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The history behind the American flag

Full of both lore and legend, but still an icon to be respected

POSTED: June 12, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Marilyn Martin has collected flags to be retired during a Boy Scouts Troop 3 Flag Retirement Ceremony at 7 p.m. at the Lake House behind the Presbyterian Church on Thursday.

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How much do you know about the history of our American flag: The Star Spangled Banner; Red, White and Blue; The Grand Old Flag; Old Glory; Stars and Stripes?

The flag is visible at schoolyards, classrooms, libraries, homes, businesses and sports arenas. It has been planted in spectacular locations such as Mount Everest and on the moon. The American flag symbolizes our nation’s liberty.

In 1949, President Harry Truman signed a bill that set every June 14 as national Flag Day. The date stems from June 14, 1777, when our Continental Congress made the first flag resolution 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."

Those 13 stars and stripes represented the 13 original colonies. A star has been added to the flag for every state added to the union.

Gainesville resident and World War II veteran John M. Bowen Jr. recalls his earliest memory of the American flag in elementary school.

"Every morning before classes started, we pledged allegiance to the flag. Back in those days there were only 48 stars on the flag. But after the second World War, two more were added making 50. Alaska and Hawaii entered the Union and made 50, the grand total."

Bowen recalls, "We were taught in school that Betsy Ross from Philadelphia, Pa., made the first American flag by hand in 1776."

According to a recent book of collected research, "Betsy Ross and the Making of America," by Marla R. Miller (2010-11), evidence does not support the claim as far as recorded notes in government and historical papers, early books written about Betsy Ross and flag history, or receipts.

Instead, affidavits from family members presented after Ross’s death narrate the famous story as descendants claim Betsy told it to them.

The story goes that Gen. George Washington visited Betsy Ross’ shop and asked her to sew the flag. When he revealed designs for six-pointed stars, Ross responded by recommending five-pointed stars because they were easier to cut from fabric.

Miller recounts evidence that Ross did, indeed, know Washington and saw him at church meetings.

On the other hand, Rep. Francis Hopkinson claimed to have designed the first American flag. One of the latest books by a descendant of Ross is "Betsy Ross’s Five-Pointed Star," by John Harker (2005).

Not disputed is the fact that Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole was an excellent upholsterer and seamstress who sewed curtains, bedspreads, chair cushions, flags and other items. She made her living that way.

Ross was a remarkable woman of the American Revolution era and beyond who persevered, along with American independence. She died in 1836, outliving three husbands and having numerous children and grandchildren.

The American flag is known by different names, depending on one’s background and experiences.

Rose Parsons, a Forsyth County resident who grew up in Kentucky, shares that her brother, William Craig Matthis (WWII veteran airplane mechanic), had the deepest respect and honor for the flag during his military service, calling it "Old Glory."

"William Craig Matthis served in China, Burma and India, living in the jungles and salvaging airplane parts and was very young then, around 19 years old. He said that he still feels the same respect and honor for our flag now, said Parsons.

"For many years, he attended reunions of his military group, meeting in different places around the country. They had a strong bond from the time they all served under ‘Old Glory.’"

One story of how Old Glory became a name for the flag dates back to 1831, when Captain Driver, a Massachusetts shipmaster, received an American flag from friends prior to a journey by sea.

As he watched the flag unfurling in the breeze, he called it "Old Glory." After retiring to the state of Tennessee, Driver managed to hide Old Glory from Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. He proudly flew Old Glory again after Tennessee was captured by the Union.

Just as President Abraham Lincoln would not allow removal of any stars from the flag during the "War Between the States," Old Glory represented the reunion of the country. Thus, the flag and that name, "Old Glory," are powerful symbols of national unity.

Many people associate music with the American flag, particularly our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Francis Scott Key originally penned the lyrics through his poem, "In Defence of Fort McHenry" during the War of 1812, also known as The Second War for Independence. The music for the national anthem is that of an earlier composition, "To Anacreon in Heaven."

As history has it, Key gazed on the colossal American flag (30 feet by 42 feet, sewn by Mary Pickersgill and her family) visible at dawn flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, and was inspired to write his iconic poem. The dark night before was filled with gunfire and the shrill echoes of rockets as the British tried, again, to take over America .

Emily Bowen, wife of John Bowen, says, "Music gives texture and enrichment to life. It’s a wonderful avenue of self-expression, helping us experience history."

Emily Bowen grew up in San Francisco , Calif., during WWII. "We would travel past the ship yards out in the San Francisco Bay. The workers labored 24 hours a day building warships headed for the Pacific. I remember the ships were always draped with huge American flags until the day arrived when they would slide gracefully into the deep water, after being launched with a bottle of champagne for good luck. Flags were flying everywhere.

"There were ceremonies and speeches given and always many dignitaries present. Bands would be playing patriotic songs, one for each branch of the military. Songs played during different wars: ‘Yankee Doodle,’ (Revolutionary War); ‘Dixie,’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (Civil War); and of course, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (War of 1812). I remember saluting the flag during the playing of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’"

Bands still play marches in parades on holidays, giving a festive air and stirring feelings of patriotism with music such as "(You’re A) Grand Old Flag" by George M. Cohan and John Philip Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

Meta Cronia, a Gainesville resident, remembers her school band and Girl Scout troop marching behind the flag in parades during World War II.

Growing up, Cronia lived on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi near military and naval bases, which set the stage for patriotic events.

"It seemed we were always marching in something," Cronia said. "We were so patriotic then, and it was a thrill to see our flag leading a procession."

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Federal Flag Code. It provides guidelines for display and respect toward the flag.

According to the Flag Code, it "should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning, when it is in such a condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display."

Marilyn Martin, chairperson of the Flag of the USA Committee, Colonel William Candler Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, has attended local U.S. flag retirement ceremonies in recent years, led by Gainesville Boy Scout Troop 26 and the Hall County Sheriff’s Department, at Memorial Park Cemetery.

Martin says, "The sheriff’s department reminded attendees that the ashes of a retired flag should be buried in a place of honor, such as one in a local cemetery. The sheriff’s department located a place of honor to bury the flag ashes at Memorial Park Cemetery."

Martin plans to attend a local flag retirement ceremony this year and has received several flags for retirement.

"I will give the worn U.S. flags I collected this year to the Gainesville Boy Scout Troop 3 for a Flag Retirement Ceremony on Flag Day, June 14 at 7 p.m. at the Lake House behind the Presbyterian Church."

"Union" is another word for the canton or upper left corner of the flag. By the Flag Code, "the flag may be displayed with the union down only as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."

The study of flags is called "vexillology" and people who study flags are known as vexillologists.

Lynda Holmes, Ed.D, is vice president of the Northeast Georgia Writers and a member of the Colonel William Candler Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.


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