Old Glory: The American Flag’s Most Iconic Moments

Buzz Aldrin salutes the first American flag erected on the Moon, July 21, 1969

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Buzz Aldrin salutes the first American flag erected on the Moon, July 21, 1969
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Flag Facts Unfurled

The long and storied history of the American flag dates back to the Revolution. Its appearance and arrangements have changed many times, and it could change again if Puerto Rico is granted statehood. But its symbolic importance has not changed. On this year's Flag Day, here’s a look at the defining moments of Old Glory, the star-spangled banner that symbolizes America as a country and a concept with red representing hardiness and valor, white representing purity and innocence, and blue standing for vigilance, perseverance and justice. (Looking for more history and nostalgia? Check out these 30 Historic Schoolhouses Across America.)

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Grand Union Flag
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Washington Flies the Grand Union Flag

On New Year’s Day 1776, the Continental Army was placed under the command of Gen. George Washington, who used the force to lay siege to British-occupied Boston. Washington ordered the Grand Union flag to fly above his base at Prospect Hill in Massachusetts. The flag featured the British Union Jack in the upper-left corner — called the canton — with 13 alternating red and white stripes.

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Betsy Ross Sews the First Flag — Maybe
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Betsy Ross Sews the First Flag — Maybe

It’s largely considered common knowledge that Betsy Ross sewed the first American Flag in 1776 at the request of George Washington. She wasn’t credited with crafting the original Old Glory, however, until nearly a century later in 1870. The problem is there’s no evidence that this actually happened and some historians argue that the entire episode is mythology.

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Betsy Ross Flag (13 Star Flag)
Betsy Ross Flag (13 Star Flag) by Cliff (CC BY)

Congress Passes the Flag Act

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the Flag Act— the date would later become Flag Day. It stipulated that “the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

15 star/15 stripe US flag

The Act of January 13, 1794

Signaling the first of several official adjustments to the flag’s design, this congressional act changed the number of stars and stripes from 13 to 15 to reflect the admission of Kentucky and Vermont to the Union. Adding both a star and a stripe for every new state, however, would soon prove to be an untenable strategy.

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The Bennington Flag Emerges

The beautiful and historic Bennington Flag features 13 stars, 13 stripes, and the number “76” in the canton, which represents the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Although it’s certain that the original was passed down by the Fillmore family — it’s sometimes called the Fillmore Flag — the story of the flag is steeped in mythology. Some believe it was waved by Nathaniel Fillmore at the Battle of Bennington. Others have argued that it was crafted much later. Either way, it remains an American icon. 

Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon at Derna
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Marines Fly the Flag on the Barbary Coast

The 19th century opened with the First Barbary War, which was the coming-of-age battle for an expeditionary force known as the United States Marine Corps. In 1805, the war on the North African Barbary Coast came to a close when the Marines won the Battle of Derna in Libya. It was the first land battle the U.S. won on foreign soil, and when the dust settled, the American flag flew over a captured overseas enemy city for the first time in history. The phrase “the shores of Tripoli” in the "Marine’s Hymn" memorializes the moment.

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An artist's rendering of the battle at Fort McHenry
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The Battle of Baltimore Inspires an Anthem

The British burned the White House in the early phases of the War of 1812, which would prove to be America’s second war of independence. On Sept. 14, 1814, American defenders withstood a crushing British naval bombardment at the Battle of Baltimore, a decisive victory that served as a turning point in the war. After surviving the assault, the Americans hoisted the flag above Fort McHenry. An American poet and attorney named Francis Scott Key, who had been helping to negotiate a prisoner release, witnessed the moment and was inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Flag of 1818 (20 Star Flag)
Flag of 1818 (20 Star Flag) by Cliff (CC BY)

The Act of April 4, 1818

President James Monroe signed the Act of April 4, 1818, which dictated how the flag would be altered when new states were admitted to the Union. By that time, there were 20 states, and the new rules determined that a star would be added for each new state, but that the number of stripes would be held to 13 to honor the original colonies.

The Presidential Booth of Ford's Theatre
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Lincoln Assassinated in a Flag-Draped Theater Box

In 2001, a flag with incredible historical significance was found in the basement of a museum. It was one of the five flags that decorated the box in Ford’s Theatre that was occupied by President Abraham Lincoln and his wife when he was assassinated in 1865. That night, his box was adorned with three American flags and two Treasury Guard flags.

Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders
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Battle of San Juan Hill Flag Raising

A famous photograph of American soldiers hoisting a flag above San Juan Hill is one of the most iconic images of the Spanish-American War. Theodore Roosevelt and his famous Rough Riders won the day in Cuba, although an African-American unit led by Capt. “Black Jack” Pershing was instrumental in the victory even though their efforts received less notoriety.

Peary's sledge party at what they claimed was the North Pole, 1909
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Flag Raised at the North Pole

On April 7, 1909, Robert Peary’s North Pole expedition did the impossible when they reached the top of the planet. Upon arriving at the North Pole, Peary and his crew hoisted flags to celebrate their arrival to the place on Earth where all time zones converge in the hostile Arctic Ocean more than 400 miles from land. The frozen mission cost Peary several toes.

Construction sheet for the 1912 (48-star) Flag of the United States
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Taft Signs a New Executive Order

The number of stars and stripes on the flag had been determined for nearly a century by 1912, but their order and proportions had not. On June 24 that year, President Taft signed an executive order that finally established uniformity. The stars would be arranged in six horizontal rows with a single point of each facing upward.

140th U.S. Flag Day poster. 1777-1917
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President Wilson Proclaims Flag Day

Flag Day falls on June 14. It is not an official holiday, but every president has honored its observance since 1916. That year, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Flag Day proclamation. In 1949, Congress issued an official statute recognizing the date, which is the anniversary of June 14, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress first adopted the American flag by official resolution.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal.
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Flag Raising at Iwo Jima

From the Rough Riders in Cuba to the Peary crew on the North Pole, the American flag takes center stage in some of the most iconic photographs in U.S. history. The most iconic of them all, however, is likely the image of six U.S. Marines raising the flag over Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Flag at half mast
Tim Brown/istockphoto

Eisenhower Issues Half Staff Proclamation

Flying a flag at half staff has long been a symbol of mourning, but prior to 1954, there were no consistent standards on when, how, and why to lower the flag. On March 1 of that year, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation that cemented the rules for flying the flag at half staff in the event of deaths of people like Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, and the president and vice president.

Jasper Johns ‘Three Flags’ Print

Jasper Johns Paints ‘Three Flags’

The great American artist Jasper Johns is famous for his depiction of items dealing with Americana, most notably the American flag. In 1954, he began painting what would become his defining work. “Three Flags,” which features a trio of flags inset upon each other, is known as one of Johns’ greatest accomplishments and one of the most important works of art in American history.

49-star Flag 4-cent 1959 issue U.S. stamp.
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President Eisenhower Issues Executive Order

On Jan. 3, 1959, President Eisenhower issued an executive order that once again changed the way the images on the flag would be arranged after the admission of Alaska as a state. The order negated Taft’s earlier order and determined that the stars would be arranged not in six rows, but seven. Each row would contain seven stars, and they were to be staggered vertically and horizontally.

Lavish Vacations
Art Wager/istockphoto

Executive Order of President Eisenhower, Aug. 21, 1959

Later that same year on Aug. 21, Eisenhower once again issued an executive order that changed the arrangement of the images on the flag to mark the addition of Hawaii as a state. This time, he ordered that the stars would be arranged in nine rows, which were to be staggered horizontally, and 11 columns staggered vertically.

The remains of President Kennedy lying in state in the United States Capitol Rotunda on November 24, 1963
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JFK Jr. Salutes His Father

Following his assassination in 1963, the body of President John F. Kennedy was paraded toward St. Matthew’s Cathedral following his funeral Mass in Washington. As the motorcade passed Kennedy’s grieving family, photographer Dan Farrell captured a moment that embodied the sadness of a grieving nation. The famous picture depicts the moment Kennedy’s tiny son John Kennedy Jr. saluted his father’s flag-draped coffin.

American Flag in snow

The Flag Reaches the Summit of Mount Everest

On May 1, 1963, mountaineer Jim Whittaker became the first American to scale the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet. He and his Sherpa guide battled 50 mph winds and temperatures of 35 below zero. Upon reaching the summit, he planted the American flag in the snow-packed peak.

Selma to Montgomery March
National Park Service

Flags Snatched From Civil Rights Marchers

Organizers, marchers, and protesters used American flags as symbolic imagery during the Civil Rights movement — they represented a country in which millions of Americans were doomed to lives as second-class citizens simply for being born with dark skin. In rally after rally, news cameras broadcast images of police officers roughly snatching tiny hand-held flags from marchers. The excuse was that the wooden sticks those flags were fixed to could be used as weapons.

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Flag on the Moon
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Flag Planted on the Moon

The American flag had been to the top of Mount Everest, to the North Pole, and to the Barbary Coast, but in 1969, it traveled farther than any flag had traveled before. On July 20 of that year, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the surface of the moon.

Springsteen Releases ‘Born in the USA’

Springsteen Releases ‘Born in the USA’

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen released his seminal album “Born in the USA,” which would go on to become an anthem for working-class America. Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz staged and snapped the album’s cover photo. The iconic image features Springsteen’s backside in torn blue jeans with a red baseball cap tucked into the back pocket. In the background are the red and white stripes of the American flag.

American Flag

World’s Largest Flag Unveiled

The world’s largest American flag was unveiled on Flag Day, 1992. The Guinness World Record holder known as the Superflag stands 225 feet tall and measures 505 feet wide. Stitched together in Pennsylvania, it weighs 3,000 pounds and cost $80,000 to make. It’s a common sight at sporting events and military commemorations.

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Flag Raised on 9/11

Many searing images came out of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. One, however, came to symbolize the catastrophe as a whole. In the wake of the attacks, three New York City firefighters hoisted a flag above the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center in an act of both defiance and solidarity. It remains one of the most iconic images in American history.

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Washington, D.C.

The Future: One More Star?

If Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C., are ever granted statehood, that means Old Glory will gain a shiny new star. But if you're having trouble wrapping your brain around what a 51-star flag would look like, don't worry. The design has most likely been set ever since the early '60s, just after Hawaii became the last state added to the union in 1959, according to Marketplace. One thing is for certain: Flag makers could see a nice bump in business as we all scramble to get the newest version.