The Battle of Brandywine was an early engagement in the War of Independence fought at a time when the new nation was still trying to figure out who it was and how it should be depicted. It was barely three months earlier—on June 14, 1777—that the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, passed a resolution that gave the new American flag 13 stars and 13 bars. Though Congress did leave it up to individual flag makers how they should pattern those stars and stripes.
One of the units that fought in the battle that raged across the hills northeast of Chadds Ford was the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment, composed of soldiers from York and Cumberland counties. A week earlier, the 7th had engaged the British in Delaware at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge—although it was more a skirmish than an actual battle.
The unit of Capt. Robert Wilson carried into battle one of America’s first flags—one that looks little like today’s version. For one thing, it was red and white. And most of the flag was an unadorned ochre-red field. In the upper left corner—an area called the flag’s canton—was the design itself, 13 alternating red and white stripes with 13 fat stars, looking almost like dots.
Known today as the Brandywine Flag, it survived the battle and is currently on exhibit at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. The same Brandywine Flag, philatelists will remember, was also featured on a 33-cent stamp issued in 2000 as part of the post office’s Stars and Stripes series.
As we just finished celebrating another July 4, it’s interesting to note that the Brandywine Valley region has been integral to many historical events that featured the evolution of the American flag, from Betsy Ross to Fort McHenry, today a national park and the sight of a battle in 1812 that inspired the poem that led to the National Anthem. Many famous flag paintings have been made in this area, and folk art has featured the flag on everything from pottery to the sides of barns. “For much of our history, the flag wasn’t all that important—except in battles and on ships,” says Jeff Bridgman, a folk art and flag dealer in York who most likely has the largest collection of American flags in existence. “It wasn’t until 1942 that a Federal Flag Code was enacted,” he says.
That act laid out the official measurements and observation practices for the flag— although it’s not illegal to ignore them.
In world history, early flags were less a matter of group pride and more likely to be used in signaling or messaging over distances. Another facet of flags was to, in theory, recognize friend from foe. In a time before standard uniforms, “rallying around the flag” was a way to be sure you were on the correct side during pitched battles. Similarly, a flag on a ship showed its nationality, although novels and history are full of stories of pirates luring other ships closer under false banners.
Though the countries of Europe had already developed flags, the rise of nationalism was not yet in full flower at the time of the American Revolution. George Washington was said to have been impatient with Congress to authorize one for his troops. Until Sept. 9, 1776, when the term “United States of America” was official adopted, revolutionaries were still calling themselves “The United Colonies.”
So who made the first American flag? The truth is, we don’t really know. “It’s unlikely that Betsy Ross made the first Stars and Bars,” says Linda Eaton, senior curator emerita of textiles at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, who put together an exhibition about Ross, a professional upholsterer, a few years ago. “That story got fueled by one of her descendants after her death.”
However, it’s generally agreed that Ross did make American flags during the Revolution, and Philadelphia has remained a center for flag making up until this day. Those who enjoy flag history—and legend—can tour the Betsy Ross House, a historical landmark on Arch Street in Philadelphia.
When Washington died in 1799, people began using the flag in other ways. “Folk artists memorialized Washington in all media, especially in watercolor renderings of memorials that included monuments to his memory, as well as depictions of his tomb at Mount Vernon,” says Paul D’Ambrosio, president and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. “The largest body of work [that includes] the American flag is from the second quarter of the 19th century, roughly 1825–50. This period is known for an intense interest in forging a distinct American culture and tracking the progress of the new nation in the wake of the passing of the Revolutionary War generation.”
Today, a shopping tour of almost any large flea market will yield collectible flag-art memorabilia, old and new. According to Bridgman, there’s still a large demand for historical flags. “Most people have a purpose for wanting a flag—such as a spot picked out on the wall they have in mind—when they call me,” he says, noting that potential buyers don’t realize that most old flags—especially those from the 19th century—would cover most walls. “Flags aren’t that big today.”
In addition to folk art, the American flag has been featured in many paintings by Philadelphia and Brandywine Valley artists of the representational school. N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth have prominently featured flags in their works.
The Betsy Ross story and George Washington crossing the Delaware have always loomed large in U.S. flag lore. So has the Francis Scott Key poem written following the 1814 British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. In 1931, it officially became the national anthem. Now a national monument, the fort is normally open for tours. The fact that Key owned slaves and as a lawyer represented slave owners in court is a testament to the complicated history of the anthem and flag in America—one that often still divides the country.
“For much of our history, the flag wasn’t all that important—except in battles and on ships.” —Flag dealer Jeff Bridgman
But there is no doubt that the Stars & Stripes has served as an inspiration at many levels to many people, more than something saluted before ball games. Abstract expressionist Jasper Johns has painted many flags in his career. He’s said that the famous one he painted in 1965, simply titled “Flags,” came to him in a dream. The paintings of Johns, now 90, are the subject of a major COVID-delayed retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Sept. 28 to Feb. 13 of next year, in collaboration with the Whitney Museum in New York.
As it turns out, Johns had more to inspire his flag oeuvres than dreams. In a 1991 interview, he cited an additional inspiration for his love of painting flags. “In a Savannah, Ga., park, there’s a statue of Sgt. William Jasper. Once I was walking through this park with my father, and he said that we were named for him,” said Johns, who was named after his dad. “Whether or not that is in fact true or not, I don’t know—Sgt. Jasper lost his life raising the American flag over a fort.”