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  ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG WITH 20 STARS AND 13 STRIPES, PROBABLY A U.S. NAVY SMALL BOAT ENSIGN OF THE LATE CIVIL WAR ERA, MADE WHEN THERE WERE 20 FREE STATES

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 60" x 100"
Flag Size (H x L): 47.5" x 88.25"
Description....:
Stars & Stripes variant of the Civil War era, with hand-sewn stars, oriented in various directions on their vertical axis, configured in rows of 5-5-5-5.

Through much of the 19th century, particularly the second half, the U.S. Navy flew flags with low star counts on small boats. They did so to insure that the stars could be better viewed as individual objects at a distance, and also perhaps because it was easier to sew fewer stars on a small flag. Termed "small boat ensigns," more than 95% of these flags displayed a count of 13 stars. 16 and 20 star examples are occasionally encountered and other counts were probably used, such as 12, 15, and possibly 24 stars. The Navy seems to have preferred low counts where the number could be laid out easily in either a neat rectangle, when there was an even number, or staggered rows, in the case of 13 and 15 star examples. With a count such as 20 and 24, the number was so fast approaching the total number of states of 33, 34, 35, or 36 stars--all in use during the Civil War, and it seems reasonable to wonder why the full star count wasn't employed.

Officially, small boat ensigns with 13 stars first appeared in U.S. Naval Regulations of 1854. These continued to be flown until Woodrow Wilson wrote an executive order that terminated their use in 1916. Unofficially, the use of 13 stars on small scale flags may have been continuous from the 18th century onward, until that time. The examples of U.S. Navy small boat flags with star counts other than 13 are a curiosity that demands closer inspection. Many seem to date to the Civil War (1861-1865) or immediately prior. Some of those that survive with 16 stars have been identified to the 1850’s and 60’s. Because there were 16 Free States in the period between 1850 and 1858, and because the U.S. Navy spent much of its time during this era chasing slave traders, it has been theorized that flags in this star count likely reflected the number of Free States. Evidence of this survives both in actual flags of that era in the 16 star count, as well as newspaper articles, primarily in the south, which reported Northern ships displaying 16 star flags. One rare broadside, made for the 1856 presidential campaign, displays a prominent 16 star flag, flanked by the words “All North” and “No South.”

While surviving 16 star flags with probable U.S. Navy history share characteristics with pre-Civil War and early war flags, those with 20 stars display characteristics common to Stars & Stripes made during the latter part of the war. Presuming that the same concept was used in the star count, that would reflect the inclusion of Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, and West Virginia as Free States between 1858 and 1863, which brought the respective count from 16 to 20. The stars of the flag are made of cotton, hand-sewn, and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). The canton and stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting that has been pieced and joined with treadle stitching. There is a heavy canvas binding along the hoist, hand-sewn with thick cotton cord, along which there are two brass grommets, one each at the extreme top and bottom. The rectangular wool patches in the upper and lower, hoist end corners are called gussets. These were included for strength and are original to the flag’s construction. The one in the canton is applied with treadle stitching, while the one in the last stripe is hand-sewn.

The Navy generally made its own flags until the Civil War, when it suddenly found itself woefully unprepared in many ways, not least of which was flag-making. As a result, orders flew out to the local businesses to make flags. In many instances they grabbed every flag in stock, regardless of the specifics laid forth in their own regulations.* Practical decision-making to meet the demands of war was the rule of thumb with regard to military flags during the 19th century, both on land and at sea. While the specific origin of the 20 star examples is not known, what is known is that President Lincoln urged the nation not to remove the stars that represented Confederate States, because doing so would not only acknowledge secession, lending it credence, but would also fly in the face of his goal to keep the Union together. For this reason, it seems logical to suggest that 20 star flags made as small boat flags were likely commercially-made in a civilian capacity and acquired as a matter of need. The method of construction, which differs from U.S. Navy flags that I believe to be made in-house by the Navy during the same period, tends to support this theory.

Mississippi entered the Union as the 20th state on December 10th, 1817. The American flag was officially updated from 15 stars to 20 with the passage of the 3rd Flag Act, enacted by Congress on April 4th, 1818 (which also reduced from the stripe count from 15 to the original 13). Because Illinois joined the Union as the 21st state on December 3rd, 1818, and the 21st star was officially added on July 4th, 1820, the 20 star flag was in use for a period of between of just 1.5 - 2.5 years. As evidenced by other times in early America, many people would have likely either ignored or simply been unaware of Congressional law with regard to flags, and would have added a star upon Illinois’ admission.

20 star flags made in this period are extremely rare. Because the most likely use in this era would have been on ships, government buildings, and military establishments, the scale can be anticipated to be very large. At this time in early America, Garrison flags, for example, were 35 – 45 feet on the fly. The smallest flags employed on ships were generally 6 feet on the fly. Most people are surprised to learn that military ground forces were not authorized to carry the flag until 1834 (artillery), 1841 (infantry), and 1862 (cavalry). The scarcity of surviving examples is thus a function of use in this very early period, the minuscule length of the possible time frame of production, the circumstance of being outside wartime, and the scale of the flags that were likely to have been manufactured. The latter two factors would have also played a role with respect to a desire to save flags for the sake of posterity.

Because almost no examples survive from the 1818-1820 era, collectors need to look to the second half of the 19th century and the opening of the 20th to find 20 star examples that are otherwise antique. Here examples might also be encountered that were made to celebrate the addition of Mississippi as the 20th state, made for such events as World’s Fairs (1876 and after) or anniversaries of statehood. Among these, it is ironic that some of the earliest will likely exclude Mississippi from the count, rather than glorify its admission. Whatever the case may be, 20 star flags of any period are extremely scarce, and later flags will be far less likely to have hand-sewn stars, like this example. These facts, along with U.S. Navy function, a great story, and manageable scale, culminate in a very desirable example.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.

The black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian. The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas). Feel free to contact us for more details.

Condition: There is very minor staining. There is minor to modest mothing throughout, particularly in the striped field. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 20
Earliest Date of Origin: 1863
Latest Date of Origin: 1865
State/Affiliation: Mississippi
War Association: 1861-1865 Civil War
Price: SOLD
 

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