Any American school child can tell you that Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross designed and created America’s first flag. Unfortunately, like many other tales of America’s founding, it’s a legend that doesn’t have much documentation to back it up. However, we do know that on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted our first stars and stripes flag. In honor of that event, we celebrate Flag Day every June 14th.
So why the story about Betsy Ross? Just as we are romantic about the birth of our nation, so were the generations of Americans that came before us. In the years following the Revolution, people patriotically clung to rumors about founding events and artifacts. Did Washington really chop down that cherry tree? Did the Liberty Bell really ring on July 4, 1776 (Spoiler alert: no)? In the years after the revolution, descendants of Ross claimed that she made the first flag (off a sketch given to her personally from George Washington, no less!). Eventually, those rumors became part of our nation’s founding mythology.
Even if Ross didn’t make the first American flag, no object represents more of our history, our ideals, and our people than our flag. We don’t need to make up any stories about it; the Star-Spangled Banner has plenty of tales more magnificent and inspiring than any myth. In honor of Flag Day, here are just two stories about the history of Old Glory and what it’s meant to our nation.

A Widow, a Lawyer, a Brewery, and “The Star-Spangled Banner”

In July 1813, Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill received a request from the new commander at nearby Fort McHenry for an enormous 40 x 32 foot American flag to fly above the garrison. The flag’s broad stripes and bright stars were so large that the only place large enough to assemble it was the floor of the local brewery. Pickersgill, a widow, actually made two flags: this large one and a smaller, sturdier spare for inclement weather.
 
By the following fall, The War of 1812, or “The Second War for American Independence,” had seen the British set fire to Washington, D.C. British forces then moved onto nearby Baltimore, assaulting Fort McHenry on September 13, 1814. It was Pickersgill’s flag that was so gallantly streaming as the British advanced on the fort.
 
The perilous fight lasted 25 hours with the British unleashing 133 tons of shells on the fort. The bombs bursting in air shook the entire city and could be heard from as far as Philadelphia. Rain poured amidst the storm of artillery. Baltimore lawyer Francis Scott Key could see the battle transpire from a nearby truce ship where he was negotiating the release of an American prisoner of war.
 
By the dawn’s early light on September 14, the forces and city had withstood the incredible barrage with few casualties. O’er the ramparts, Key could still see Pickersgill’s Star-Spangled Banner, waving defiantly.
 
Key was so moved by the sight of the American flag that he was inspired to write what would become our young nation’s national anthem. 105 years later, it still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. 
 
We do not know what became of Mrs. Pickersgill’s smaller storm flag, but its big sister is still alive and well. Thanks to great restoration efforts by the Smithsonian, the flag has survived and can be seen on display at National Museum of American History.

The union forever

After his election in the fall of 1860, Abraham Lincoln traveled by train from his home in Illinois to Washington, D.C for his inauguration – making many publicity stops on the way. On February 22, 1861, Abraham Lincoln visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia – the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. By this point, the southern states were already in rebellion over Lincoln’s election and his campaign promises to end slavery. Several had already declared their intent to secede. Just weeks after Lincoln visited America’s birthplace, the Civil War would officially begin.

That day President-Elect Lincoln raised a flag specially made for the occasion. The flag’s 34 stars celebrated the addition of Kansas to the Union. They also reaffirmed that all of America, even her rebellious states, were still one United nation. Even after war began, the Union would not remove the stars of the Confederate states from the Red, White and Blue.

After Lincoln raised the special flag, he stood in the room where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, and vowed that he would rather be assassinated than fail the principles that our Founders set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

After the battlefield agonies of the Civil War ceased in the spring of 1865, Lincoln was true to his promise. The Union and the dreams of our Founders would live on – but Mr. Lincoln would not.

After his assassination, Lincoln’s body was returned home to Illinois by train for burial. Again, Lincoln returned to Independence Hall, where his body lay in state with the Liberty Bell and a statue of George Washington. So many came to mourn him that they had to build stairs up to the windows of the building just to have enough entrances and exits to accommodate all the visitors. Over 100,000 people flooded the city to pay their respects to the man who preserved the Union.

Let’s take this Flag Day to admire all the history our flag has seen us through – and take hope in all she’ll see in the years to come.

Caroline's background is in public policy, non-profit fundraising, and - oddly enough - park rangering. Though she once dreamed of serving America secretly in the CIA, she's grateful she's gotten to serve America publicly - both through the National Park Service and right here at ClearanceJobs.