Seasons Of The Flag

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Half a year ago, Amherst, Massachusetts, held a meeting to discuss hanging American flags along the town’s main routes. The head of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter had spent $1,000 on 29 flags, hoping to fly them for months at a time, instead of just on national holidays, as was the town’s original plan. A physics professor from the University of Massachusetts rose to object. The Stars and Stripes, she explained, was “a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression.” Normally, such a protest would not make national news, but the meeting was held on the evening of September 10. Over the next few days, the professor was widely quoted and subsequently bombarded with furious phone calls and e-mails. Meanwhile, across the country, American flags blossomed in a profusion certainly not approached since World War II, or perhaps ever.

 
 
 
Abbie Hoffman regretted “that I have only one shirt to give for my country.”

The flag has weathered a variety of national attitudes since it first flew, ranging from reverence to indifference, but what we are witnessing now is its return from an era unique in our history, the sour aftermath of Vietnam, when it became nearly as divisive a symbol as it had been on the battlefields of the Civil War.

The flag and American patriotism have always been interwoven. The national anthem, written during the War of 1812, is not about the land or people but about the survival of the banner during a night assault on Baltimore Harbor. Betsy Ross’s involvement with its creation may be mythical, but her home is nonetheless a national shrine.

“The flag is the embodiment, not of sentiment, but of history,” said Woodrow Wilson, and it is perfectly true that the country and the banner were created at the same time. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress approved the design of a national flag, mandating that it “shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Despite this congressional decree, the flag was not a potent symbol in early America; for one thing, there were no early laws to standardize its appearance. To alleviate the resulting confusion, President James Monroe signed a bill on April 4, 1818, directing that the flag have “thirteen horizontal stripes of alternate red and white [some people had been crowding the banner by adding a new stripe with every new star]; that the union have twenty white stars in a blue field; that one star be added on the admission of every new state in the Union.”

By 1831 the uniform design had established enough of a hold on American sentiments that when Capt. William Driver, unfurling the new ship’s flag on his brig Charles Dogget as he set sail from Salem for the South Pacific, declared, “I name thee Old Glory,” the name took—forever.

But it was the Civil War that first inspired something like devotional attitudes toward the banner. Recognizing the unifying power of the flag, President Lincoln refused to remove the stars representing the rebelling states. In 1861, shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter, Hartford, Connecticut, initiated Flag Day on June 14. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote one of the most popular of all nineteenth-century American poems about Barbara Frietchie, an elderly resident of Frederick, Maryland, who, refusing to remove the Stars and Stripes from her window as Stonewall Jackson’s troops passed beneath, is supposed to have called out, “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag.” When Nashville fell, in 1862, it was Captain Driver’s “Old Glory” from the Charles Dogget that was raised above the state capitol. In 1864, when Union troops, after a calamitous day at Murfreesboro, heard a Chicago glee club singing a song by George Frederick Root, one wrote that the tune’s effect was “little short of miraculous. It put as much spirit . . . into the camp as a splendid victory.” The song was “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and its most inspiring line was “Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys. . . .”