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Grand Union (U.S.)

Historical

Last modified: 2010-11-06 by rick wyatt
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[U.S. Grand Union flag] image by Rick Wyatt, 6 September 1998


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The famed "Grand Union" flag hoisted near Washington's headquarters at Cambridge on 1 January 1776 turned out to be exactly the same as the flag that the East India Company had used ... on the other side of the world ... since 1701. The design is essentially a red ensign (minus, of course, the X of St. Patrick at that time) with the red field divided into 13 red-and-white stripes: the same pattern as the later U.S. flag, once the canton changed to "a new constellation."
William E. Dunning, 16 March 1998

While George Washington's headquarters were in Cambridge, the flag was not hoisted at his headquarters, but on nearby Prospect Hill in Somerville, so it would be prominently visible for miles around. We re-enact the flag-raising every January 1 and have a great time celebrating our proud history.
Linda Gritz, 2 January 2004


There isn't any confirming documentary evidence that the East India Company flag influenced the design of the Continental Colors in any material way. Probably some sea captains were familiar with the EIC Flag but its design was probably not of maritime origin. The best we can tell is that Washington or one of his staff came up with the design to show colonial allegiance to the crown (symbolized by the Union Jack) while maintaining the rights of the United Colonies in Congress Assembled (symbolized by the stripes).

There was no significance in the East India Company's flag having 13 stripes. If you examine the EIC records carefully, their flag was striped red and white bearing the UJ in the canton. Examples exist of the number of stripes varying from nine to 15. The evidence also suggests that 13 was not a common number of the stripes on the flag. The 9 striped version appears to be the most common and it is thought by some (but there is no contemporary evidence for this) that that number is in reply to the 9 striped dutch flag (R-W-B-R-W-B-R-W-B) commonly seen in the East Indies at the time. Also, the EIC Flag sometimes bore the St. George Cross on a white canton rather than the UJ.

Dave Martucci, 16 March 1998


The question of the EIC and Grand Union involves tying together several separate threads. There are any number of possible earlier connections that suggest some relationship to the Grand Union, and there is, in fact, some doubt about what the short-lived "Grand Union" flag really was.

The "designer" of the Grand Union may have wanted to appeal to George Washington's vanity, or he himself may have invoked a design familiar to him.

The more important precursor to the Grand Union is the Sons of Liberty/Rebellious Stripes flag adopted about the time of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. According to Dave Martucci, the Sons of Liberty flag had 9 VERTICAL stripes (although most sources represent them horizontally). This seems to have been flipped horizontally (as the "Rebellious Stripes") much later. The 9 stripes are said to represent the 9 colonies present at the 1765 Congress. Both the 9 and the 13 stripe versions are known variations of the EIC flag.

The Sons of Liberty were largely well-to-do merchants of Boston, a major harbor center of the colonial triangular trade. Even if the EIC flag was not flown by ships entering Boston (has that really been proven?), it seems inconceivable that these men were not familiar with the EIC flag. St. Helena was EIC territory, so a lot of traders confined to the Atlantic should have been familiar with it. The Sons of Liberty flag (it still exists; does anybody know the dimensions?) could easily have been the fly cut off an EIC flag. Likewise, the Grand Union flag could easily have been an EIC flag taken from any number of sources, including the Boston "Tea Party".

If the British referred to the plain striped flag as the "Rebellious Stripes", it is then perfectly logical that this flag -- of all revolutionary flags -- took on the greatest symbolic value for the revolutionaries themselves, and would be the best candidate for inspiration of the Grand Union.

This is far from my area of expertise, but I would say the jury is still out on this one, and instead of idle and uninformed speculation I would like to see the results of some solid research.

T.F. Mills, 11 July 2002


I have to disagree that no one has really looked hard at the origin of the Grand Union flag. Rather, the problem may be that they've looked only from the perspective of knowing what the modern U.S. flag looks like.

Most writings that I've seen on this subject ultimately trace back to the 19th century historian of the U.S. flag, Rear Admiral George Henry Preble. Unfortunately, Preble is carefully researched (for his time) but badly organized and sometimes internally contradictory. It is therefore easily quoted without the full context. What usually gets quoted from Preble is on pp 217-18 of the 1880 edition of his History of the Flag of the United States of America, [pre80]: "... [T]he necessity of a common national flag seems not to have been thought of, until Doctor Franklin, Mr. Lynch, and Mr. Harrison were appointed to consider the subject, and assembled at the camp at Cambridge. The result of their conference was the retention of the king's colors or union jack, representing the still-recognized sovereignty of England, but coupled to thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, emblematic of the union of the thirteen colonies against its tyranny and oppression, in place of the loyal red ensign. The new striped flag was hoisted for the first time on the 2d of January, 1776, over the camp at Cambridge." (Let us leave aside that this is *not* what this committee was appointed to address. Their assignment was to investigate the situation with the army. The journals of the Congress say nothing at this point about a flag.)

The evidence presented by Preble is unimpeachable that a new flag with stripes was hoisted over Cambridge on this date. He cites a letter by Washington himself, dated 4 January, saying that "on the 2d . . . we hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold! it was received at Boston as a token of the deep impression the [King's] speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission." An anonymous letter dated 2 January says "The grand union flag of thirteen stripes was raised on a height near Boston. The [British] regulars did not understand it; and as the king's speech had just been read, as they supposed, they thought the new flag was a token of submission." A British merchant captain writing from Boston on 17 January said: "I can see the rebels' camp very plain, whose colors, a little while ago, were entirely red; but on the receipt of the king's speech, which they burnt, they hoisted the union flag, which is here supposed to intimate the union of the provinces."

On page 219, however, Preble concedes that, from the contemporary evidence, "it will be observed that there is no mention of the color of the stripes placed on the previously red flag, or the character of its union, or other than presumptive evidence that it had a union" [canton]. The best Preble can do to back up his conclusion that the flag was as described on page 217 is to cite a statement by the 19th century historian George Bancroft describing the flag as "thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, in the field, and the united crosses of St. George and St. Andrew on a blue ground in the corner." He doesn't say where Bancroft got this information.

Now, Preble does support the existence of *a* flag such as he describes. On p. 219, he notes it as having been flown on the Continental schooner Royal Savage, part of Benedict Arnold's Lake Champlain flotilla, beginning in the summer of 1776. The evidence for this is a water color sketch found in the papers of Maj.Gen. Philip Schuyler (an officer in the Lake Champlain operation) and labeled in Schuyler's handwriting, showing the Royal Savage flying this flag. Preble concludes (pp. 219-20) that this picture "may be considered as settling what were the characteristic features of the new flag. At the head of the maintop-mast of the schooner there is a flag precisely like the one described by Bancroft, and it is the only known contemporaneous drawing of it extant." I don't think it can be considered as settling any such thing.

The problem is that there is plentiful evidence of the existence during this same time frame of similar flags used by the Continental forces with stripes *other than* red and white. Among these are one with green stripes on a red field (used by Esek Hopkins's Delaware Bay fleet) and another used by the brig Lexington in 1776 with white and blue stripes on a red field. Of Hopkins's Delaware Bay fleet, Preble (page 241) quotes a 9 February 1776 report that the ships flew "a union flag with thirteen stripes in the field," but notes (page 236) that "whether they stripes were red and white, or blue and white, or red, blue, and white alternately, seems not certain." A British report of the capture of New Providence Island (in the Bahamas), dated 13 May 1776, says only that the colors of the American naval force were "striped under the union, with thirteen stripes;" Preble concludes that this refers to the red-and-white-striped Grand Union flag, but again, the British correspondent doesn't say so. Preble himself cites evidence of white and yellow stripes (Continental brig Reprisal) in July 1776. There are also non-contemporaneous (late 18th century) recollections of other color combinations.

The next bit may be a little bit of a stretch for some people's taste, but I personally find it very interesting. In October 1778, Benjamin Franklin, by then American diplomatic representative in France, described the stripes of the American flag as being red, white, *and blue* in an official communication to the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It is not plausible that in 16 months he had not yet received word of Congress's adoption (14 June 1777) of a design consisting of red and white stripes. Now the traditional logic is that Franklin's own committee fixed the color (red and white) and number (13) of the stripes in the Grand Union flag in December 1775, and that Congress endorsed that design--substituting the white-starred union for the UJ--in June 1777. If Franklin himself had established the stripes as red and white almost three years before, what on earth would make him suddenly conclude in October 1778 that they were actually red, white, and blue? My conclusion: that the color of the stripes hadn't been definitively set in December 1775 at all.

Even without the Franklin story, I would suggest that it is far from proven that the Grand Union flag hoisted at Cambridge on 2 January 1776 consisted of 13 red and white stripes. It seems more likely that the design evolved from a red ensign (or maybe just a plain red flag) with stripes of no particular color, to one with stripes in varying combinations of red, white, and blue, and finally to one with 7 red and 6 white stripes only.

Where does that leave us on the Grand Union-EIC connection? It seems to me that *if* the Grand Union stripes were not invariably red and white but rather appeared in a number of variations, the connection with the EIC flag becomes quite dubious. In any case, there is no evidence of a connection other than the circumstantial similarity, despite the fact that the principals in the story of the design of the flag (Washington and Franklin) were both assiduous journal-keepers and letter-writers whose papers have been painstakingly assembled and preserved over the years.

By the way, I personally see little possibility that any of the three members of the committee credited with the design would have been familiar with the EIC flag, as none of them had any particular maritime connections. Thomas Lynch and Benjamin Harrison were wealthy planters from South Carolina and Virginia respectively, while Benjamin Franklin was, well, Benjamin Franklin. It's true that they may have consulted with merchant seamen from Boston on the flag design, but there is no indication they did so, and one sees little reason why they would, given the nature of their assignment. But the fact is that we just don't know.

Finally, FWIW, the suggested link between the EIC flag and the Grand Union was obviously current by the time Preble wrote, as he addresses the question, with much the same conclusion generally made today: that the similarity is an interesting coincidence, that there is no evidence to support a cause-and-effect relationship, and that the EIC flag was only one of a great many multi-striped flags in use at the time.

Joe McMillan, 25 July 2002