Education, Free Society

Flag of Defiance

(c) Earl L. Haehl  Permission is given to use this article in whole as long as credit is given.  Book rights are reserved.

I just made an order for a new flag—I like to fly two on my front porch on important holidays. We celebrate Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Defenders’ Day, Veterans’ Day and Thanksgiving. I suppose I could get some foreign flags and also celebrate the Battle of Puebla, Bastille Day and Guy Fawkes Day, but it’s safer in my neighborhood to stick with US flags. Especially on 5 May when the Mexican flag would attract neighbors wanting beer.

I also ran across a video urging the replacement of the National Anthem with America the Beautiful for the following reasons. America the Beautiful is recommended because it is easier to sing, has several stanzas, was written in Colorado and is less jingoistic. I first heard these arguments from Miz Kirk which is what we called our fourth grade teacher at a time when Miz was short for Mrs and Kirkpatrick was difficult to pronounce. And I may have at the time signed the schoolchildren’s petition, but now I look on it from close to sixty more years of experience.

The flag I ordered to replace the Gadsden flag is what I call the Flag of Defiance. It is a replica of the flag I saw as I entered the History Museum of the Smithsonian in 1969. As I remember it, the flag was hung on a wall and we saw it behind a seated sculpture of George Washington in a toga with his hands gesturing as if he were saying, “My body lies at Mount Vernon, my clothes are in the Smithsonian.”1 As we got past General Washington, we noticed that it was bigger than the post flag at NTC San Diego and Fort Ord, CA. And the colors were dull and dark, because it had come through the darkest hours of the Republic.

In a sense our flags up to that time had been flags of defiance from the Cromwell flag of the Sons of Liberty right up to the flag sewn by the gentle Quaker upholsterer2 who lived next to what Amos the Mouse calls “the old Church on Second Street.”3

It was in Baltimore, Maryland, in mid-September 1814. While Jefferson had embargoed British trade in retaliation for the Royal Navy using American merchant vessels as a source of impressed seamen, his successor James Madison had made the misstep of getting into war. The New England states had held aloof from this war which had given the King and Regent the excuse needed to subjugate and recolonize the breakaway lands. And General Robert Ross had just changed the game by capturing the Capital. The National Army was dead, captive or in hiding in the hinterlands, the Marines were dead or in British Custody, the legislators had gone home as had the Court Justices, and the President was in flight and hiding. A missive to this effect had been sent home.

This capture of the seat of government was a stunning blow and in any country in Europe it would have meant conquest. But what Ross knew was that the seat of the United States was the seat of a confederation and some of the states would still hold out. In 1814 the term state and nation were roughly synonymous. It was not until after the unpleasantries of the 1860s that states were considered as subordinate units rather than sovereign entities. There he decided on Baltimore as the first target for pacification,

Baltimore was known in London as a “nest of pirates.”  There were small fast sloops  that smuggled goods past the blockade and captured supply ships that were then taken to France where the goods were sold and they were refitted as naval vessels. This would be a piece of cake after taking out the national army. The problem was what George Mason had referred to as a “well regulated” militia. And they were waiting on the morning of 13 September. Ross was killed while on reconnaissance and his second made two attempts to dislodge the defenders before advising the Navy it was their baby.

So Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane advised his luncheon companion, Francis Scott Key, that he would be released upon the conclusion of the imminent bombardment of Fort McHenry. He then moved his squadrons out of the range of the Fort’s guns. About 4 pm the bombardment began—General Smith’s defenders initially returned fire, but ceased when they realized the targets were out of range. So it was a night of hammering the fort with the big guns and a few Congreve rockets which provided a light show, but not much more.

The flag flying over the fort took some damage, About ten minutes before dawn it went down. The protocol for situations like this was to draw down your battle flag and raise the white one. Cochrane, and Key as well, had been watching all night. And then in the first light, the flag came up. I call this the flag of defiance rather than the Star Spangled Banner but I was trained as a soldier before I was trained as a lawyer. (Neither profession came to much.) The colors were brighter then in the breeze of the morning—brighter than the faded banner in the Smithsonian which is in fact the same banner. And there was no mistaking the message, a hand made flag, 30′ x 42′, red and white and dark blue. This was a more genteel version of the Abby Hoffman salute.

Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane made a couple diversionary attempts, but he had few marines and Ross’s force was much diminished. And so he dispatched his message to his superiors—knowing that King and Regent would not be happy. And then, picking up the remnant of the infantry, he proceeded to join Lord Packingham at the Port of New Orleans.

The flag of defiance told Britain and the world we were free. By the time the siege of New Orleans erupted into battle, the parties at Ghent knew about Washington and knew about Baltimore. And this is why on September 14, 2012, the first flag up and the one on the right will have fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.4

Footnotes:

1. A guidebook to Washington, DC, I seem to have lost over the years.
2. Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypool. She was read out of Philadelphia Meeting because she married an Anglican but later joined the Free Quaker Meeting founded by Samuel Wetherill and Timothy Matlack (who drafted the Declaration of Independence but probably did not put invisible clues to the treasure on the back).
3. “Ben and Me” Disney, 1953. A cartoon every third grader should see.
4. The next flag had twenty stars and they went back to thirteen stripes. I was just trying to imagine fifty pinstripes.

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