Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Star spangled banners – Flags on display in Austin, TX

In a previous post on the wonderful exhibits to be seen at The Bullock Texas State History Museum, I looked at the fascinating display of the hull and artefacts from the 17th century wreck of La Belle. In this post, I want to touch on their display of American flags. While the modern American flag has a ubiquitous presence – even to Europeans – in our news coverage, movies, TV shows, and social media, I’ve never really given much thought to its history and development. Well, that changed once I stepped into the Museum’s vexillology display. In part, my fascination with this exhibition stems from having lived so long in Northern Ireland, where flags and emblems have been a contentious issue and the past continues to intrude on the present. I’m not going to attempt to give you a complete history of the American flag – you can read the rather good Wiki article on it yourself. Instead, I merely intend to share some of my pedestrian photos of these beautiful and historic flags. Enjoy!

This 13-star flag was handmade around 1790 from a combination of wool and cotton. It is an early version of what was to become known as the Great Luminary Pattern, where the stars are arranged to form a single star. Part of the symbolism of the stars was that together they represented the new nation as a “new constellation”. I did not notice it at first, but each of the stars is set at a slightly different alignment, in an attempt to catch the viewers eye.

While Vermont supported the American Revolution in 1777, they did not become an official State until 1791, when this flag was made. Although they were the 14th state, the Flag Act of 1777 did not allow for the addition of additional stars. Thus, this 14-Star flag is a rare survival and was never officially recognised. Incidentally, the Flag Act of 1794 did allow for the addition of stars but Kentucky had become a State in 1792 and the flag became one with 15 stars.

By 1812, growing American nationalism and continuing trade disputes led to war with Great Britain. This 18-star flag was carried by US troops during the War of 1812. It is made of wool and the stars are arranged in a double medallion pattern, with the inner ring of 6 stars representing the newer additions to the Union.

This 20-Star flag from 1818 was the third official flag of the US. While James Monroe, the President at the time, expressed his preference for a simple arrangement of the stars in ordered rows, here they are oriented differently on every alternate row. As Mississippi’s entry (December 1817) was followed so closely by that of Illinois (December 1818), flags of this design are particularly rare.

If I had to pick a particular favourite for the exhibition, this would definitely be up there. It is a distinctly ‘handmade’ 22-star flag from 1820. Ostensibly, there is so much that’s wrong about it – the stars are red and the canton is in the upper right corner, rather than the upper left. For all that, it is remarkably charming and, even after all these years, the feelings and pride and passion of its creator are still evident. Another interesting thing is, even setting aside the obvious errors, a 22-star flag was never sanctioned. The exhibit explains that the Flag Act of 1818 established the practice of new stars only being officially added on July 4th. Alabama became the 22nd State in December 1819, but Maine became a State the following March. Thus, on July 4, 1820 two stars were added to the flag and a 22-star flag never actually existed. This example can be most probably dated to that narrow three-month window between the two events.  

This 27-star flag is a particularly rare survival as it was created after Florida gained Statehood on March 3rd 1845 but before Texas became a State on December 29th of the same year.

This 30-star flag was made around 1847, but is believed to have been carried into battle at Gettysburg in 1863. During the Civil War official flags bore variations from 33 to 35 stars, but it was not uncommon for individual soldiers to carry older, family flags with them.

Even though the flag was beginning to have a standardised appearance by 1859, when this example was created, there were still no official guidelines. This 33-Star flag was originally a 29-Star example, but had extra stars added as new states joined the Union. It appears that some folks, reluctant to purchase new flags, simply added stars as further States emerged.

While I may not have a huge knowledge of American history, I do have a particular interest in the US Civil War. For this reason, this 33-star flag that was carried at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 is (like the Gettysburg example) particularly evocative for me. A beautiful detail of this flag is the arrangement of the 33 stars, leaving space for the addition of more, symbolising the determination of the Union soldiers.

This is an example of the First National Confederate Flag that was adopted on March 4, 1861, by the Confederate States of America. Like the Union Flag, the canton in the upper left contains the same number of stars as there were States. As this example has 11 stars it must post date June 8, 1861 when Tennessee seceded from the Union. The exhibition rightly acknowledges the duality that still surrounds an object such as this. For some it represents slavery and oppression, while for others it is a symbol of patriotism and heritage. How we regard such potentially contentions symbols and how we negotiate our own understanding of them, coupled with how we value the differing reactions of other groups, is an important issue. It is one that is as pressing in the United States as it is here in Northern Ireland and how we move forward on such issues is a cultural imperative.

A guidon is a pennant that either narrow to a point or fork at the fly end. This example was carried by Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry Regiment in Texas during battles with Plains tribes in the period from 1866-1875. It is an interesting aside, that by 1867 the flag officially had 37 stars, but the Cavalry had a stock of 35-star examples that they continued to carry until their supply ran out.

The Grand Union Flag was first flown in 1776, and was used during the early stages of the American Revolution. This is an 1876 copy, created to commemorate the American Centennial. Ironically, this makes it simultaneously the earliest and latest flag in this collection.

I do not claim to add anything to the scholarship on these flags, and the majority of my comments are base directly on the information cards at the museum. My only hope is that this modest post conveys something of the beauty of the exhibit and the museum as a whole, perhaps even inspire some to visit Austin and The Bullock Texas State History Museum too.

In a lot of my posts I add the suggestion that if you like my writing, I’d be grateful for a donation. Nothing too extravagant – just the price of a pint or a coffee (but I’ll probably just spend it on books). In this case, I’d also add that if you were so inclined, you could consider throwing a few of whatever your local currency is in the direction of the museum: here.

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