The United States has a complex and interesting relationship with flags. We have our national ensign, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are all kinds of flags, and they all carry a lot of meaning. Have you taken a look at a map of the United States lately? It’s big. Really big. One flag is just not enough for us!
Flags of Old
What is considered to be the first American flag? This question has been debated for a long time. Some people consider certain examples of flags that were created before the Revolutionary War. American symbolism goes beyond just the national ensign. There are many flags that have been created and used to represent all kinds of American organizations.
Early American Flags
One of the earliest examples of American flags was the Sons of Liberty flag. First appearing in 1765, the flag with nine vertical red and white stripes represented those who fought for and supported colonist rights. This flag would later go on to generally represent freedom fighters during the American Revolution.
The organization that first used the name dissolved in 1776. This group was the inspiration of many acts and declarations of freedoms throughout the states later on. And the later iterations of this flag would feature thirteen red and white stripes to represent the original colonies.
Some historians consider the Forster flag, also called the Manchester flag, to be the first true American flag. These early relics were more than pieces of cloth. Flags were an important form of expression and representation in the time period around the American Revolution.
They were especially important then because of how difficult communication and organization were. You couldn’t exactly send out mass emails or surveys to fellow Americans back then. It took a lot of work to get people to go to town meetings and vote on important matters.
Flags were the simple and easy way to spread ideas and communicate support. They were almost like the first billboards. Their designs were heavily informed by our naval history and relationships with the British.
No matter how much our country has changed and evolved, we still remember our roots by maintaining the red, white, and blue. Making our flag was an act of defiance in and of itself. And that is what makes our country great. Our founders were bold enough to defy the most powerful empire of the time.
Our Military Flags
There are three types of American military flags today:
- Service Flags
- Maritime Flag
- Personal Flags
There are dozens of them now, but it was, of course, not always like that. One of the first American military flags was essentially a copy of the East India Company and was flown by ships that were under the command of General George Washington.
Washington went on to be heavily involved in the creation of the familiar American flag with thirteen red and white stripes, a blue canton, and thirteen stars. His naval experience definitely played a role in the design. Stripes were a good feature because of how easy they are to spot when trying to identify ships out at sea.
Later on, all of our service branches designed their own flags, and this was important because of how differently each branch functioned and the roles they played. Our military grew to be the most powerful and complex force on Earth.
- The US Army is vital to defending the nation on a ground level. We also utilize the Army today to set up bases on foreign lands, and they are trained and designed to maintain those areas of operation for long stretches of time.
- The Navy was originally, of course, meant to defend our shorelines and conduct operations out in foreign waters. The Navy today has many more responsibilities. They protect our waters as well as our allies and transport our Marines.
- The Air Force was not its own branch until after WWII. It was detached from the Army officially in 1947. The branch now has a closer relationship with the Navy as it utilizes launch pads and runways off of aircraft carriers. The Air Force is vital to the success of other branches because of the amount of support they provide.
- The Marines are basically our first responders in response to international aggression. They lead battles and have a close relationship with the Navy, who provides the transportation.
- The Coast Guard originally operated under Homeland Security and is now responsible for enforcing maritime laws, protecting our shorelines, and even conducting search and rescue operations. This branch differentiates itself from the Navy by acting more like a police-type force than a military force.
The Space Force is the newest independent branch of our military that was established in 2019. It is tasked with defending our nation's space-faring assets and operations. It is going to be very interesting to see how this branch evolves over the coming years as it is the first military branch in the world that specifically involves space.
Our country is very proud of how independent our states are of the federal government. And each state has a flag representing the unique history and individuality of its people. Did you know that North and South Carolina were both named after King Charles I? The two states split in 1729.
Some state flags are more elaborate than others. And some represent relationships between states you may not have expected. For example, California’s flag has a species of bear on its flag that is actually extinct. It was called the Californian Grizzly Bear. The red star, though, is the real kicker.
That red star in the upper left represents Texas. This was in acknowledgment of the struggle between Texas, California, and Mexico around the time of the Mexican American War. That conflict created a comradery between the two states.
Colorado did not adopt its current flag until 1964. The contents and symbolism of the flag are very holistic, and it doesn’t represent any particular moments in history. The letter “C” is obviously for Colorado. The color red represents Earth. The blue is for the sky. The white is for the snowy mountains. And finally, the yellow disc is for the sun.
You might think Iowa's flag with the red, white, and blue is simply taken from the American flag, but it’s actually an homage to the French flag. Middle America was once controlled and ruled by France. The United States bought this vast chunk of North America, known as the Louisiana Purchase, for $15 million in 1803. That is about $355 million today. Not a bad deal!
State flags are chock-full of amazing stories and unique designs. Many are deceptively simple but carry heavy symbolic weight. An important reason why we have state flags is to show that each one is sovereign and can govern itself for the most part.
Other Types of Flags
The beautiful thing about modern American culture is the sheer amount of flags there are that support groups and ideas. Many flags today, however, have been around for a long time, but their meanings have changed. Flags are not just for states, military branches, or the country as a whole anymore.
Flown by the People
The Gadsden Flag, or “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, is an example of a flag that was once loosely used by America’s early military to now a heavily used civilian symbol. The Continental Marines used it as a motto flag in the Revolutionary War. Many groups fly it today, but it is commonly associated with the desire for limited government.
Today, there are many variations of the American flag colored black and white while one of the stripes is colored. The flag with a red line is in support of firefighters. The black and white American flag with a green stripe represents the support for the military but doesn't signify a particular branch.
When it comes to civilian flags, there are just too many to count. Some are in support of civil rights, and others are flown simply for their novelty. The popularity of flags means more than just representation of groups or places; flags are a means of expression and freedoms we have as Americans.
Grand Flying Flags
We are a diverse set of groups with our own environments, history, and cultures. Every flag has a story to tell, and it’s pretty neat to dive into those stories.
Our military flags are deeply rooted in honor and patriotism because of the sacrifices people have made for them. Our state flags are instrumental in telling the story of our formation as a nation. The American flag is the highest flown flag for a reason, though. As diverse of a people we are, we all believe in the values and unity the American flag represents.