Happy Fourth of July. I’m no vexillologist, but now and then I get all wrapped up in studying the Stars and Stripes. I made a pilgrimage to Bedford, Massachusetts, for example, to view what locals there call “the oldest surviving American flag.”
It’s not what you imagine. Instead of stars and stripes, the Bedford Flag depicts an armored knight wielding a sword thrust from the clouds. It was reportedly carried into the battles at Lexington and Concord in 1775 by local Minutemen.
In Bennington, Vermont, they still talk about the Bennington Flag, although it is probably a fake. A small plaque in Salem, Massachusetts, honors William Driver, who is credited with coining the term “Old Glory.” I’ve also seen the huge 40-foot long “Great Garrison Flag,” now at the Smithsonian, that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen what became our national anthem. And I’ve been to the War of 1812 flag site at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, where the anthem was born.
The evolution of our American flag is rich in myth and controversy. Did Philadelphia's Betsy Ross really sew the first 13-star flag? Not likely, historians generally agree. Did 95-year old Barbara Fritchie really wave a Union flag from her window in defiance of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War? The facts suggest it never happened.
Jones and the flag
Among the most misunderstood flag bearers in American history is John Paul Jones, arguably the most famous resident of Portsmouth. The so-called "Father of the American Navy" was never an American citizen at all. Born in Scotland, Jones began his complex connection to the evolving American flag in Philadelphia aboard a man-of-war originally named Black Prince.
At the outset of the American Revolution, the fledgling Continental Navy purchased Black Prince and renamed her Alfred. On Dec. 3, 1775, a young lieutenant named John Paul Jones was given the honor of raising the first United States flag aboard Alfred. Illustrations often show Jones hauling up the "Navy Jack," flag with a rattlesnake insignia and the motto "Don't Tread on Me." In fact, Jones almost certainly raised a "Grand Union" flag. This popular early design was a combination of the British Union flag (a blue "X" with a red cross) set against 13 red and white stripes.
On to Portsmouth
Jones next important flag day came on June 14, 1777, when the Continental Congress – in an effort to promote unity among 13 very different colonies – adopted the nation's first official flag. The order read, "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
The vague description led to many early versions of the Stars & Stripes. On that very day the U.S. Congress named Paul Jones commander of the ship Ranger then being fitted out at Portsmouth Harbor. The timing was another accident of fate for Jones and the seed of a hoax that refuses to die.
In 1905, the "fraudulent historian" Augustus C. Buell quoted a letter in which Jones reputedly wrote that "the flag and I are twins, born in the same hour from the same womb of destiny. We cannot be parted in life or in death." It was a thrilling patriotic sound bite that is still quoted today. Unfortunately, Jones never wrote the letter or spoke the words. Much of Buell's biography of Jones was simply made up.
It was Buell who also invented the story that a group of Portsmouth women sewed the famous Ranger flag "from slices of their best silk gowns." Buell even fabricated the names of the young women in the Helen Seavey Quilting Party to make his fictional account more believable. Buell died in 1905, but his lies live on.
Into the history books
On Feb. 14, 1778, the flag aboard Ranger (whatever it looked like) received a nine-gun salute at France, the first recognition of the official United States flag by a foreign power. Jones made his famous raids along the coast of Great Britain. When the Ranger sailed home, Jones kept up his one-ship war against England as captain of the Bonhomme Richard.
On Sept. 23, 1779, in one of the most famous sea battles ever fought (and one of the bloodiest still in American naval history) Jones defeated HMS Serapis just off the British coast. His Bonhomme Richard, however, was so badly damaged it sank two days later with its colors flying.
When Jones, his surviving crew, and captives limped into a Dutch port aboard the battered HMS Serapis, it was flying a unique new American flag. The Serapis Flag (also known as the Ranger Flag and the John Paul Jones Flag) had 13- stripes, alternating red, white and blue. Historians have suggested the unique design was the work of Benjamin Franklin who was in France with John Paul Jones when the Bonhomme Richard was being fitted out as an American warship.
Haunted by Jones
"Buell is absolutely untrustworthy," naval historian William Gilkerson told this reporter years ago. The late Gilkerson knew well. A sailor and writer, Gilkerson was also one of America's most respected maritime artists. In his classic book, “The Ships of John Paul Jones” (1987) Gilkerson illustrated and discussed every single ship associated with Jones' naval career, right down to the rigging, flags, cannon and the sailor's clothing and weaponry.
"He has haunted me all my life," Gilkerson said of John Paul Jones. "But I had the feeling that I did get to know him." Gilkerson's work on Jones has become the standard for authenticity. In fact, Gilkerson's pictures hang beside John Paul Jones' tomb in the captain’s crypt below the chapel at Annapolis.
Jones, he told me, was "your basic warrior. He did everything he could for his crew, but he was a very stern commander all the time. He was very hard-ass," Gilkerson said. Jones did not like his Piscataqua crewmen and they did not like him.
"I don't think he [Jones] was particularly patriotic to the United States at all," Gilkerson told me from his home in Nova Scotia. "In fact, he really liked France. He liked being known as a commander who was skillful…but he needed a flag to wave and a reason to go fight somebody."
Gilkerson’s best guess
So what did the original Ranger flag from Portsmouth look like? No one knows, Gilkerson said. According to Jones' own report, the flag on the Bonhomme Richard was shot away and disappeared beneath the sea.
Ironically, a flag purported to be from the Bonhomme turned up in the Smithsonian Institution. Eighty years after the battle, the flag was produced by descendants of James Stafford who had reportedly been a midshipman on John Paul Jones flagship during the Serapis battle, although he is not listed in the roster.
According to the legend, Stafford had saved the flag after the battle and it was later presented to him – and surprisingly not to John Paul Jones – in 1784 by a committee of the U.S. Congress. The Stafford Flag made its way to the Smithsonian where it hung for decades until it was withdrawn as a fake in 1942.
After long and careful research, William Gilkerson adopted the “Serapis Flag,” the one possibly invented in France by Benjamin Franklin flag into his precise illustrations of Ranger and Bonhomme. Whatever flag Jones brought from Portsmouth, he says, he likely swapped it in France for Franklin's unique design. In an edition of flag stamps a decade ago, the U.S. Postal Service referred to this design as the "John Paul Jones Flag."
A second American ship, the Alliance, accompanied John Paul Jones into the battle in England. The Alliance flag had the same eight-point stars, but its stripes were red and white like the flag we know today.
"Standardization is a modern concept that just didn't exist then," Gilkerson said during our interview. "Modern historians are always looking for the quintessential item for a certain age – and there really isn’t one."
That standardization did not exist until 1912, when the United States officially specified the precise details of the American flag we know today, but with the addition of many new stars.
John Paul Jones returned to Portsmouth as a conquering hero in 1782, this time to captain the huge 74-gun warship America being built at Kittery. The largest ship of its kind then built, America was 56 feet wide by 182 feet. To celebrate the Fourth of July, historian Charles Brewster tells us, Jones fired guns off the deck of the America while it was still under construction. Fond of celebrations, Jones put on a fireworks display at his own expense that was seen by all the citizens assembled on the riverbanks in Portsmouth. But the warship America was given, instead, to France. Capt. Jones left the United States to fight for the Russian navy. He later died, friendless and alone, in a Paris hotel.
Copyright 2019 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and his weekly photo blog runs each Thursday. He is the author of a dozen history books on topics including the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders, Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. He is currently working on a hardcover history of The Music Hall and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.