Flag Day: The origins and history

Mass Appeal

(Mass Appeal) – Monday is flag day and since so much of American history took place in our state, we are lucky to have artifacts that reflect early incarnations of the flag….. And here to share them with us today is Ray Radigan, curator of the Memorial Hall Museum.

Did Betsy Ross design the American flag? Maybe. No one is really sure. In 1777, Congress stated that “the flag of the U.S. be 13 stripes alternate between red and white and the union be 13 stars in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Still, it was a long time before Congress’s design was widely accepted.

Military regiments, in particular, created their own flags. On a battlefield, flags served two purposes. First, they make it easier to identify military units, especially when muskets and cannons filled the battlefields with smoke. Second, they represent a core of ideas and boost morale.

Because of their symbolic importance, battle flags were often cut and distributed as souvenirs.
Memorial Hall Museum has two such flag remnants – one American and one British.
The American flag remnant features a red, eight-pointed star on a white, homespun linen background. It belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Maxwell of Charlemont, Mass. Maxwell was a well-liked and well respected military leader with an impressive resume of battles – from Fort William Henry (Lake George, NY) in the French and Indian Wars to Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton, Saratoga, and Monmouth in the Revolution.

This remnant was given to the museum in 1886 by a descendant of Maxwell. We have no idea what the whole flag looked like. The British flag may appear to be a scrap of faded red silk. However, it represents a major turning point in the Revolutionary War, and in the founding of the United States. In 1777 the British were trying to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. The two armies met in Saratoga, NY and the Continental Army forced the surrender of General John Burgoyne and his 7,000 soldiers. This decisive battle convinced European nations, particularly France, to support the Revolution.

Among the souvenirs taken home after the battle was this piece of the flag, Burgoyne had surrendered. It had been cut and distributed, presumably among the higher-ranking leaders. Colonel Hugh Maxwell received this piece.

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