|EXTREMELY RARE 14-STAR, 13-STRIPE FLAG, LIKELY MADE DURING THE ANTEBELLUM WITH AN ABOLITIONIST MESSAGE, ENTIRELY HAND-SEWN AND WITH ENDEARING WEAR FROM OBVIOUS USE, POSSIBLY OF U.S. NAVY ORIGIN, circa 1846-1848; EXHIBITED JUNE- SEPTEMBER, 2021 AT THE MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
|Frame Size (H x L):
|45" x 83"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|34" x 69.5"
|14 star Antique American flag, entirely hand-sewn, with its stars configured in rows of 5-4-5. Both the flag’s construction, and its general appearance, reflect maritime-use flags of the mid-19th century, with an elongated format and a hoist binding configured into an open sleeve, through which a length of hemp rope was inserted, and affixed at each end with hand-stitching.
The canton and stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting. The stars are made of cotton and are single-appliquéd. This means that they were stitched to one side only, then a cut-out was made on the opposite side, and the fabric under-hemmed, so that one star could be seen on both sides of the canton. I always find single-appliquéd stars more desirable, not only because they are evidence of a more difficult level of seam work and stitching, but also because they are more visually intriguing. Both the sewing itself and stretching of the fabrics over time result in stars that can develop very irregular shapes, which is certainly the case here.
Single-appliquéd stars are often more appealing to connoisseurs of early American textiles. The two visible rows of hand-stitching that can be seen here, on the obverse (front), emphasize the stars’ hand-sewn construction, and the crude, starfish-like shapes display great folk qualities. The binding is made of either linen or hemp.
Note how the hoist end of the wool fabric was doubled over and folded back, to create a triple layer of fabric, to which the binding was applied. This provided additional strength, as well as some extra fabric for future repairs, and was rather commonplace in mid-19th century manufacture of maritime-use flags. Many flags attributed to the U.S. Navy during this general era display the same feature.
At just under 3 x 6 feet, while the flag may seem rather large by modern terms, this was a very small flag for naval use during the 19th century. From at least the mid-19th century onward, if not well before that time, the Navy maintained a practice of using lower star counts on what it would term “small boat ensigns.” These were flags made to identify smaller ships, as well as small craft that transported sailors back-and-forth to shore. While most of these displayed 13 stars, to reflect the original 13 colonies, some employed other counts that served the same general purpose—to make the stars more visible at a distance—but to at the same time send a political message. Recent research demonstrates that the other low counts may have sent a pro-northern, abolitionist message to slave traders, as well as others in support of the institution of slavery.
The most well-known and documented occurrences of the use and/or reported use of such flags occurred with counts of 16 stars. Some of these may have been simply fabrications of the facts, employed as anti-north propaganda, but whatever the case may be, news of the appearance of such flags, or the concept thereof as being supported by the North, spread from state to state.
Why would the Navy employ that count? There were 16 Free States from 1850-1858. The was a standing Navy, but this was a period between wars. So what was the Navy doing most of the time? An act of Congress, passed in 1800, made it illegal for Americans to engage in the slave trade between nations, and gave U.S. authorities the right to seize slave ships that were caught transporting slaves, and to confiscate their cargo. The "Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves," passed in 1807, took effect in 1808. So the slave trade had been illegal for a long time.
Because protecting merchant ships from pirates and policing trade consumed most of the Navy’s focus outside wartime, Navy ships spent a significant amount of their time at sea chasing slave traders, faring as far as the African coast. In 1850, the U.S.S. Perry, as part of the African Squadron, under the command of Lt. Andrew Foote, captured the slave ship Martha off the African coast of Ambriz. In 1853, the U.S.S. Constitution, the flagship of the African Squadron, under command of Commodore Isaac Mayo, went up the mouth of the Congo River to capture the slave trader H.M. Gambrill. These are just two instances that demonstrate the efforts of the U.S. Navy, far from home, pursuing northern / abolitionist goals.
Evidence of the use of 16 star flags survives not only in actual examples of that era, but in newspaper articles, that reported Northern ships displaying 16 star flags. A rare variety of broadside, produced for the 1856 presidential campaign of James Buchanan, displays a prominent 16 star flag, flanked by the words “All North” and “No South.” Verbiage on the broadside ridiculed Republican Party candidate John Fremont for his pro-Union, anti-slavery position, excluding the rights of the Southern States, caring only for those in the North. The 16 star meaning was repeated in newspapers throughout America, from Maine to California, the latter being the state that, added to the Union in 1850 as a Free State, tipped the scales on the balance of votes in Congress to 16 Free States versus 15 Slave States. With the potential of no further territories allowing slavery upon admission as states, the lobbing power of slaveholders was trumped. This led to actual fistfights on the congressional floor.
Given this information, it stands to reason that other low star counts, in flags with construction that dates to the appropriate, corresponding period, may likely have been employed to send the same message. One notable star count that I believe to be present on early flags that seem to be of U.S. Navy manufacture, is 12. This number is present on both surviving examples, as well as images thereof, in flags that long puzzled me by having traits that were clearly pre-Civil War. Some of these I knew to be significantly so, and at the same time, were post-18th century. Since we never had 12 states, what were they? A matter of visual intent only, so the stars could be seen as individual objects at a distance on a small flag? Why not use 13 stars, which we have made as a nation from the 18th century to the present?
One notable example of a 12 star flags that I owned was almost certainly circa 1820’s or 30’s. Suddenly this made sense, illustrating what was undoubtedly the hottest issue in the nation at the time. The addition of both Maine and Missouri in 1820 and 1821, were part of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, newly passed, which required the addition of a Slave State for each Free State, and vice-versa, to balance power in Congress, yet disallowed future slavery altogether above the Mason-Dixon. This kept the number of Free States at 12 for approximately 17 years. When California gained statehood, in 1850, and all hell broke loose in North-South relations and the matter once again became a hotbed of contention. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—the most significant piece of related legislation since 1820—repealed the Missouri Compromise and instituted new measures, the sum of which, in the end, did little more than place a small Band-Aid on a wound that had long required extensive surgery and stitches.
Like the 12 star examples that I believe date to the 1820’s and 30’s, the 14 star flag that is the subject of this narrative displays traits that are pre-Civil War, and yet post-18th century. Latter-1820’s to 1840’s was a likely period of origin. Because we had 14 Free States following the 1846 addition of Iowa, until the 1848 addition of Wisconsin, this presented a very likely reason for the star count, especially in a flag with maritime and U.S. Navy traits.
Flags made prior to the Civil War are extremely rare, comprising less than one percent of 19th century flags that have survived into the 21st century. Prior to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the Stars & Stripes was simply not used for most of the same purposes we employ it in today. Private individuals did not typically display the flag on their yards or porches. Parade flags didn't often fly from carriages and horses. Places of business rarely hung flags in their windows. Private use of the national flag rose swiftly during the patriotism that accompanied the Civil War, then exploded in 1876 during the centennial of American independence.
Even the military did not use the flag in a manner that most people might think. The primary purpose before the Civil War was to mark ships on the open seas. While flags were used to mark garrisons, those of ground troops were often limited to the flag of their own regiment, with a design peculiar unto itself, and perhaps a standard that featured the numeric designation on a painted or embroidered streamer, on a solid buff yellow or blue ground. Most people are surprised to learn that ground forces were not authorized to carry the Stars & Stripes until it was assigned to artillery regiments in 1834. Infantry was afforded the privilege in 1841, just prior to the Mexican War (1846-1848), while cavalry regiments were not issued their iconic, swallowtail, Stars & Stripes format guidons until the second year of the Civil War, in 1862, and even then were not formally authorized to carry the national flag until long afterward, in the 1890’s.
Vermont became the 14th state on March 4th, 1791. Though there is a possibility that the production of a 14 star flag might be appropriate for a celebration to commemorate Vermont statehood, say for the 50th anniversary thereof, in 1841, it does not seem that there were massive celebrations for state semicentennials. This sort of purpose is far more likely at a 100-year anniversary, or for a state’s participation in World’s Fairs and similar events where history or state pride was a focus.
No 14 star flags are known that actually date to the period in which there were 14 states (1791-92). This would have been an unofficial star count, accurate until the addition of Kentucky a bit more than a year later, on June 1st, 1792. The American national flag did not officially change until after the second flag act was passed by Congress, in 1795, that became official in 1796, raising both the star and stripe counts from 13 to 15, to reflect the addition of the two new states. In light of the theory of that time, to add stripes as well as stars, a period 14 star flag should probably display 14 stripes.
Due to the lack of 14 star flags in any early period, as well as to the pre-Civil war date, the likelihood of an interesting, abolitionist intent, and U.S. Navy function, this is a fantastic example of the period. When these traits are augmented by the flag’s spectacular graphic features, with whimsical stars pointing in all directions, and then endearing loss from obvious extended use, the result is a flag that is worthy of any great collection.
Provenance: A note that accompanied the flag stated that the flag was carried during the Civil War, where it was picked up from a fallen soldier during the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), by John Nichols of Michigan, a wounded soldier, who lay nearby through the night, clutching it tightly. It is possible that such a flag, even if made for maritime use, was somehow passed on to a militia unit—perhaps for safe-keeping—then carried off to war for posterity, now at a significant time after its making. If that is true, I do not have any information to support the claim, beyond the note. The flag certainly shows the sort of losses I would expect, and the size would have been small enough to hand-carry. It even seems to show evidence of irregular projectiles having passed through it—maybe shells or shrapnel. Unfortunately, while there were 12 me by the name of John Nichols, from Michigan, plus one listed as simply J. Nichols, none were at Gettysburg. Due to clerical errors and misspellings, and other irregularities, it's not completely out of the realm of possibility that there was such a person and that the facts are true. My conclusion is, however, that the history was simply some sort of family myth, that possibly got attached to the wrong person, or the wrong flag, or was completely fabricated by an over-zealous storyteller. All of that notwithstanding, the information does amount to a bit of fun folklore that should remain with the textile to be proven or disproven should more information become available.
Provenance: Exhibited from June 12th – September 6th, 2021 at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in an exhibit entitled “Flags & Founding Documents.” The flag portion of this, curated by Jeff Bridgman, featured 43 flags that span American history as we progressed from 13 to 50 stars, with a particular focus on not only flags that display the anticipated and/or actual addition of states, but the subtraction of both Union and Slave States during the Antebellum and the Civil War periods.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, 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. A deep shadowbox was created to accommodate the knotted rope hoist. The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas). Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: Full report to follow. Please inquire.
|Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
|Earliest Date of Origin:
|Latest Date of Origin:
|1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
|Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281