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Historic Furnishing Study
APPENDIX. The "Stars and Stripes" at Fort Stanwix: A Summary of the Evidence
by John F. Luzader


The purpose of this brief report is to present the results of a study of the evidence concerning whether the flag flown at Fort Stanwix during the siege of August 1777 was the first "Stars and Stripes" flown in combat. This is not a history of the genesis of the national flag; nor is it an evaluation of the claims put forth in support of the Bennington and Guilford Courthouse flags.

The Tradition

Briefly stated, the traditional association of the flag that became the national standard with the Siege of Fort Stanwix is that the news of the passage of the "Flag Resolution" by the Continental Congress on June 14 was brought to the fort either in the form of a personal letter to Colonel Peter Gansevoort, the post's commanding officers, or in a newspaper by the batteaux that delivered a 100-man reinforcement from Wesson's Regiment at Fort Dayton under Lieutenant Colonel Mellen. Upon receiving the dramatic and important news, some of the people in the fort prepared a flag of thirteen stripes, alternating red and white. and thirteen stars on a blue field in compliance with congressional resolution. Early in the morning of Sunday, August 3, the first day of the siege. this flag was raised on one of the fort's bastions and a salute was fired, marking the first time the new national emblem was flown over American troops. If true, this was one of the most dramatically important events of the American Revolution.

One of the early champions of this interpretation was Pomeroy Jones, a local student whose interest in the fort had a lasting influence on the work of later scholars. Jones was born several years after the siege; but he knew a number of veterans of the Revolution, and he cited their recollections to the effect that the flag at Fort Stanwix was indeed the "Stars and Stripes." [1] Jones's stories were the basis of a number of 19th century assertions concerning the flag, including Dr. James Weise's account that the new national flag was unfurled, a salute fired, and that an adjutant read the Congress's resolution from the newspaper the batteaux detail had brought to the fort on August 2. [2] Dr. Weise's account was picked up by The New Larned History, in which the following appears.

. . . Journal of Capt. Swartwout of Col. Gansevoort regiment written August 3, 1777 in Ft. Schuyler shows beyond cavil when the first flag of Stars and Stripes of which we have record was made and hoisted, but it was in a fort (Schuyler), not in the field, or at the head of a regiment. [3]

John Albert Scott's popular Fort Stanwix. (Fort Schuyler) and Oriskany repeats the story of the newspaper report and the raising of the "'first Stars and Stripes." [4] Although Fort Stanwix's claims were frequently disputed in favor of other sites such as Bennington, Cooch's Bridge, Brandyvine and Guilford Courthouse, many writers have perpetuated the tradition.


Let us now take a look at the evidence upon which an evaluation of the tradition must be based. The basic document for the origin of the "Stars and Stripes" is the so-called Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777, which reads: "RESOLVED: that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation." [5] The resolution was preceded and followed by matters brought to the Congress's attention by its Marine Committee. Since the resolution was converting the unofficial Grand Union Flag into an official standard, substituting thirteen stars upon a blue field for the canton derived from the British Union, which combined the crosses of Saints George and Andrew, it was appropriate that it emanate from that committee. This was the case because, following British precedent, flying of the Grand Union had been normally limited to ships and permanent land installations. Thus, what Congress was providing for was a new marine flag, not a national military standard.

Crucial to the story of the Fort Stanwix flag is the record of what happened immediately after the passage of the Flag Resolution. Thacher's Military Journal's entry for August 3, 1777, notes that: "It appears by the papers that Congress resolved on 14 June last, 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 . . ." [6] So far as this writer has been able to determine, and this has been supported by the findings of other students, the first public notice of the resolution appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on August 30 in the following item: "In Congress, June 14, 1777. 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. Extract from minutes, CHARLES THOMSON, sec." [7]

Other papers printed the resolution from September 3 to October 2, and the first New York papers to print it were the September 8 issue of the New York Journal and General Advertiser and September 11 issue of the New York Patent and The American Advertiser.

The papers to which Dr. Thacher at Albany was most likely to have access were the two New York and two Boston papers, the Gazette and the Spy, in which the story appeared in the September 15 and 18 issues respectively. [8]

There is an obvious conflict in evidence that can only be explained by acknowledging that the doctor may have had access to a newspaper that is unknown to historians or, more likely that when the Journal was prepared for publication prior to January 1, 1823, this was one of the instances in which alterations were made in the organization of the original manuscript.

More immediately pertinent to the Fort Stanwix problems are the testimonies of Lt. William Colbrath and Lt. Col. Marinus Willett. In his Journal, Colbrath noted in the entry for August 3: "Early this morning a Continental Flagg made by the officers of Col. Gansevoort's Regiment was hoisted and a cannon levelled at the Enemies Camp was fired on the occasion." [9] It is important to note that the lieutenant called the standard a "Continental Flagg," a term frequently applied to the Grand Union. It is also significant that he did not refer to the flag as a new one, as might be expected if he was witnessing such a memorable event.

Lt. Col. Marinus Willett wrote of the earliest accounts of the siege on August 11 in a letter to Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. He was also probably the author of another account entitled "Extract of a Letter from a Officer of Distinction" that appeared in the August 28 issue of the Boston paper, The Independent Chronicle and Universal Advertiser. In neither of these did he refer to the Fort Stanwix flag, a surprising oversight if it was as historically important as such a "first" would have been. His Orderly Book is equally silent on the subject. [10]

A quarter of a century after the siege, Willett wrote his "Narrative," which his son edited and published after the colonel's death. This is what the father wrote concerning the flag:

The Fort had never been supplied with a Flagg—The importance of having one on the arrival of the Enemy had set our Ingenuity to work, and a respectable one was formed the white stripes were cut out of ammunition shirts and blue strips out of the Cloak formerly mentioned taken from the Enemy at Peeks-hill. The red stripes out of different pieces of stuff collected from sundry persons. The Flagg was sufficiently large and a general Exhilaration of spirits appeared on beholding it Wave the morning after the arrival of the enemy. [11]

When William Willett edited his father's manuscript, he altered the wording of the sentence describing the flag's components to read:

"The white strips were cut out of ammunition shirts, the blue of the cloak taken from the enemy at Peeksill; while the red stripes were made of different pieces of stuff procured from one or another of the garrison." [12]

Marinus Willett's manuscript had this to say about the cloak from which the blue portion of the flag derived:

What Baggage the enemy had they left it consisting of only a few Blankets and Cloaks—A blue Comblot Cloak taken here afterwards served to enable us to use it for the blue strips of a Flagg which was afterwards hoisted during the siege of Fort Schuyler. . . . [13]

Willett's statement about red, white stripes and blue stripes can only have referrence to a Grand Union Flag, because a "Stars and Stripes" would have had a blue field, not blue stripes.

Two powder horns that are purported to date from the historic period at Fort Stanwix have been offered in evidence concerning the flag. I have seen neither of the specimens, my knowledge of them being limited to photographs and written descriptions. At the same time, I would have to say that seeing them probably would not materially increase my knowledge, because in spite of several years of experience in museum work, I would not be able to date them with much precision, beyond noting whether the horns and their lettering conform to types representing a period, or to determine whether the engravings are contemporaneous with the purported date or are more recent additions. I have seen specimens whose provenience has been documented alongside known fakes whose workmanship resembles the authentic so closely that no "expert" could have identified the genuine. Thus I suspect that most other students share my limitations.

One of the horns is rather elaborately carved with a stylized representation of a fort that conforms to the general outlines of Fort Stanwix and bears the inscription "Fort Schuyler; Dec'r 25, 1777, J. McGraw." Flying from the northwest bastion is a flag that, except for the absence of the St. George, resembles the Grand Union. John Albert Scott dismissed the powder horn's evidence, largely on the basis that John McGraw, whom Scott identified as the man who did the carving, was enrolled in Visscher's regiment of New York levies, which was not posted at the fort in December 1777. However, there was a James McGraw in the 3rd New York, which was there, and this man may have made the powder horn. [14] If the horn is genuine and if John McGraw carved it, the evidence that it presents argues strongly that the Fort Stanwix flag was a copy of the Grand Union.

The other powder horn is attributed to Lt. Christopher Hutton on the Third New York Regiment of the Continental Line. If it is authentic this specimen is the strongest piece of evidence that I know of in favor of the Stars and Stripes tradition. Several subjects have been carved on the horn's sides. These include: Chris. Hutton 1777; a diagrammatic sketch of Mohawk and Schoharie Rivers; Ft. Schuyler III REGT; Ft. EDW (small and shallow cut), a field cannon with a pyramidal stack of six balls; an Indian armed with a musket and tomahawk; a man mounted on a horse with a caption PETER, and most important to this study—a flag that shows stripes and a field of stars.

Some questions are appropriate concerning the Hutton powder horn. The most obvious is whether it is what it is purported to be. Since there are no conclusive authentications, the question remains moot; although on the basis of design, lettering, and general appearance, I am inclined to accept it as a late 18th century specimen. The second is, what was the designer's objective? Was he using the characters as symbols to interpret the events that occurred at the fort in 1777? If that was his purpose, why was the small legend "Ft Edw.," which must refer to Fort Edward, included? That fort was located at the carrying place on the Hudson River between that river and Wood Creek. Why did the maker locate the flag where he did? It, obviously, was not intended to mark the fort's location in relation to the river. The answer to what his purpose was cannot be found in the characters, even the equestrian figure, who probably was intended to represent the Third's commander, Peter Gansevoort.

On the other hand, the characters may merely be decorative, a form of doodling. But that still does not solve the problem of the flag. And the question of when the carvings were executed remains. Do they date from 1777, or are they later, done after the war as an exercise in nostalgia? There seems to be no satisfactory answer. However, after all the questions have been asked, one must conclude that, whatever its merits, the evidence offered by the horn contradicts that offered by the McGraw specimen, which has as good a claim to authenticity, and more significantly it is at odds with the documentary evidence. Perhaps, we should not afford either horn much credit and rely exclusively upon documentary evidence. Neither horn can really be authenticated in a manner that will satisfy all the canons of evidence. With the documents, we are on safer ground. Their histories can be traced beyond reasonable doubt, and they can be tested by standards of internal and external criticism. So, let us continue to consult them.

As has been noted, the congressional resolution of June 14 concerned a maritime flag and was not intended to provide a national standard for use by troops in the field. This is borne out by subsequent events.

Almost two years after the siege, Richard Peters, secretary of the Board of War, wrote to General Washington that regimental requisition for drums and colors had not been filled because "we have not the materials to make either in sufficient numbers." He went on to say concerning the flag:

. . . as to the Colour, we have refused them for another reason. The Baron Steuben mentioned when he was here that he would settle with your Excellency some Plan as to the Colours. It was intended that every Regiment should have two Colours—one the Standard of the United States, which should be the same throughout the Army, and the other a Regimental Colour which should vary according to the facings of the Regiment. But it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the U. States. If your Excellency will therefore favour us with your Opinion on the Subject we will report to Congress and request them to establish a Standard and as soon as this is done we will endeavour to get materials and order a Number made sufficient for the Army. [15]

Peter's letter makes it so clear as to be obvious that the resolution of June 14 did not authorize a National military standard, that as of May 10, 1779, no such standard had been chosen, and that Congress would be requested to establish one after Washington had expressed his opinion on the matter.

The Board of War continued to consider the design during the summer of 1779, and by September had apparently narrowed its choice to between "one with the Union and Emblem in the middle" and a variant of the marine flag authorized by the 1777 resolution. Between the two, the Board preferred the former. [16]

The matter was not settled by the time fighting ended in 1781, and Congress never supplied the troops with a national color. This does not mean that no variants of the "Star and Stripes" motif appeared on the field. The Bennington and Guilford Courthouse flags may have been carried in those engagements, but they were not the products of Congressional authorization, nor were they copies of a national standard, because none existed. They were local products that used an unofficial design that enjoyed a degree of popularity. But even in those instances, the evidences for their authenticity, while stronger than the Stanwix case, fall short of being conclusive.

It might be argued that the flag flown at Fort Stanwix was, like the Bennington and Guilford ones, an unofficial standard, designed independently of Congressional authority. However, that contradicts Culbrath's identifying it as a "Continental Flagg" and strains Willett's statement that the cloak was the source of the flag's blue stripes, to say nothing of the testimony, for what it is worth, of the McGraw powder-horn.

Negative evidence may be adduced from the absence of any reference to the appearance of a new flag in any of the German or British documents that have been studied. Of course, that omission is not conclusive evidence, but one could expect that at least some member of the besieging force would have been sufficiently impressed by the event to have noted it in some form. [17]

For what it is worth, and that is not much, Lieutenants Digbley and Anburey wrote that the new American flag was flown at Ticonderoga and Fort Anne before the siege of Fort Stanwix took place. Their testimonies in this matter can be dismissed because they compiled their accounts, partly from notes made in the field and partly from other sources, some of which were post-war, sometime after the war. [18]


On the basis of the documentary evidence, identifying the Fort Stanwix flag as the "first Stars and Stripes to fly over American troops in combat" had its origins in 19th century local tradition; it is not supported by contemporary evidence; such evidence contravenes it; and there is no conclusive evidence identifying the first instance of the flag's use in combat.

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Last Updated: 26-Dec-2008