This Day in History: Americans’ “first” flag, the Grand Union Flag
On this day in 1776, the Grand Union Flag is hoisted by George Washington and his army. They were celebrating the birth of a new Continental Army!
How could they be celebrating a “new” army at this point? You may remember that, at this juncture, Washington and his men had been outside Boston for many months. They were laying siege to the city, which was occupied by the British. Washington had a potential problem, though. It was a problem that would present itself repeatedly throughout the course of the long Revolution: The enlistments of many of his men expired on December 31, 1775.
What would happen the next day?
As New Year’s Day dawned, everything went well. Some of the old soldiers stayed, others left, and (importantly) new enlistments arrived. Historian David McCullough describes “the great turnover of the army” that commenced “‘in the very teeth of an enemy’” that day.
Washington ordered the flag raised, along with a 13-gun salute. His general orders from the day celebrate the commencement of a “new-army, which, in every point of View is entirely Continental.” He reminded his men of the “Importance of the great Cause we are engaged in . . . and wishes it to be considered, that an Army without Order, Regularity & Discipline, is no better than a Commission’d Mob.”
The flag that was raised that day had thirteen red and white stripes (representing the thirteen colonies), but the British colors also appeared in the upper corner of the flag. In some ways, you could say it was Americans’ first flag. But in other ways, it simply wasn’t. It still represented the internal conflict brewing within our country.
We had not declared independence yet. Some of our ancestors were ready to take that step, but many others continued to hope for reconciliation. Those Americans weren’t really fighting for independence; they were fighting for their rights as Englishmen.
Ironically, the British in Boston that day at first thought the Americans were raising a flag in surrender. A few days later, Washington would joke in a letter: “by this time I presume they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our Lines.”
Of course we had not surrendered. Every man there was fighting for FREEDOM. That fight would eventually, and by necessity, turn into a fight for full-fledged American independence.
David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
General Orders (Jan. 1, 1776)
J.L. Bell, More Questions on the “Grand Union Flag” (Boston 1775 blog; Feb. 17, 2008)