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Continental Navy (U.S.)


Last modified: 2016-03-12 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | continental navy | grand union | lexington | privateer |
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Continental Navy

There was a very active component of the Revolution at sea, and the real establishment of the US Navy's reputation came when it  defeated three Royal Navy frigates in single ship actions in rapid succession in late 1812. So there were plenty of naval flags around.

At the outset of the Revolution, ships flew a wide assortment of flags depending on the state they were from, the captain's whim, and so on. The Continental Navy was established in October 1775. Subject to correction from others who know more about this than I, it seems to have sailed mainly under the Grand Union flag, a horizontally striped flag with the UJ in the canton. After the Continental Congress passed the law of June 14, 1777, establishing the S&S, flags meeting the verbal description in the law came into greater use. Obviously getting the word out to ships took some time, and some captains still seemed to feel at liberty to vary the design, by using red, white, and blue stripes rather than just red and white, for example. The law did not fix the arrangement or shape of the stars or other construction details.

The Navy was disestablished after the Treaty of Paris confirmed U.S. independence in 1783 and was revived in 1797. By that time, the flag had 15 stripes and 15 stars because of the admission to the Union of Vermont and Kentucky in 1795. Although more states were admitted, the flag was not changed until 1818, when the system of 13 stripes and stars equal to states was enacted. As far as I know, all the surviving naval ensigns of this period, including that of the USS Chesapeake in the British National Maritime Museum, have the 15 stars arranged in rows (but not always in the same numbers and alignment) and the stripes as 8 red and 5 white. To my recollection, ship paintings by professional marine artists (who by this time were giving close attention to such details) generally show the same arrangements, although some during the earlier years do show a ring of 14 stars with one in the center. In any case, the first known written order on the subject is the circular of 1818.

As to the depth of the canton, Navy flags of the 1797-1818 period seem to have fairly consistently had cantons that were 7 stripes deep. That of the Star Spangled Banner of the song, which flew over an Army post, has a canton 8 stripes deep. Of course, these were 7/15 and 8/15 of the hoist respectively, not (as after 1818) 7/13.

Joe McMillan, 17 November 2001

Lexington Ensign

[Lexington Ensign flag] image by Tom Gregg

In The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea, 1976:

'... The first Lexington was the brigantine Wild Duck purchased by Congress and renamed Lexington in 1776. Under the command of John Barry she avoided the British frigate Roebuck which was just inside the entrance to Delaware Bay and succeeded in reaching the open sea. Off Cape Charles, Va, she captured the sloop Edward, a tender of the British frigate Liverpool, manned by a crew of twenty nine men of the British Navy, the first prize brought into the port of Philadelphia...'
Jarig Baker, 28 April 1999

Stripes of Other Colors

[Grand Union flag with red/green stripes] image by Rick Wyatt

A Grand Union flag with Red and Green stripes is described in the ships chandlers reports for the port of Philadelphia for the winter of 1776-1777. Apparently the different ships in Commodore Hopkins' tiny fleet were identified by using stripes other that red and white. Because others are mentioned as well.
James J. Ferrigan III, 28 December 1998


[flag of a Colonial Privateer] image by Randy Young, 2 August 2001

One example of an American revolutionary flag with stripes other than red and white is that of an unidentified American privateer, which "sported a black and yellow striped ensign. While at Martinique in 1776 the brig Reprisal flew a similar flag of yellow and white."
Source: Mastai, The Stars and the Stripes, [mas73]
Randy Young, 2 August 2001