Last modified: 2019-08-04 by rick wyatt
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image by Rick Wyatt, 6 September 1998
The famed "Grand Union" flag hoisted near Washington's headquarters at Cambridge on 1 January 1776 turned out to be exactly the same as the flag that the East India Company had used ... on the other side of the world ... since 1701. The design is essentially a red ensign (minus, of course, the X of St. Patrick at that time) with the red field divided into 13 red-and-white stripes: the same pattern as the later U.S. flag, once the canton changed to "a new constellation."
William E. Dunning, 16 March 1998
While George Washington's headquarters were in Cambridge, the flag was not hoisted at his headquarters, but on nearby Prospect Hill in Somerville, so it would be prominently visible for miles around. We re-enact the flag-raising every January 1 and have a great time celebrating our proud history.
Linda Gritz, 2 January 2004
The "Somerville Journal", 16 December 2006, reports:
"Mayor Joe Curtatone and Historic Preservation Commission Director Brandon Wilson announce that the city [of Somerville] will hold the 231st annual flag-raising ceremony in historic Prospect Hill Park on Monday, Jan. 1, at noon. The program will include a procession from City Hall to the Prospect Hill Tower, flag raising, music and light refreshments.
The city raises a replica of the First Flag of the Great Union each year, representing the 13 original colonies of the United States of America. Gen. George Washington raised the first Grand Union Flag on Prospect Hill during the Revolutionary War on Jan. 1, 1776, signifying the union of the colonies that would eventually become the first to officially separate from British rule. The program also includes songs, readings and the Post 19 Guard leading a gun salute as the flag is raised atop the tower on Prospect Hill.
http://www.townonline.com/somerville/homepage/8999344738615705263 (no longer available)
The flag is called "of the Great Union" in the title of the article and in its second paragraph, and "Grand Union Flag" in the next sentence. In the interesting developments on the origin of the flag authoritatively written on this page by Dave Martucci, Todd Mills and Joe McMillan, "Grand Union" is consistently used. There is not a single occurrence of "Great Union".
So is "Great Union" an accepted variant of "Grand Union" or a faultive variation by the journalist of the "Somerville Journal"?
Ivan Sache, 16 December 2006
I've definitely heard "Great Union" elsewhere, perhaps even in 18th century sources. "Continental Colors" is also used.
Nathan Lamm, 21 December 2006
A quick Google search shows that an official US government website, and Britannica both note that "Great Union" is an occasional variant: stockholm.usembassy.gov/usflag/history.html and www.britannica.com/eb/article-9037694/Grand-Union-Flag.
Also, according to www.anyflag.com/history/grandun.htm: "In one of Washington's letters he referred to it as the 'Great Union Flag' and it is most commonly called the Grand Union today." However, overall there over 23,000 Google hits on "Grand Union Flag" and only 251 on "Great Union Flag" and some of those are referring to the UK pattern. So that should give some idea of the relative frequencies of the 2 terms' usages.
Ned Smith, 21 December 2006
I just had a paper published in "Raven" 13 on this subject. It reviews all of the primary sources for the "Grand Union" flag and their context. My conclusion is that the flag that was raised on Prospect Hill on January 1 1776 was the striped Continental Colors -- it was actually a British Union flag. The connection with the quot;Continental Colors" was made by a 19th century historian of the siege of Boston who misinterpreted the primary sources.
At first blush, it sounds farfetched that George Washington's army would fly a British Union flag as a symbol of colonial unity, but it turns out to be quite consistent with the political situation in January 1776. Washington himself described the flag he raised as the "union flag," and there's no reason to believe that he meant anything but what he said. In fact, the context of his comment supports the idea that he was talking about a British flag rather than an American variant.
A secondary conclusion of the paper is that neither "Grand Union" nor "Great Union" was used in the 18th century to describe the Continental Colors -- both names also came from misinterpretations or mistakes by 19th century American historians. As Chris Southworth correctly points out, "Great Union" was (and is!) the name of the device on the British Union flag and regimental colours. A Philadelphia newspaper referred to the flag on Prospect Hill as the Great Union flag, and later historians jumped to the conclusion that this referred to the Continental Colors.
Almost all of the primary references to the Continental Colors refer to its use as a naval ensign. However, it was displayed on the battery fort in New York when the British fleet arrived in July 1776. Incidentally, that reference is, in my opinion, one of the strongest arguments against the Betsy Ross legend. Betsy supposedly made the first stars-and-stripes for Washington in late May or early June 1776 (that's the only time that Washington was in Philadelphia). However, Washington's army was still flying the Continental Colors as their garrison flag a month and a half later. If GW was concerned about having a new flag, he seems to have forgotten about it pretty quickly!
Peter Ansoff, 22 December 2006
When did the flag actually begin to be used?
From memory, I think it's fairly solid that the Continental Colors was (were?) first raised in early December 1775 aboard the flagship of the newly-created Continental Navy. A reasonable guess would be that the flag was created by the Marine Committee of Congress in late November, at the same time that they established the regulations for the Navy. The first ships of the Navy were former British merchant ships that already had red ensigns, and it's possible that someone came up with the idea of altering them by adding stripes. (I know of one documented example of this being done, although it was for the Massachusetts Navy rather than the Continental Navy). Anyway, the early December 1775 date is fairly well supported by both American and British sources.
Peter Ansoff, 24 December 2006
When did it end. . . was still in use at the time of the declaration of independence; was it used past that point until the first flag law was passed?
It was definitely used after the declaration of independence -- I think that the date of the New York battery fort "sighting" was July 12, 1776 (and the Americans in New York were aware of the declaration by then; it was publicly read to the troops on the 9th, I believe). The CC was also flown on the American ships at the battle of Valcour Island in October 1776. The latest reference to it that I can recall was a letter of March 1777 dealing with the activities of Captain Lambert Wickes in European waters. However, the letter was referring to events that had happened several months earlier.
Peter Ansoff, 24 December 2006
Perhaps the flag law merely recognized a flag already in unofficial use for the previous year?
That's a good question, and needs some more research. My current hypothesis is that the stars-and-stripes was created by the Naval Committee in early-to-mid May of 1777, and formally adopted by Congress on 14 June. The impetus was most likely the threat of the British attack on Philadelphia and the need for ensigns for the fleet that was preparing to defend the city. The first Navy ships known to have carried the stars-and-stripes to sea were the Raleigh and the Alfred, which sailed in (I think) July 1777.
Peter Ansoff, 24 December 2006
Which term do you use, or prefer, the Grand Union Flag or the Continental
The name Grand Union flag was first documented in 1872. Whereas the Continental Colors was the name used during the Revolutionary War, although spelt Colours at that time.
Michael Want, 2 June 2019
The term “Continental Colours” in the 18th century could have meant any
American flag, being just one of a number of terms used until after the
Revolutionary War was over and the Stars and Stripes had become our National
Flag. The terms “Continental Union Flag”, “Continental Flag”, “Union Flag of the
American States”, “Colours of the United States”, “American Colours” and
“American Union Flag” are also found and, again, could mean any American flag.
For example, on 8 April 1778 The Pennsylvania Packet described “our Continental
Flag … with the lustre of a new Constellation …”.
The earliest I can document any of these terms is 12 May 1776 (“Continental Union Flag”) and the latest 12 March 1789 (“Union Flag of America”) after which the term became simply “The American Flag”. You should note the former is about the time of the Declaration of Independence and the latter is about the time of the adoption of the US Constitution.
The term “Continental Colours” seems to have been used on a somewhat limited basis in the late 1770s and early 1780s in American newspapers, probably referring to the Stars and Stripes, while the term “Continental Union Flag” seems to have been used much more frequently throughout this period.
The term “Grand Union Flag” appears in Preble’s 1872 edition as a reference he says appeared in the Boston newspapers referring to the raising of the flag on Prospect Hill in Somerville MA on 1 January 1776. As Peter Ansoff’s research revealed (“The Flag on Prospect Hill”, Raven 13, 2006), those papers simply referred to the “Union Flag” and the word “grand” did not appear.
This terminology was likely based on that of Schuyler Hamilton who in 1853 used the same references as Preble but reported it as the “Great Union Flag”. That term does actually exist in the 15 January 1776 Pennsylvania Packet, but its exact form dos not appear to be the name of the flag, being published as “… the great Union Flag …”. We can argue about that syntax, but it does not appear to have been repeated outside direct copies of this one article, for example the 25 January 1776 Maryland Gazette.
As for preference of terms, the flag of 13 stripes with the British Union in the canton to me should be called the “American Flag of 1776-1777”.
Dave Martucci, 3 June 2019
Some other references:
Pete Loeser, 3 June 2019
"Colours" then and now (especially then) is primarily a military usage. The
Americans of the AWI inherited the terminology from the British even if they
were too disorganized (or hastily organized) to consistently observe the
niceties. (Language evolves more slowly than practice.) In British usage, a
"Regimental Colour" is the battalion flag of the same colour as regiment's
uniform facings, hence the term. This is a battlefield recognition and
signalling function, a practice now obsolete for over a century. (Obsolescence
means people forget form and function that is no longer relevant.) Ditto in
naval practice, except that it is the ship that needs identifying by
nationality, and not individual humans trying to stick to their unit in an open
Likewise, there was a "Continental" Army and Congress (aspiring to represent all the colonies of the known continent -- more than 13) before there were states and a United States. After the formation of the USA, the term "continental" faded away slowly and became murkier in usage. "Continental" in this sense today evokes the mystique of the revolutionary era.
Further illustrating the problem of lazy semantics, there is a white supremacist "militia" unit today (Hutaree) that wears insignia purporting that it belongs to the "Colonial Christian Republic." This is a vague evocation of America's mythical colonial ethos, not a grammatically-correct aspiration to return to British colonial status. (Let's not even try to parse the mutual contradiction of "colonial" and "republic.")
It is not just extremist idiots who are sloppy with language. The presentism fallacy of logic (nunc pro tunc = now for then) determines that we all do it all the time, and in about 500 years a language has become unintelligible (e.g. Chaucer's English to today's English ear.)
So, it's not surprising that the term "Grand Union Flag" emerged a century later to describe something specific for which a generally-agreed upon term either did not previously exist, or had been lost. (Besides, the Americans were more occupied with the implications of a life and death struggle than they were with promulgating protocols of flag etiquette by a unitary authority.) This is somewhat akin to American mythology calling Benedict Arnold a traitor to his country when, in fact, he did not yet have a country to betray.
The presentism fallacy (subconsciously assuming that the outcome of history defines its causes in a predestined way) makes it very difficult to navigate history, even for seasoned professionals. This is further aggravated by the nation state and its educational systems, which exists to reinforce self-serving mythology rather than foster critical thinking skills. That would include creating compliant cannon fodder to serve "under the Colours." History and neuroscience suggest this propaganda works quite well.
T.F. Mills, 3 June 2019
There isn't any confirming documentary evidence that the East India Company flag influenced the design of the Continental Colors in any material way. Probably some sea captains were familiar with the EIC Flag but its design was probably not of maritime origin. The best we can tell is that Washington or one of his staff came up with the design to show colonial allegiance to the crown (symbolized by the Union Jack) while maintaining the rights of the United Colonies in Congress Assembled (symbolized by the stripes).
There was no significance in the East India Company's flag having 13 stripes. If you examine the EIC records carefully, their flag was striped red and white bearing the UJ in the canton. Examples exist of the number of stripes varying from nine to 15. The evidence also suggests that 13 was not a common number of the stripes on the flag. The 9 striped version appears to be the most common and it is thought by some (but there is no contemporary evidence for this) that that number is in reply to the 9 striped Dutch flag (R-W-B-R-W-B-R-W-B) commonly seen in the East Indies at the time. Also, the EIC Flag sometimes bore the St. George Cross on a white canton rather than the UJ.
Dave Martucci, 16 March 1998
The question of the EIC and Grand Union involves tying together several separate threads. There are any number of possible earlier connections that suggest some relationship to the Grand Union, and there is, in fact, some doubt about what the short-lived "Grand Union" flag really was.
The "designer" of the Grand Union may have wanted to appeal to George Washington's vanity, or he himself may have invoked a design familiar to him.
The more important precursor to the Grand Union is the Sons of Liberty/Rebellious Stripes flag adopted about the time of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. According to Dave Martucci, the Sons of Liberty flag had 9 VERTICAL stripes (although most sources represent them horizontally). This seems to have been flipped horizontally (as the "Rebellious Stripes") much later. The 9 stripes are said to represent the 9 colonies present at the 1765 Congress. Both the 9 and the 13 stripe versions are known variations of the EIC flag.
The Sons of Liberty were largely well-to-do merchants of Boston, a major harbor center of the colonial triangular trade. Even if the EIC flag was not flown by ships entering Boston (has that really been proven?), it seems inconceivable that these men were not familiar with the EIC flag. St. Helena was EIC territory, so a lot of traders confined to the Atlantic should have been familiar with it. The Sons of Liberty flag (it still exists; does anybody know the dimensions?) could easily have been the fly cut off an EIC flag. Likewise, the Grand Union flag could easily have been an EIC flag taken from any number of sources, including the Boston "Tea Party".
If the British referred to the plain striped flag as the "Rebellious Stripes", it is then perfectly logical that this flag -- of all revolutionary flags -- took on the greatest symbolic value for the revolutionaries themselves, and would be the best candidate for inspiration of the Grand Union.
This is far from my area of expertise, but I would say the jury is still out on this one, and instead of idle and uninformed speculation I would like to see the results of some solid research.
T.F. Mills, 11 July 2002
Whether or not the Grand Union flag (GU) might have been connected with the East India Company ensign (EICe) can be considered under five headings.
1. Was the GU similar to a contemporary or previous EICe ?
2. Were there any other particular striped ensigns or flags that might have influenced the design of the GU ?
3. Was the EICe ever seen in North America ?
4. If it was not, would those who adopted the GU have been aware of the design of the EICe ?
5. Did the EIC and United Colonies have any interests in common ?
Here are some observations based mainly on a 27 page article entitled "The Striped Flag of the East India Company, and its Connexion with the American 'Stars and Stripes'", written by Sir Charles Fawcett, and published in the October 1937 issue of the Mariner's Mirror, the Quarterly Journal of the Society for Nautical Research.
1. The EICe was similar to the GU, but did not always have thirteen stripes. The thirteen stripes on the GU, if it was based on EICe, may have been a modification, to match the number of stripes to the number of colonies.
It was not the only ensign used by company ships. They also flew the Red Ensign, when north of St Helena, during war time when authorized to seize enemy vessels as prizes, and, judging by contemporary paintings, randomly when in the East.
Some writers, for instance P.D. Harrison in 'The Stars and Stripes and Other American Flags, 1918, have maintained that there could be no connection between the EICe and the GU, because, in the 1770s, the former had a St George's canton and not a Union canton. Fawcett agrees that particular flag plates of 1718, 1737, 1748, 1750 and 1783 show the EICe with a St George's cross canton, but thinks they were errors that arose from publishing flag plates that were copies of previous plates, without checking whether there had been changes in any of the designs. British legislation made the Union canton mandatory after 1707, and there is nothing to suggest that this was not applied to EIC ensigns. This is supported by contemporary paintings.
2. Fawcett refers to the flag with thirteen red and white stripes and a St George's canton which is shown in the 1718 Les Pavillons ou Bannieres etc, Mortier, Amsterdam 1718, and also other publications, as Pavillion de Rang ou de Division d'une Escadre, but dismisses it as an error. There is no English record of striped ensigns being used as squadron colours after 1633.
3. Apart from the obvious objection that it would have been pointless for the United Colonies to have adopted a flag that might be mistaken for that of the EIC, there are two reasons for thinking that the EICe was not seen in North America.
The company's charter permitted them to traded only between the East, and English ports. Although the Act of Parliament of 1773 allowed the EIC to export tea to America, it had first to be landed in England. The tea that was dumped overboard in Boston, had been part of a much larger consignment shipped from China to England, where it was sold to dealers and merchants, and then freighted to Boston as part of a general cargo, in ships that did not belong to, and were not chartered by the EIC.
Secondly, as mentioned in the first paragraph, the EICe was not flown by ships north of St Helena.
4. The EICe could have been known to any colonist, who had sailed to the East or, if interested in such things, had seen the EICe in a painting.
5. Both the colonists and the EIC wanted the duty on tea removed. The colonists because they objected to paying the tax and the EIC because it had surplus tea which it wanted to sell. Fawcett suggests that Benjamin Franklin may have been disposed to favour the EIC's flag as it symbolized independence, in the sense that the EIC's administration in India was not directly controlled by the King's ministers.
Fawcett was an India Office editor and had access to all the EIC records. The greater part of his article is about the EIC striped ensigns in general and whether or not the Grand Union was the same as the EIC ensign. He ends his article by writing :-
"The present tendency in the United States is to treat the origin of the Grand Union Flag as a mystery, which is unlikely to be solved (NGM Sep 1934, pp340, 345). And in recent publications about the 'Stars and Stripes' no mention is made of the East India Company's flag. Thus the reference to it that appeared in the 1917 edition of Flags of the World by the National Geographic Society finds no place in the 1934 edition. This may be partly due to the doubt that has hitherto existed whether the Company's flag was the same as the Grand Union Flag; but now that it seems clear that the two flags were identical, I feel sure that better recognition will be given to the claim of the former. Even if the identity of pattern is due to mere coincidence, it is a fact which deserves to be noticed in any discussion as to the origin of the American flag. And as the Company's flag had a long and honourable history, no discredit can attach to the American flag from a connexion between the two colours."
David Prothero, 12 July 2002
I have to disagree that no one has really looked hard at the origin of the Grand Union flag. Rather, the problem may be that they've looked only from the perspective of knowing what the modern U.S. flag looks like.
Most writings that I've seen on this subject ultimately trace back to the 19th century historian of the U.S. flag, Rear Admiral George Henry Preble. Unfortunately, Preble is carefully researched (for his time) but badly organized and sometimes internally contradictory. It is therefore easily quoted without the full context. What usually gets quoted from Preble is on pp 217-18 of the 1880 edition of his History of the Flag of the United States of America, [pre80]: "... [T]he necessity of a common national flag seems not to have been thought of, until Doctor Franklin, Mr. Lynch, and Mr. Harrison were appointed to consider the subject, and assembled at the camp at Cambridge. The result of their conference was the retention of the king's colors or union jack, representing the still-recognized sovereignty of England, but coupled to thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, emblematic of the union of the thirteen colonies against its tyranny and oppression, in place of the loyal red ensign. The new striped flag was hoisted for the first time on the 2d of January, 1776, over the camp at Cambridge." (Let us leave aside that this is *not* what this committee was appointed to address. Their assignment was to investigate the situation with the army. The journals of the Congress say nothing at this point about a flag.)
The evidence presented by Preble is unimpeachable that a new flag with stripes was hoisted over Cambridge on this date. He cites a letter by Washington himself, dated 4 January, saying that "on the 2d . . . we hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold! it was received at Boston as a token of the deep impression the [King's] speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission." An anonymous letter dated 2 January says "The grand union flag of thirteen stripes was raised on a height near Boston. The [British] regulars did not understand it; and as the king's speech had just been read, as they supposed, they thought the new flag was a token of submission." A British merchant captain writing from Boston on 17 January said: "I can see the rebels' camp very plain, whose colors, a little while ago, were entirely red; but on the receipt of the king's speech, which they burnt, they hoisted the union flag, which is here supposed to intimate the union of the provinces."
On page 219, however, Preble concedes that, from the contemporary evidence, "it will be observed that there is no mention of the color of the stripes placed on the previously red flag, or the character of its union, or other than presumptive evidence that it had a union" [canton]. The best Preble can do to back up his conclusion that the flag was as described on page 217 is to cite a statement by the 19th century historian George Bancroft describing the flag as "thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, in the field, and the united crosses of St. George and St. Andrew on a blue ground in the corner." He doesn't say where Bancroft got this information.
Now, Preble does support the existence of *a* flag such as he describes. On p. 219, he notes it as having been flown on the Continental schooner Royal Savage, part of Benedict Arnold's Lake Champlain flotilla, beginning in the summer of 1776. The evidence for this is a water color sketch found in the papers of Maj.Gen. Philip Schuyler (an officer in the Lake Champlain operation) and labeled in Schuyler's handwriting, showing the Royal Savage flying this flag. Preble concludes (pp. 219-20) that this picture "may be considered as settling what were the characteristic features of the new flag. At the head of the maintop-mast of the schooner there is a flag precisely like the one described by Bancroft, and it is the only known contemporaneous drawing of it extant." I don't think it can be considered as settling any such thing.
The problem is that there is plentiful evidence of the existence during this same time frame of similar flags used by the Continental forces with stripes *other than* red and white. Among these are one with green stripes on a red field (used by Esek Hopkins's Delaware Bay fleet) and another used by the brig Lexington in 1776 with white and blue stripes on a red field. Of Hopkins's Delaware Bay fleet, Preble (page 241) quotes a 9 February 1776 report that the ships flew "a union flag with thirteen stripes in the field," but notes (page 236) that "whether they stripes were red and white, or blue and white, or red, blue, and white alternately, seems not certain." A British report of the capture of New Providence Island (in the Bahamas), dated 13 May 1776, says only that the colors of the American naval force were "striped under the union, with thirteen stripes;" Preble concludes that this refers to the red-and-white-striped Grand Union flag, but again, the British correspondent doesn't say so. Preble himself cites evidence of white and yellow stripes (Continental brig Reprisal) in July 1776. There are also non-contemporaneous (late 18th century) recollections of other color combinations.
The next bit may be a little bit of a stretch for some people's taste, but I personally find it very interesting. In October 1778, Benjamin Franklin, by then American diplomatic representative in France, described the stripes of the American flag as being red, white, *and blue* in an official communication to the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It is not plausible that in 16 months he had not yet received word of Congress's adoption (14 June 1777) of a design consisting of red and white stripes. Now the traditional logic is that Franklin's own committee fixed the color (red and white) and number (13) of the stripes in the Grand Union flag in December 1775, and that Congress endorsed that design--substituting the white-starred union for the UJ--in June 1777. If Franklin himself had established the stripes as red and white almost three years before, what on earth would make him suddenly conclude in October 1778 that they were actually red, white, and blue? My conclusion: that the color of the stripes hadn't been definitively set in December 1775 at all.
Even without the Franklin story, I would suggest that it is far from proven that the Grand Union flag hoisted at Cambridge on 2 January 1776 consisted of 13 red and white stripes. It seems more likely that the design evolved from a red ensign (or maybe just a plain red flag) with stripes of no particular color, to one with stripes in varying combinations of red, white, and blue, and finally to one with 7 red and 6 white stripes only.
Where does that leave us on the Grand Union-EIC connection? It seems to me that *if* the Grand Union stripes were not invariably red and white but rather appeared in a number of variations, the connection with the EIC flag becomes quite dubious. In any case, there is no evidence of a connection other than the circumstantial similarity, despite the fact that the principals in the story of the design of the flag (Washington and Franklin) were both assiduous journal-keepers and letter-writers whose papers have been painstakingly assembled and preserved over the years.
By the way, I personally see little possibility that any of the three members of the committee credited with the design would have been familiar with the EIC flag, as none of them had any particular maritime connections. Thomas Lynch and Benjamin Harrison were wealthy planters from South Carolina and Virginia respectively, while Benjamin Franklin was, well, Benjamin Franklin. It's true that they may have consulted with merchant seamen from Boston on the flag design, but there is no indication they did so, and one sees little reason why they would, given the nature of their assignment. But the fact is that we just don't know.
Finally, FWIW, the suggested link between the EIC flag and the Grand Union was obviously current by the time Preble wrote, as he addresses the question, with much the same conclusion generally made today: that the similarity is an interesting coincidence, that there is no evidence to support a cause-and-effect relationship, and that the EIC flag was only one of a great many multi-striped flags in use at the time.
Joe McMillan, 25 July 2002