not become the National Anthem until 1931.

10. The flag’s image became part of a national political campaign for the first time in the presidential election of 1840 when William Henry Harrison and his running mate John Tyler (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”) used a log cabin on campaign banners, bandannas, ribbons, and broadsides. The flag flew prominently beside cabins. The campaign also employed Stars and Stripes banners with Harrison’s name inscribed on them.

11. The only battle deaths at Ft. Sumter were two men who were killed after the Union surrender during an aborted 50-gun salute to the flag order by Major Robert Anderson, the fort’s commander, as the flag was lowered over the fort.

12. It was almost unheard of for Americans to fly the flag at their homes or businesses until the fall of Ft. Sumter in April 1861. Until then, the flag was primarily used by the military as a communications device (mostly on Navy ships).

Col. Elmer Ellsworth13. The first Union martyr in the Civil War was Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln’s who was shot and killed in Alexandria, Virginia, in May of 1861 by the owner of an inn after Ellsworth tore down a Confederate flag flying over the establishment.  Ellsworth’s body lay in state at the White House and the slogan “Remember Ellsworth” accompanied by images of the American flag was popular in the north throughout the war.

14. On June 5, 1862, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler, as military governor of New Orleans, gave the order to execute 21-year-old William Mumford for pulling down the Stars and Stripes from the U.S. Mint. In reaction, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a death sentence for Butler, and President Lincoln relieved Butler of his command.

15. The consensus of historical opinion is that the story of 95-year-old Barbara Frietschie of Frederick, Maryland, defiantly waving the American flag troops as Confederate soldiers marched through the city on September 10, 1862, which was immortalized in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, is a myth.

16. The first African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor, William Carney, was honored for his actions with the Massachusetts 45th Regiment at the Battle of Ft. Wagner in South Carolina when Carney, severely wounded, picked up the American flag of his unit’s slain flag bearer and led the troops in the assault—the battle is portrayed in the movie, Glory.

B.J. Cigrand17. A small-town Wisconsin schoolteacher, B.J. Cigrand, first conceived of, and worked for, the idea of a national June 14 Flag Day in 1885.

18. Only one state, Pennsylvania, observes June 14 as a legal state Flag Day holiday, and has done so since 1937.

19. The author of the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy, an editor at the Youth’s Companion magazine, created it in 1892 for students to help commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, and as a way to help immigrant children and the children of immigrants build loyalty to the United States.

20. The Pledge’s words have been changed three times. The words of Bellamy’s original Pledge, which was used until 1923, are: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and Justice for all.”

Schoolchildren Reciting Pledge21. Students saluted the flag with their right hand, palm downward and extended forward until June 22, 1942, when Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance by including it in the U.S. Flag Code, and changed the salute to the hand over the heart because the it too closely resembled Nazi Germany’s  “Heil Hitler” salute.

22. The Pledge was recited for the first time on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on September 13, 1988. The U.S. Senate adopted daily recital of the Pledge on June 24, 1999.

23. The first flag desecration laws were enacted in state legislatures beginning in the late 1880s as a reaction against the rampant use of the flag in commercial advertising.

President Taft24. An executive order signed by President Taft on June 24, 1912, establishing the official star arrangement for the forty-eight star flag marked the first time since the Stars and Stripes was born in 1777 that a president officially clarified exactly what the flag should look like and what dimensions the government would accept for its flags. Taft’s executive order applied only to government flags, but it also cut down drastically on creatively designed flags used by private individuals.

25. The U.S. Flag Code was adopted on June 14, 1923, when the American Legion’s Americanism Commission convened the first National Flag Conference at DAR Memorial Continental Hall in Washington. In addition to the Legion and the DAR, sixty-six other groups took part in the gathering.

26. The Flag Code did not become the law of the land until 1942, when Congress passed a resolution, adopting the code as part of Title 36 of the United States Code. The code was slightly amended in December 1942 and several other times in subsequent years. Although the Flag Code is a national public law, it does not provide for penalties for violations of its provisions.

50-star flag sketch27. The 50-star flag was designed by a 17-year-old high school student, Bob Heft, of Lancaster, Ohio. Heft made his flag for his 11th grade history class in 1958. He received a B minus.

28. All state and federal flag-desecration laws were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989.

50-star flag29. The United States is the only country in the world that has a national Pledge of Allegiance to its flag, a National Anthem that venerates its flag, a national song (John Philip Souza’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) that honors its flag, a highly detailed federal law (the U.S. Flag Code) that sets out proper flag procedure, large veterans’ organizations that promote the display of, and dispense advice about, the proper use of the flag (the American Legion and the VFW), and well-organized non-profit nationwide organizations (including the National Flag Foundation, the National Flag Day Foundation, and the Citizens Flag Alliance) that work full-time to promote respect for the flag.

©2005 Marc Leepson.