Our National Flag

By Captain W. F. Halsey, U. S. Navy

Having for a number of fears among other duties that of the issue to vessels of the service of flags and jacks of standard dimensions it was found most instructive and interesting to note the changes and development of the flag from the time when proportions were established by the naval commissioners in 1818 until the present date. Congress on returning to the original thirteen stripes from the existing fifteen stripes passed an act, that was approved April 4, 1818, which read as follows:


SEC 1. Be it enacted etc. That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; that the union have twenty stars, white in a blue field.

SECT. 2. And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new State into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag, and that such addition shall take effect on the fourth of July next succeeding such admission.

While the color and number of the stripes were legalized, together with the color and number of stars in the field, there was no law passed or details given as to arrangement of stars, sizes of field, or relative dimension of a standard flag. Apparently these important points were overlooked, but for the navy were covered by the following circular:


SIR,—The Navy Commissioners have to inform you that agreeably to the Act of Congress on the 4th of April 1818, entitled An Act to Establish the flag of the United States, our national flag is, and from after the 4th of July next, to be: Thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red, and white. The union to be twenty stars, white in a blue field, one star to be added on the admission into the Union of every new State; such addition to be made from and after the 4th of July next, succeeding the date of such admission.

The size of the flag must be in the proportion of fourteen feet in width and twenty four feet in length, the field of the union must be one third the length of the flag, and seven thirteenths of its depth, so that from the top to the bottom of the union there will be seven stripes, and six stripes from the bottom of the union to the bottom of the flag. The manner of arranging the stars you will perceive by the subjoined sketch.

The upper and lower stripes to be red.


(Signed) JNO. RODGERS, President.

The Officer Commanding, The Navy Yard, Portsmouth, N. H.

In the sketch to which reference is made the twenty stars were arranged in four parallel lines, five stars in each line, the stars being staggered. On September 18, 1818, a second circular was issued changing the arrangement of the stars so they appeared in four parallel lines, of five stars each, the corresponding stars in each row arranged in a vertical line. The latter arrangement has practically obtained in order to have the necessary space. With the admission of new states, and consequent addition of stars, it became desirable on the score of symmetry to make certain changes in relative proportions of the flag. The first systematic and definite official orders on this subject were probably issued by Mr. Chandler as Secretary of the Navy in 1882, and appear in the allowance book of articles under the cognizance of the Bureau of Navigation, which bureau was at that time charged with the issue of all flags to the naval service. In this allowance book the size of the union was increased from one-third to four-tenths the length of the fly, and the width (hoist of flag) was changed to 10/19 the length of the fly. Eight standard sizes were adopted, numbered respectively from one to eight, number one the largest with a hoist of 19 feet, and a fly of 36 feet, number eight the smallest boat flag being 2.37 feet by 4.5 feet.

Subsequently to this date the manufacture of all flags was transferred to the Bureau of Equipment, and on September 30, 1891, Admiral George Dewey, then Chief of Bureau of Equipment, directed further detailed standardizing of naval national flags, and added an additional number ten boat flag, to be attached to the sails of boats when maneuvering or drilling under such conditions. To preserve the identity of the stars in the flags and unions it was necessary that they should be of moderately large dimensions, and with a view to obtaining uniformity in the sizes of the stars and their position in the union certain dimensions were adopted, also a method applicable to all sized flags by means of which the position of the center of each star could be absolutely obtained. For flags below number five storm (hoist 5.14 feet, fly 9.75 feet) the unions were to contain only thirteen stars. These dimensions and arrangements have continued in the naval service practically to this date, save only the additional stars necessitated by the admission of new states. For union jacks the sizes were automatically obtained from given dimensions of the national flags. The jack formed one of a pair of colors and was designated by number. That is number one jack was flown with number one flag, or number five jack with number five flag, and the dimensions of such jacks were those of the respective unions of the flag with which they were paired.

In recent years the arrangement of stars due to change on admission of new states was referred to a joint army and navy board. This board submitted plans and recommendations which, upon being approved by the President, were issued to the military services by the respective heads of these departments, in general orders. Though such orders have the force of law for these services the fact still remains the same that there is no law of the land enacted by Congress which makes mandatory the arrangement of the stars, or the number of stripes below the union, for the national flag of our country.

Previous to 1866 our flags had been manufactured generally from English bunting, as no domestic texture had been found capable of resisting efficiently the wind and action of the atmosphere. On February 21, 1866, the Honorable B. F. Butler, of Massachusetts, introduced to the Senate the agent of the United States Bunting Company, of Lowell, Massachusetts, who presented to them for the use of the Senate a flag manufactured by the company from bunting of their domestic production. This flag was twelve feet hoist by twenty-one feet fly, and is believed to be the first real American flag ever raised over the Capitol of the United States. A test ordered by the Navy Department proved the American bunting to be of the best quality and fast in colors. Since this date it is required by the military services that all national flags shall be made of domestic bunting, unless impossible to obtain within the United States bunting that shall meet the required specifications. Though the navy specifications are most severe as to weight, wool, tensile strength, number of yarns of which woven, color tests, and sun exposure, no trouble has been experienced in obtaining the desired fabric for the national flag. Flags for the navy are manufactured at the New York, Mare Island and Cavite navy yards, strictly in accordance with specifications and drawings, and necessary supplies of this equipment are drawn from the yards by vessels of the Atlantic, Pacific and Asiatic fleets. Up-to-date methods of manufacture are followed, with star cutting machines and motor driven sewing machines, and such manufacture Offers employment for skilled employees of both sexes. Flags for the army are manufactured at the Schuylkill Arsenal, Philadelphia, where an extensive plant for this purpose is maintained.

While the navy has found by experience the necessity for nine sizes of flags, with changes from the original proportions, the army has been for general service use restricted to post, garrison and storm flags (three sizes only), and in these flags have the uniform length of the union, one-third that of the total fly of the flag, but the dimensions for the fly do not bear the same relative proportions in any two flags. For both services an exception is made in relative proportions in the flag carried by troops, as such flags carried on a pole by the standard bearer were found by experience to require a shortening of the fly to be handled properly by the average man.

Since the establishment of system and economy in administration flags for all government departments, except State, War and Navy, are purchased by the General Supply Committee, which committee as its name indicates is charged with duty of obtaining, with exceptions, the general equipment and items for government use.

The attention of the Secretary of the Navy was called to the fact that there was no standard for our national flag, that while different service would require different sizes, all such sizes should conform in relative proportions. As now existed the army had three sizes, no two of which had the same relative proportions regarding hoist and fly, that the navy had nine sizes of flags, all of which bore the same relative proportions in dimensions, but that the size of the union as adopted for the navy differed from that existing for army flags. Furthermore it was pointed out that for the other departments of the government, the General Supply Committee had contracted for or had issued schedules including flags of over fifty different sizes, in which sizes were radical departures from proportions of either military service.

The head of the Navy Department referred for consideration to each of the other governmental departments the desirability of appointing a representative to confer with the other representatives with a view to reconciling existing differences, and to decide upon and recommend a standard for the national flag and union jack, to which all flags should conform in relative proportions. It is understood that the suggestion of Mr. Meyer was received with universal approval by the cabinet officers, and that a board consisting of nine representatives has met and submitted a report on this subject.

From all information obtainable it becomes patent that the United States Navy is the only military service that denies to its personnel the honor of being covered by the national flag when buried. The naval regulations are mandatory on this subject and state that the coffin of any officer or enlisted man of whatever rank shall be covered by the union jack. In the sister service, the army, the coffins of their personnel, from general to private, are covered on occasions of military funerals by the stars and stripes. Why the distinction? So far as can be learned it is due to a misunderstanding that crept in early regulations and which misunderstanding has been perpetuated in subsequent issues of the Blue Book. Tradition and records point to the fact that in the early publications of naval regulations the requirements of the English service were followed; requirements which generally were most excellent and equally applicable to the infant navy of our country. The English naval regulations indicate that at military funerals the coffin shall be covered by the union jack, and this it is believed is the source from which sprung the custom followed in our navy. But the individual, officer or civilian, who originally copied from the regulations of our cousins across the sea, failed to recognize the fact that the union jack is the national flag of England or now the national flag of the British Empire. On pages 5, 17, and 19, of the British Admiralty publication, Flags of All Nations, issued by the Admiralty as official in 1907, will be found the following statements: "National or Union Flag. Established in 1606 by King James the 1st, when the union was made of the banner of St. George of England, and St. Andrew of Scotland, amended by order of the Queen in Council, on April 17, 1707, on report of the Lords of the Privy Council. The present Union Flag of England was completed on Nov. 5, i800, approved by the King, and the cross of St. Patrick was conjoined to that of the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew."

The publication quoted is authority for the following statement: "It is believed that the term Jack is derived from the abbreviated name of the reigning Sovereign King James the 1st, under whose direction the flag was constructed, and who signed his name Jacques."

Thus the union jack of Old England is the national flag. It is carried by the troops, fought under when occasion requires, is hoisted on all forts and army stations and by all English diplomats and consular authorities, the particular rank being noted by specific badge placed thereon as required by regulations. The so-called union jack of the United States has no legal existence, no statute authorizes its manufacture or describes its use or details. It is a signal flag pure and simple, and through mistaken usage has apparently established the precedent for such flag, neither sentiment nor sentimentality can in any way support the contention that such is a national flag.

The caskets containing the dead recovered from the wreck of the Maine were on the occasion of the final obsequies in Washington covered, as the navy regulations require, by jacks. In Havana these same caskets reverently guarded and carried by Cubans were covered with the national flag.

Within a year in the city of Washington have taken place the funerals of two naval veterans, who served under their flag in two wars. Each veteran had reached the grade of rear-admiral. On each occasion the Navy Department recognizing the services rendered by these officers honored their memories by ordering the brigade of midshipmen from Annapolis to form the right of the military escort. The casket of one admiral was draped, as required by regulations, with the union jack. The covering of the casket of the other was the national flag that had been flown during the naval engagement of Santiago by the vessels this officer had commanded on that occasion. The one, a new jack, without service or association, the other a national flag, beloved by both, shell torn and powder smoked, in itself endowed with living attributes of the life to which both veterans had devoted their best hours, days and years. Sentiment, or sentimentality, which draping appeals most to the world, which draping was the one appropriate for the historical dead?

Custom of the service is not without its uses, but such custom when founded on mistaken premises should not exist. The national flag is permitted to be flown over the individual during life time, and offers the protection of the well beloved country; is it not fitting that when taps are sounded for a life ended in the service that the last honors paid should be under the national flag?




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