The Grand Union Flag

Nope, we’re not talking about a Civil War flag. We’ve moving about four score years farther back on the historic timeline this month to discuss flags used by the Americans during the War for Independence.

Today’s featured flag has historically been considered the first flag national flag of the United States. The design – approved by the Continental Congress – was widely used in 1776 and 1777 prior to the adoption of the “Betsy Ross Flag” which is usually associated with the conflict.

A Flag By Another Other Name?

How many names can a historic flag have? Many. Apparently.

Here are a few other names associated with this particular standard: Grand Union Flag (most popular), Continental Colors, Congress Flag, Cambridge Flag, or First Navy Ensign.

The Flag’s History

The Second Continental Congress had taken a leadership role, making decisions for the colonies during the war. Since they had authorized the formation of the Continental Army and Navy, they needed a flag.

The creation adopted elements of red and white stripes that had been used by the Sons of Liberty and placed the British Union Jack in the upper left corner. It had similar elements to the British civilian and navy flags, but the stripes helped to unique identify it. Congress adopted this flag in late 1775.

John Paul Jones

The first recorded raising of this national flag occurred on December 3, 1775, when American Captain John Paul Jones had the flag hoisted on the the ship, Alfred, near Philadelphia. It is believed that George Washington may have introduced the flag to his army on New Year’s Day 1776. And the banner was regularly used through 1777.

The Flag For Independence Day

The Grand Union Flag was the standard used by the Continentals during the summer of 1776, making it the flag that flew above civic buildings when news the Declaration of Independence was shared. Sometimes, artwork of that scene uses the “Betsy Ross Flag” but that flag was not adopted by Congress until June 14, 1777, nearly a full year after the Declaration! So the Grand Union Flag or local militia flag (more on those in the coming weeks) were probably in the scene if any flag waving happened.

Why I Like This Flag

Well, there’s the snarky side of me that likes to think, “Nope, got it wrong. Not the Betsy Ross flag everywhere on July 4, 1776.” But I try not to be that person!

I think my first introduction to this flag came during a 2008 visit to Colonial Williamsburg. I distinctly remember one of the living history programs when they read the Declaration of Independence and hauled down the British flag and raised this flag above the Colonial Virginia Capitol Building. For a while, I thought the Grand Union was just a war-time Virginia symbol, but it actually was used by military forces and civic symbols outside the Old Dominion.

Sure, I like the Betsy Ross Flag, but it’s interesting to know that there was a different standard the American ships and soldiers used when they started to unite and truly organize in their common fight. This flag serves as a reminder of those early struggles to unify.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

6 comments

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. There will be some details about other 1770’s flags in the coming weeks, but just for historical information. I don’t have a political agenda here… 🙂

  1. Great post. I have three flags which I draped on my balcony every Fourth of July since 2011 when we retired to Charleston. The Grand Union flag, the Betsy Ross Flag and the current US Flag. We were having a 4th of July Parade in my neighborhood , the first time I had the Grand Union Flag displayed and people asked me about it and I had to explain what it is. I wonder how many people got offended when I had them all out.

    • That’s really cool that you share/fly those historical flags. I find that folks are interested in the 1770’s flags and haven’t had anyone offended yet. Hope you have a good experience too.

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