The first day of January, not surprisingly, is full of firsts in history. In today’s world, we begin the new year by getting gym memberships and starting work on our list of New Year’s Resolutions. On January 1, 1776, George Washington’s resolution was to start a new army to finally beat back the overbearing British government.
On this cold day, George Washington had the Grand Union flag, which was a symbol for the new country they were trying to create, raised at Prospect Hill in what is now Somerville, Massachusetts.
Washington had come to Boston in the summer of 1775 to take command of the revolutionary army during what was called “The Siege of Boston” where colonists were fighting to gain control of the region. Washington was headquartered in nearby Cambridge, Mass., but Prospect Hill –being a hill– offered the opportunity to fly a flag that would be seen for miles.
The painting above of the flag raising was created by Clyde O. DeLand who painted it many years after the event– he wasn’t even born until 1872– but it shows members of Washington’s army shouting praise for the flag.
The inclusion of the British flag– otherwise known as Union Jack– in the canton or corner of the flag confused a lot of people including the British soldiers at the time, who considered the flag a sign of surrender.
King George III– now is the time to muster all of those hilarious images of Jonathan Groff playing an oblivious King George in Hamilton— had in a recent speech offered to spare any colonists that would surrender.
Our guy, George Washington, refers to King George’s surrender offer in a super cool and sarcastic letter to Joseph Reed a few days later on January 4, 1776. He says, “DEAR SIR: We are, at length, favoured with a sight of His Majesty’s most gracious speech, breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects.”
George Washington is clearly annoyed and we love him for leaving us that little nugget of sarcasm.
Later in the letter, he describes the confusion “…for, on that day, the day which gave being to the new Army, but before the proclamation came to hand, we had hoisted the Union flag, in compliment to the United Colonies. But, behold, it was received in Boston as a token of the deep impression the speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission… By this time, I presume, they begin to think it strange that we have not made a formal surrender of our lines.”
This was not a good time for George Washington. A revolution does not have a draft or a trained and well funded army to rely on. The willingness of colonists to fight under such harsh conditions ebbed and waned, and Washington was charged with trying to rally the troops under very dire circumstances.
Further in the letter, he gives insights into his situation, “Thus, for more than two months past, I have scarcely emerged from one difficulty, before I have been plunged into another. How it will end, God, in His great goodness will direct. I am thankful for his protection to this time. We are told, that we shall soon get the Army completed, but I have been told so many things, which have never come to pass, that I distrust every thing.”
Washington’s words help us to understand the tense and stressful situation the colonists were in at the time of the flag’s unveiling.
The Grand Union flag was the first to introduce the “stripes” part of the stars and stripes. It was a flag that was easily created by taking the existing British flag and sewing six white stripes over the top to create the symbol for the 13 colonies.
Historians differ on the meaning of the flag or why they would include the British flag in the canton. Was it an act or defiance or just an easy edit? No one really knows, but it took hold and eventually, the “stars” replaced Union Jack in the canton and the rest is, as they say, history!
Each year, the City of Somerville, Mass. recreates the raising of the flag on Prospect Hill where a tower has been erected. You can watch the 2019 raising of the flag on Twitter here.
Happy New Year! And best wishes for a better 2021 and an end to this pandemic. In the words of Washington, “How it will end, God, in His great goodness will direct.”