Pages

Monday, September 5, 2016

STARS AND STRIPES | Sept. 3–Flown First Time in Battle (Comment)

"Betsy Ross" flag with a circle of five-
pointed stars in the canton.
In 1877 the Stars and Stripes are flown in battle for the first time, during a skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge, Maryland. They were in the form attributed to Betsy Ross – a circle of 13 five-pointed stars on a blue canton, on a field of 13 red-and-white stripes.

The Continental Army's General William Maxwell ordered the stars and stripes raised as a detachment of his infantry and cavalry met an advance guard of British and Hessian troops. Maxwell's troops were forced to retreat to General George Washington’s main force near Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania.

Three months before, on June 14, General Washington brought to the Continental Congress a resolution:
[T]he flag of the United States be thirteen alternate stripes red and white [and]... the Union [canton] be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.
This national flag became known as the “Stars and Stripes". The stripes were based on the Grand Union flag, a banner carried by the Continental Army in 1776 that also consisted of 13 alternating red and white stripes with a Union Jack in the canton.

Hopkinson Flag, with six-
pointed stars in the canton.
Francis Hopkinson is credited with having designed a stars-and-stripes flag before Betsy Ross. His flag, however, had six-pointed stars, based on a surviving sketch of his flag using asopetrisks with six points. This followed his designs for the Great Seal of the United States and his design for the Admiralty Board Seal, which used six-pointed stars.

The five-pointed stars are credited by legend to Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross, who argued for the five-pointed star as easier to cut. She is also credited with designing the canton as a circle of 13 stars on a blue background, at the request of General Washington. The legend of Betsy Ross as the designer of the first flag appeared at the time of the 1876 centennial celebrations through the work of her grandson, William Canby.  Historians have been unable to prove or disprove the legend, so it persists.

On June 14, 1877, the first Flag Day was held on the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes.

Comment

My suspicion is that the Betsy Ross legend, which pivots around the idea that it is easier to cut a five-pointed star than a six-pointed star, was used as misdirection to avoid focus on the real reason for using five-pointed stars on the American flag rather than six-pointed ones. The details of folding fabric in such a way as to cut a star with a single cut make it hard to believe that this was a determining factor. My educated guess is that the fans of George Washington wanted to reflect his family arms (three red five-pointed stars above three red-and-white stripes, as in the flag of the District of Columbia) in the national flag, and the Betsy Ross story was useful in explaining why five-pointed stars were used instead of the more usual six-pointed stars. Washington himself made a great effort to avoid the cult of personality, but at the same time he took huge pride in his family's ancestry and its coat of arms dating back to the Battle of Crécy (1346), in Normandy.