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A funny thing happened on the way to the Revolutionary War

"Betsy Ross making the first flag, 1776 [according to legend]" Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer

“Betsy Ross making the first flag, 1776 (according to legend)”


On New Year’s day in 1776, Gen. George Washington and the Continental Army were laying siege to the British-controlled city of Boston. From Prospect Hill, General Washington ordered the Grand Union flag hoisted “in compliment of the United Colonies,” accidentally ending the Revolutionary War.

Or so the British thought.

In Boston, a speech by King George that offered favorable terms of surrender for the colonialists was making the rounds. Loyalists in the besieged city were elated when they saw what looked like the Union Jack flying above General Washington’s encampment at Prospect Hill, taking it as a sign that the Continental forces has accepted the terms and were calling it quits.

Washington remarked on the event in a letter to Joseph Reed on January 4: “By this time, I presume, they begin to think it strange we have not made formal surrender of the lines.”

That the Grand Union flag was so easily mistaken for the British Union Jack made it clear that, certainly, the 13 colonies had a flag problem.

Thankfully, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress took up the problem and declared “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.” Finally, the new nation had a flag, and accidental surrenders were a thing of the past.

In honor of the anniversary of the adoption of the stars and bars, Barack Obama has declared June 14 Flag Day, as has every President since Woodrow Wilson.

Happy Flag Day, everybody.

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Comment from Bob Angelnuts
Time June 14, 2010 at 11:43 am

Interesting, but this proclamation is not nearly as poetic and impressive as his last years Flag Day Proclamation.

Comment from Peter McCombs
Time June 16, 2010 at 6:02 pm

The Wikipedia link on the “Grand Union Flag” is interesting since it approaches this particular “surrender” story with more than a little skepticism.

One of the sources cited in the article is “Ansoff, Peter 2006.” It turns out that Peter Ansoff is, or has been, the president of the North American Vexillological Association. I looked him up and found that he has a publication called “The Flag on Prospect Hill.” I thought his conclusion drawn from all of the available original sources of that historical event was quite convincing.

I am persuaded that the flag hoisted on Prospect Hill was probably the Union flag and not the colonial “Grand Union flag,” as our tradition now has it. In any case, I do not see how the Grand Union flag could easily have been confused with the Union flag.

Comment from Lisa Kogel
Time August 23, 2011 at 10:34 am

I have studied history for over 30 years. The funny thing is I have always heard of the story of George Washington having a professional relationship with Joseph Reed. The strange story told by my great grandfather , grandfather, and mother always seemed far fetched. Until I began researching my geneology. Joseph Reed is my 6th Great Grand Uncle. I will always wonder if the stories I have grown up with are true. Nice connection.