Old Glory

Americana, Featured Article, History
on June 2, 2014

There’s just something about the sight of the stars and stripes. Whether it’s being carried into battle, draped over the casket of a fallen soldier or waved with passion during a hometown parade, the American flag rarely fails to stir emotions and inspire national pride.

Over the years, several illustrious U.S. flags not only performed their duty but ultimately came to symbolize pivotal moments in American history. Before unfurling your own flag this Flag Day, June 14, take a moment to remember some of our nation’s most celebrated emblems.

The Star-Spangled Banner

Washington, D.C.

The 200-year-old flag that inspired the song dates back to the War of 1812, when the massive flag flew triumphantly atop Baltimore’s Fort McHenry after U.S. soldiers withstood a 25-hour bombardment by British warships.

The sight inspired lawyer/author/poet Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that eventually became our national anthem. Today the weathered flag, larger than half a tennis court and viewed by millions each year, rests in a climate-controlled chamber in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “The flag is bigger than visitors expect,” says Jeff Brodie, 44, co-author of The Star- Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon. “It’s very dramatic.”

Fort Sumter Flag

Charleston, S.C.

On April 12, 1861, a U.S. flag with 33 stars arranged in a diamond shape flew above Charleston Harbor’s Fort Sumter while Confederate troops shelled the Union-held fort. The battle ignited the Civil War, and the surviving flag, now displayed at Fort Sumter National Monument, remains a powerful relic of America’s bloodiest conflict.

The Lincoln Flag

Milford, Pa.

This flag served a grisly, practical task on April 14, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln lay dying in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., after being shot in the head by assassin John Wilkes Booth. “Someone decided it wasn’t appropriate for him to be lying on the bare floor so they crumpled up the large flag that had decorated the front of his box and stuck it under his head,” says Lori Strelecki, 49, the curator of the Columns Museum for the Pike County Historical Society. Each year, some 3,000 visitors view the flag, which was donated to the PCHS in 1954 by the grandson of Ford Theater’s stage manager.

Iwo Jima Flag

Triangle, Va.

Featured in the 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, the iconic U.S. flag raised by American soldiers during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, currently displayed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, inspired the nation in the midst of global conflict and endures as a symbol of national resolve. “That photograph took off like wildfire in the psyche of the American people,” says Jennifer Jones, head of armed forces division of the National Museum of American History. “They needed to see we were turning the tide in the Pacific.”

9/11 Flag

Washington, D.C.

The U.S. flag raised by three New York City firemen over Ground Zero became a poignant symbol of America’s unwavering spirit after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001—and contributed to a season of flag-waving in communities and neighborhoods

across the nation. While the whereabouts of the Ground Zero flag now is unknown, numerous other 9/11-related flags remain, such as the 2-by-3-foot flag that workers found among the mountain of rubble from the collapsed World Trade Center. Torn and badly burned, that flag was obtained by the National Museum of American History for its collection on the 9/11 attacks and has been included in several exhibits. “We did not clean it,” Jones says. “We wanted the debris to be part of the story.”