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This Day in History: Stars and Stripes Saluted for First Time

On this day in 1778, the Continental Navy sloop Ranger sails into a French bay, proudly flying the American flag. It fires 13 guns, saluting the French fleet anchored there. The French flagship returns the salute, firing 9 guns of its own.


It was the first time a foreign nation ever saluted the Stars and Stripes.


Our flag was then still relatively new, having been adopted by the Continental Congress mere months earlier. “[T]he flag of the thirteen United States,” Congress resolved on June 14, 1777, “be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white” and “the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

"First Recognition of the Stars and Stripes, 14 February 1778," by Edward Moran

Congressional delegates appointed John Paul Jones to command Ranger the very same day.


“That Flag and I are twins,” Jones reportedly said when he heard the news, “born at the same hour in the womb of destiny. We can not be parted in life or death.”


It’s a good quote, but in all likelihood, Jones never said it. Nevertheless, the timing is interesting. Jones set off in Ranger a few months later, proudly flying the new flag that had been adopted on the same day he’d been appointed. By then, Americans had won an important victory at Saratoga.


In early February 1778, a treaty of alliance between the two nations was signed.


Days later, on February 13, Jones spotted a French fleet anchored near Quiberon Bay.  He dispatched a letter to William Carmichael, an American diplomat then at Quiberon. Could Carmichael convey “my respects to the French Admiral, whom I mean to salute with 13 guns under American Colors—provided he will accept the Compliment and return gun for gun”?


The French admiral responded in the affirmative but noted that he would fire only 9 guns. This would have been in accordance with French custom to use fewer guns for a Republic than a Monarchy.


Naturally, the fiery Jones’s immediate instinct was to object. However, he seems to have realized that any salute was better than no salute. Thus, on February 14, Ranger sailed into the bay, approaching the French flagship with a salute of 13 guns (one for each colony). At the command of French Admiral La Motte Piquet, a 9-gun salute was returned.


“[S]aluted the French Admiral and received 9 guns in return,” Ranger surgeon Ezra Green wrote in his diary. “This is the first salute ever paid the American flag.”


The ever-stubborn Jones repeated the same approach with a different ship, Independence, the next morning. A second round of salutes was given and received.


It was the first time the Stars and Stripes had been saluted in such a way, but it wasn’t the first time that a foreign nation recognized an American flag. In 1776, the American “Grand Union” ensign was saluted as the brigantine-of-war Andrew Doria sailed by Fort Oranje in the Dutch West Indies.


Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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