Men, in the aggregate, demand something besides abstract ideas and principles. Hence the desire for symbols--something visible to the eye and that appeals to the senses. Every nation has a flag that represents the country--every army a common banner, which, to the soldier, stands for that army. It speaks to him in the din of battle, cheers him in the long and tedious march, and pleads with him on the disastrous retreat.
Standards were originally carried on a pole or lance. It matters little what they may be, for the symbol is the same.
In ancient times the Hebrew tribes had each its own standard--that of Ephraim, for instance, was a steer; of Benjamin, a wolf. Among the Greeks, the Athenians had an owl, and the Thebans a sphynx. The standard of Romulus was a bundle of hay tied to a pole, afterwards a human hand, and finally an eagle. Eagles were at first made of wood, then of silver, with thunderbolts of gold. Under CÃ¦sar they were all gold, without thunderbolts, and were carried on a long pike. The Germans formerly fastened a streamer to a lance, which the duke carried in front of the army. Russia and Austria adopted the double headed eagle. The ancient national flag of England, all know, was the banner of St. George, a white field with a red cross. This was at first used in the Colonies, but several changes were afterwards made.
Of course, when they separated from the mother country, it was necessary to have a distinct flag of their own, and the Continental Congress appointed Dr. Franklin, Mr. Lynch, and Mr. Harrison, a committee to take the subject into consideration. They repaired to the American army, a little over 9,000 strong, then assembled at Cambridge, and after due consideration, adopted one composed of seven white and seven red stripes, with the red and white crosses of St. George and St. Andrew, conjoined on a blue field in the corner, and named it "The Great Union Flag." The crosses of St. George and St. Andrew were retained to show the willingness of the colonies to return to their allegiance to the British crown, if their rights were secured. This flag was first hoisted on the first day of January, 1776. In the meantime, the various colonies had adopted distinctive badges, so that the different bodies of troops, that flocked to the army, had each its own banner. In Connecticut, each regiment had its own peculiar standard, on which were represented the arms of the colony, with the motto, "Qui transtulit sustinet"--(he who transplanted us will sustain us.) The one that Putnam gave to the breeze on Prospect Hill on the 18th of July, 1775, was a red flag, with this motto on one side, and on the other, the words inscribed, "An appeal to Heaven." That of the floating batteries was a white ground with the same "Appeal to Heaven" upon it. It is supposed that at Bunker Hill our troops carried a red flag, with a pine tree on a white field in the corner. The first flag in South Carolina was blue, with a crescent in the corner, and received its first baptism under Moultrie. In 1776, Col. Gadsen presented to Congress a flag to be used by the navy, which consisted of a rattle-snake on a yellow ground, with thirteen rattles, and coiled to strike. The motto was, "Don't tread on me." "The Great Union Flag," as described above, without the crosses, and sometimes with the rattle-snake and motto, "Don't tread on me," was used as a naval flag, and called the "Continental Flag."
As the war progressed, different regiments and corps adopted peculiar flags, by which they were designated. The troops which Patrick Henry raised and called the "Culpepper Minute Men," had a banner with a rattle-snake on it, and the mottoes, "Don't tread on me," and "Liberty or death," together with their name. Morgan's celebrated riflemen, called the "Morgan Rifles," not only had a peculiar uniform, but a flag of their own, on which was inscribed, "XI. Virginia Regiment," and the words, "Morgan's Rifle Corps." On it was also the date, 1776, surrounded by a wreath of laurel. Wherever this banner floated, the soldiers knew that deadly work was being done.
When the gallant Pulaski was raising a body of cavalry, in Baltimore, the nuns of Bethlehem sent him a banner of crimson silk, with emblems on it, wrought by their own hands. That of Washington's Life Guard was made of white silk, with various devices upon it, and the motto, "Conquer or die."
It doubtless always will be customary in this country, during a war, for different regiments to have flags presented to them with various devices upon them. It was so during the recent war, but as the stars and stripes supplant them all, so in our revolutionary struggle, the "Great Union Flag," which was raised in Cambridge, took the place of all others and became the flag of the American army.
But in 1777, Congress, on the 19th day of June, passed the following resolution: "_Resolved_, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white, in a blue field, representing a new constellation." A constellation, however, could not well be represented on a flag, and so it was changed into a circle of stars, to represent harmony and union. Red is supposed to represent courage, white, integrity of purpose, and blue, steadfastness, love, and faith. This flag, however, was not used till the following autumn, and waved first over the memorable battle field of Saratoga.
Thus our flag was born, which to-day is known, respected, and feared round the entire globe. In 1794 it received a slight modification, evidently growing out of the intention at that time of Congress to add a new stripe with every additional State that came into the Union, for it passed that year the following resolution: "_Resolved_, That from and after the 1st day of May, Anno Domini 1795, the flag of the United States be fifteen stripes, alternate red and white. That the union be fifteen stars, white, in a blue field." In 1818, it was by another resolution of Congress, changed back into thirteen stripes, with twenty-one stars, in which it was provided that a new star should be added to the union on the admission of each new State. That resolution has never been rescinded, till now thirty-six stars blaze on our banner. The symbol of our nationality, the record of our glory, it has become dear to the heart of the people. On the sea and on the land its history has been one to swell the heart with pride. The most beautiful flag in the world in its appearance, it is stained by no disgrace, for it has triumphed in every struggle. Through three wars it bore us on to victory, and in this last terrible struggle against treason, though baptized in the blood of its own children, not a star has been effaced, and it still waves over a united nation.
Whenever the "Star-Spangled Banner" is sung, the spontaneous outburst of the vast masses, as the chorus is reached, shows what a hold that flag has on the popular heart. It not only represents our nationality, but it is the _people's_ flag. It led them on to freedom--it does something more than appeal to their pride as a symbol of national greatness--it appeals to their affections as a friend of their dearest rights. We cannot better close this short history of our flag than by appending the following stirring poem of Drake:
WHEN freedom from her mountain height Unfurled her standard to the air, She tore the azure robes of night, And set the stars of glory there! She mingled with its gorgeous dyes The milky baldric of the skies, And striped its pure celestial white With streakings of the morning light; Then, from his mansion in the sun, She called her eagle-bearer down, And gave into his mighty hand The symbol of her chosen land!
Majestic monarch of the cloud Who rear'st aloft thy regal form, To hear the tempest trumping loud And see the lightning lances driven, When strive the warriors of the storm, And rolls the thunder drum of heaven, Child of the sun! to thee 'tis given To guard the banner of the free; To hover in the sulphur smoke, To ward away the battle stroke; And bid its blendings shine afar, Like rainbows on the cloud of war--The harbinger of victory!
Flag of the brave! thy folds shall fly, The sign of hope and triumph high, When speaks the signal trumpet tone, And the long line comes gleaming on, (Ere yet the life-blood, warm and wet, Hath dimmed the glittering bayonet,) Each soldier's eye shall brightly turn To where thy sky-born glories burn,
And, as his springing steps advance, Catch war and vengeance from the glance; And when the cannon's mouthings loud Heave in wild wreaths the battle shroud, And gory sabres rise and fall, Like shoots of flame on midnight's pall; Then shall thy meteor glances glow, And cowering foes shall shrink beneath Each gallant arm that strikes below That lovely messenger of death.
Flag of the seas! on ocean wave Thy stars shall glitter o'er the brave, When death, careering on the gale, Sweeps darkly round the bellied sail, And frightened waves rush wildly back, Before the broadside's reeling rack, Each dying wanderer of the sea, Shall look at once to heaven and thee, And smile to see thy splendor fly, In triumph o'er his closing eye.
Flag of the free, heart's hope and home! By angel hands to valor given; Thy stars have lit the welkin dome, And all thy hues were born in heaven! Forever float that standard sheet! Where breathes the foe but falls before us? With Freedom's soil beneath our feet, And Freedom's banner streaming o'er us?