Archive | June, 2020

The Short History of the American Flag

30 Jun

As our great nation again celebrates its birth this July 4th, this week’s blog focuses on the history of its most recognizable symbol—our flag. Where did we get our red, white, and blue color scheme from? What inspired the design? Below is a simple overview of the origins of the American flag.

It all starts with the British Red Ensign. This flag began life as a civil ensign, flown by British merchant ships. Red ensigns had been used as early as the 1600s, but upon the formal union of England and Scotland in 1707, the English flag (featuring a red and white St. George’s Cross) and the Scottish flag (featuring a blue and white St. Andrews Cross) were combined and inserted as a canton on the ensign. Queen Anne (1665-1714) of Britain proclaimed this new banner to be the official flag of the British navy and Britain’s overseas colonies. Hence, the Red Ensign was British flag flown in the thirteen colonies.

Red Ensign

During the Revolutionary War, Americans devised a wide variety of symbols to represent themselves, a large majority meant to serve a particular colony or military unit. As the Second Continental Congress operated a national government for the thirteen colonies in rebellion of the British government, overseeing both civil authority and an army and a navy, there was a growing need to develop a national flag. What became known as the “Continental Colors” came to serve the purpose. While all of the details behind its creation are not known, this flag is believed to have first flown on a warship at Philadelphia in 1775, and by 1777 had gained somewhat widespread usage as a de facto national banner among the Continental Army and Navy. The flag is essentially a Red Ensign with white stripes sewn onto the field to create thirteen alternating white and red stripes symbolizing the colonies united in rebellion.

Continental Colors

The basic design stuck as the template for the American flag, but its similarity to the British flag of the colonies led to multiple variants substituting stars in the canton as a more distinctly “American” flag. Most of these flags had thirteen stars, representing the thirteen allied colonies. There were no standard regulations on how the stars were to be arranged, however. Betsy Ross of Philadelphia is widely credited with creating the flag arranging the stars in a circle in 1776, even though documentation confirming all of the details about the design’s first appearance are debated by historians. This flag came to be very popular both at the time and in America in ensuing years as a symbol of patriotism.

Betsy Ross Flag

In the years after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, it became customary to add a new star to the canton of the flag whenever a new state was added to the union. Exactly how these stars were to be arranged remained to be officially defined. Circular or star-shaped arrangements of the stars were common until the 1890s, when placing the growing number of stars in rows became standard.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” was the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore when Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem. It is the only official U.S. flag to feature more than thirteen red and white stripes—it has fifteen, corresponding with the number of stars for the states in the union at the time.

Star Spangled Banner

A 34-star U.S. flag from 1861

1861 flag

The flag of the United States 1960-present

50 Star Flag


Review of The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, by Earl J. Hess

23 Jun

“The Union won and the Confederacy lost the Civil War largely due to what which side did, or failed to do, in the West.” (P. 307) So exclaims Earl Hess in the appropriately entitled The Civil War in the West, Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. Hess, the Stewart W. McClelland Chair in history at Lincoln Memorial University, is the author of several renowned books on the Civil War. These include subjects such as military tactics and discussion of modern warfare in the Eastern Theater with his In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat and Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee, Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign as well as a recent biography of one of the most controversial Confederate leaders with Braxton Bragg, The Most Hated Man in the Confederacy. In this recent study, Hess provides an overview of the war west of the Appalachian Mountains which provided critical to Union victory.


Hess’s narrative traces the Civil War in the West from its beginnings with Union mobilization in Illinois and Kentucky in 1861 all the way to the closing days of the war in North Carolina, when Union forces closed in on Robert E. Lee’s troops. Throughout the four years of war, Union forces took advantage of technical superiority with in the use of railroads and a steam-powered navy to penetrate the southern heartland and win numerous victories over Confederate forces. These triumphs led to Union armies grasping a tremendous advantage in morale as their solders simply thought themselves incapable of losing whereas Southern armies seemed to fight knowing they could not win. Union leadership also learned to accelerate the pace of the devastation of the war by utilizing the former slaves who flocked to their lines as laborers and eventually as soldiers. Union leaders also transformed the war by aiming their powerful war machine at not only the Confederate armies but the Southern civilian population as well.

Setting Hess’s book apart from many other overviews of the war is his emphasis on action behind the lines. Union capture of Southern territory created almost as many problems as it solved as occupied territory still had to be controlled and secured. The rise of guerilla activities caused constant headaches for Union commanders trying to stimulate Union sentiment as well as continuing to funnel troops and supplies southward for the war to continue. Hess’s emphasis on this form of warfare adds additional layers onto our understanding of the war.

The book does contain one small, albeit typical, weakness. A book on military strategy with only one map makes little sense. Whereas Hess does not get into intricate details with campaigns and battles, the inclusion of only one general overview map is disheartening and makes it difficult to follow the story he tells at times. To his credit, however, Hess does include some fascinating images and photographs of the war that these reviewers have never seen before. Many Civil War books regurgitate the same old photographs that readers have seen countless times so kudos to Hess for inserting new images for readers to view.

The Civil War in the West is a great addition to the growing body of scholarship emphasizing the centrality of the Western Theater to the outcome of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee’s army punching and counterpunching the Army of the Potomac makes for stimulating reading, but the Union Armies of the West overwhelmed Confederate forces and forced the South’s surrender. Hess believes the Confederate government never gave the priority it should have to the West, especially the Mississippi Valley, and the North took advantage of the lapse. Perhaps the most compelling proof of the importance and totality of the Union victory in the Western Theater lies in the fact that had Lee’s forces held on just a little longer, it might have been Sherman’s western army which delivered the coup de grace and not Grant.


Review of Partisans & Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, by Walter Edgar

16 Jun

South Carolina had become “a vast charnel house of butchered Tories and patriots.”  This horrific description summarizes the Palmetto State during the American Revolution.  Walter Edgar, a prominent historian of the state, builds upon this quote in his Partisans and Redcoats, The Southern Conflict that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution.  Edgar highlights the violence of the South Carolina backcountry that prevented Great Britain’s Southern Campaign from being a success.


The backcountry of South Carolina, beginning fifty miles inward from the Atlantic Coast, had a long history of frontier violence and warfare. From the Cherokee War in 1760 to the control methods of the Regulators afterwards, occupants of this region of South Carolina were in a constant state of agitation. Many of the settlers possessed Scotch-Irish backgrounds after having recently immigrated from colonies further northward or from across the Atlantic and had become accustomed to solving issues with violence. The backcountry would soon become the principal battleground upon British forces entry into the state.

Britain had high hopes for their Southern Campaign. After taking Charleston relatively easily in May of 1780, they hoped to gather scores of Loyalists from the countryside and march northward, pacifying colonies in their wake. Edgar believes British mistakes prevented their plan from achieving success. Cruel treatments of Patriots by infamous commander Banastre Tarleton and others increased hostility as well as Sir Henry Clinton’s decision to require South Carolinians to declare an oath of allegiance all led to an uprising in the backcountry that the British could not easily contain.

Edgar focuses on lesser known encounters and personalities which helped turn the tide in South Carolina. Characters such as William Hill, Edward Lacey and others joined forces with more well-known leaders as Thomas Sumter to win battles at places like Hanging Rock, Thicketty Fort and Musgrove’s Mill.  Edgar places large emphasis on Huck’s Defeat, an early victory in July 1780 which turned the tide and led to a string of partisan victories that halted British momentum. The vast majority of the book details these smaller affairs which turned the backcountry into a ferocious frontier conflict. Described as the country’s first true civil war, families waged war upon one another in gruesome fashion with many combatants switching sides several times leading to numerous hangings of men characterized as traitors to the cause. Warfare in South Carolina simply had no equal in terms of brutality.

Edgar has provided a well-written narrative that illustrates the horrors of conflict between partisans/patriots in search of independence and loyalists/tories who strive to serve their king. By focusing on lesser known, smaller clashes, the reader gets a clearer view of how the Revolution and its brutality hit close to home, with wives and mothers facing extreme danger and brother fighting brother. Edgar’s prose along with his inclusion of a helpful timeline of events, brief biographies of participants, and a glossary of terms makes Partisans & Patriots a must have for anyone seeking to better understand the Revolution in the southern colonies.


Review of Franklin: America’s “Lost State”, by Noel B. Gerson

9 Jun

The “State of Franklin,” which may be more properly described as a separatist movement, sprang up in the mountainous western reaches of what was then North Carolina in the years after the American Revolution. Its organizers aimed for nothing less than the formation of a new, sovereign state, and fully expected Franklin to become the fourteenth star on the American flag. Franklin never thrived as a political entity, though it did make a few attempts at holding elections, passing laws, and even coining its own currency in a flurry of rather haphazardly documented activity that leaves its story forever enshrouded in mystery and legend. The story of how this short-lived republic, which declared independence in 1785 but by 1789 had ceased to exist and became incorporated in the Southwest Territory (future state of Tennessee), is a fascinating chapter of American history and one I have long wanted to learn more about. Since there is in truth very little literature available on Franklin’s story, I decided to start with what had long been the standard, Noel Gerson’s Franklin: America’s “Lost State.”


The author published the volume in 1969, and for better than a half-century it was the only readily available study of Franklin. A modern treatment by Kevin T. Barksdale (The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession) appeared a decade ago and I plan to read it at some point. Whether the long run of Gerson’s book as the sole volume on Franklin was owing to there being less to say about the saga of the “lost state” than I thought or because Gerson so effectively told the story was something I wanted to decide for myself. I knew from a little quick research that Gerson was a noted writer, penning more than two dozen short books from the 1950s to the 1970s on a variety of subjects including biography, history, and historical fiction. What caliber of a historian he was I had no idea.

Franklin evidences an impressive amount of research, if for no other reason than so little had previously been written on the subject. How Gerson put together his story is unclear since it is not footnoted, but there is quite a bit of minutia in the story of legislative sessions, correspondence between political leaders, and contextual information on national events. Despite its tone—seemingly geared more towards a younger audience—the book is no lightweight story. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither is it very critical in its analysis. Gerson is unabashedly celebratory of the pioneer spirit manifested by the establishment of Franklin, and the book is full of patriotic platitudes and glossy generalizations. The separatist movement, in the estimation of Gerson, is the story of a “self-made state carved out of the wilderness almost overnight by ambitious, energetic frontiersmen.” (P. 159) It was made possible, he asserts, because “the caliber of Franklin’s newcomers was high…” and they were universally “prepared to face hardships, lacks of convenience and even personal danger.” (P. 69) Perhaps this is all true, as the legend of the sturdy pioneer is so enduring in American history owing to the fact it is based in reality, but an explanation of Franklin’s failed effort at state-making simply as an example of American freedom-fighting seems to leave much of the story untold. Some of the most vociferous leaders in the short-lived experiment, after all, went on just a year or two later to become prominent leaders in a larger and more organized new territory which became the state of Tennessee. North Carolina threatened to send out militia to put down the brewing rebellion. Even its namesake, the legendary Benjamin Franklin, stopped short of endorsing its statehood.

Gerson’s book provides a decent and entertaining introduction to Franklin’s fascinating story. It is an easy and quick read, and offers a broad overview of the outlines of a forgotten but intriguing frontier saga. But I was left with the unmistakable impression that there is quite a bit more to Franklin in its totality than Gerson offers, and I anticipate a more thorough analysis of how it came into being and why it so quickly disintegrated in Barksdale’s volume.


Review of The Shiloh Campaign, edited by Steven E. Woodworth

2 Jun

Union General Ulysses S. Grant declared that Shiloh “has been less understood, or, to state the case more accurately, more misunderstood, than any other engagement between National and Confederate forces during the entire rebellion.” That statement seems to justify the need for a Shiloh volume in the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series. Seeking to correct the imbalance of coverage of western theater battles during the Civil War as compared to those in the east as well as spark new scholarship, this series also contains books on Chickamauga and Vicksburg among others. Edited by Steven E. Woodworth, The Shiloh Campaign fulfills its goal of shedding new light on the battle as well as continuing debates on aspects of the fight that historians and history buffs have argued over for 150 years.


Like other volumes in the series, this book is a collection of essays from established and new historians.  For example, Gary Joiner discusses the role that two U.S. Navy timberclads fulfilled in defending Grant’s last line of defense and Charles Grear examines the various reactions of Confederate soldiers to the battle itself to determine if they thought Shiloh was a victory for the Confederacy or a loss.  Other articles discuss the actions of David Stuart’s Union Brigade stationed on the critical far left of the battlefield (Alexander Mendoza) and the fate of Grant’s career after the battle (Brooks Simpson).

Timothy Smith wins the prize for new scholarship that will ruffle many feathers when he places doubt on the famous “Hornet’s Nest” and its importance to the battle. Smith’s research indicates that the area’s significance is mostly due to veterans’ interpretation of the facts and not the facts themselves. But in light of stirring up other hornet’s nests (yeah, I had to go there), the volume contains three essays that question Albert S. Johnston’s leadership (John Lundberg), the unbelievably long march to the battlefield by Lew Wallace (Woodworth), and P.G.T. Beauregard’s decision to halt the action at the end of the first day of fighting (McWhiney), forever denying the Confederacy of a monumental killing stroke to the Union Army. As can be expected, none of these articles provide a definite answer to end those long-running debates.

Each essay in The Shiloh Campaign is well-written and addresses an important topic worthy of discussion.  Most books containing collections of essays feature an article or two that I do not find compelling or enjoyable which is why I usually shy away from reading them, but that is not the case with this book. Therefore, anyone interested in this significant Civil War battle should read it.