Grand Union Flag
The first flag of the colonists to have any resemblance to the present Stars and Stripes was the Grand Union Flag, also known as the Cambridge Flag, the First Navy Ensign, the Congress Flag, and the Continental Colors, is considered to be the first national flag of the United States.
This flag consisted of 13 red and white stripes with the British Union Flag of the time (prior to the inclusion of St. Patrick’s cross of Ireland) in the canton. The flag was first flown on December 3, 1775 by John Paul Jones (then a Continental Navy lieutenant) on the ship Alfred in Philadelphia.
The Alfred flag was used by the American Continental forces as a naval ensign and garrison flag in 1776 and early 1777. It is widely believed that the flag was raised by George Washington’s army on New Year’s Day 1776 at Prospect Hill in Charlestown (now part of Somerville), near his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that the flag was interpreted by British observers as a sign of surrender.
The design of the Grand Union flag is similar to the flag of the British East India Company (BEIC). Indeed, certain BEIC designs in use since 1707 (when the canton was changed from the flag of England to that of Great Britain) were identical, although the number of stripes varied from 9 to 15. That BEIC flags were potentially well known by the American colonists has been the basis of a theory of the origin of the Grand Union flag’s design.
The Flag Act of 1777 authorized as the official national flag a design similar to that of the Grand Union, with thirteen stars (representing the original thirteen United States) on a field of blue replacing the British Union flag in the canton.
Today the Grand Union flag is often included as the “first flag” in displays of United States flag history.
“The Grand Union”
Our flag — “The grand union” excerpt from a book written by Barlow Cumberland … Brookline, Mass. 1926.
MAILED AT SUGGESTION OF ROGER PRESTON. PRESIDENT, ROTARY CLUB BOSTON, MASS.
Compliments of George C. Warren 253 Kent st., Brookline, Mass 1926
1. Grand Union 1776
2. United States 1777
3. United States 1897
OUR FLAG—“THE GRAND UNION”
EXCERPT FROM A BOOK WRITTEN BY Barlow Cumberland — “History of the Union Jack” Chap. II.
“This was succeeded by a new design for the continental union flag (6), which, on 2nd January, 1776, was raised by Washington over the camp of his army at Cambridge, Massachusetts, being the occasion of its first appearance.
“This flag was called ‘The Grand Union’ (pl. III, fig. 1). It was composed of thirteen stripes of alternate white and red, one for each colony, and in the upper corner was the British Union Jack of that time having the two crosses of St. George and St. Andrew on a blue ground.
“The retention of the Union Jack in the new flag was intended to signify that the colonies retained their allegiance to Great Britain, although they were contesting the methods of government.
“The first flag then raised by Washington over the armies of the United States displayed the British Union Jack. The source from which the idea of the subsequent design arose we shall presently see.
“On 4th July, 1776, the Declaration of Independence followed, but the Grand Union continued to be used. It was not until the 14th June, 1777, or almost a year after that event that a new national flag was finally developed.
“The Congress of the United States, then meeting at Philadelphia, approved the report of a committee which had been appointed to consider the subject, and enacted, ‘That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.’ A further delay ensued, but at length this flag was officially proclaimed on Sept. 3rd, 1777, as the Union Flag of the United States (pl. III., fig. 2), and was the first national flag adopted by the authority of Congress.
“As Washington himself suggested the design, and had introduced the second, it is not improbable, and, indeed, it is recorded that he had something to do with the designing of the final one.”
Our Flag — The Grand Union Flag
A Brief History of our Grand Union Flag
We have shown that the first legislation of congress on the subject of a federal navy was in Oct., 1775, and that after that national cruisers were equipped and sent to sea on a three months’ cruise; but so far as we can learn, without any provision for a national ensign, and probably wearing the colors of the state they sailed from.
Before the close of the year, congress as we have seen had authorized a regular navy of seventeen vessels varying in force from ten to thirty-two guns, had established a general prize law in consequence of the burning of Falmouth by Mowatt, had regulated the relative rank of military and naval officers, and had established the pay of the navy and appointed Dec. 22, 1775, Esek Hopkins, commander in chief of the naval forces of the embryo republic, fixing his pay at 125 dollars a month. At the same time captains were commissioned to the Alfred, Columbus, Andrea Doria, Cabot and Providence,  and first, second and third lieutenants were appointed to each of those vessels. The Alfred was a stout merchant ship originally called the Black Prince, and commanded by J. Barry.
She arrived at Philadelphia on the 13th of Oct., and was purchased and armed by the committee. The Columbus, originally the Sally, was first purchased by the committee of safety of Pennsylvania, and ten days after sold to the naval committees of congress. The merchant names of the other ships I have been unable to ascertain.
Notwithstanding the equipping of this fleet, the necessity of a common national flag seems not to have been thought of, until Doctor Franklin, Mr. Lynch, and Mr. Harrison were appointed to consider the subject and assembled at the camp at Cambridge. The result of their conference was the retention of the King’s Colors or Union Jack representing the yet recognized sovereignty of England, but coupled to thirteen stripes alternate red and white emblematic of the union of the thirteen colonies against its tyranny and oppression, in place of the hitherto loyal red ensign.
The new striped flag was hoisted for the first time on the 1st or 2d of January, 1776, over the camp at Cambridge. Gen. Washington, writing to Joseph Reed on the 4th of January, says:
We are at length favored with the sight of his majesty’s most gracious speech breathing sentiments of tenderness and compassion for his deluded American subjects; the speech I send you (a volume of them was sent out by the Boston gentry), and farcical enough we gave great joy to them without knowing or intending it, for on that day (the 2d) which gave being to our new army; but before the proclamation came to hand we hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United Colonies. But behold it was received at 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.”
An anonymous letter, written under date Jan. 2, 1776, says:
The grand union flag of thirteen stripes was raised on a height near Boston. The regulars did not understand it, and as the king’s speech had just been read as they supposed, they thought the new flag was a token of submission.”
The captain of a British transport writing from Boston to his owners in London, Jan. 17, 1776, says,
I can see the rebels’ camp very plain, whose colors, a little while ago were entirely red; but on the receipt of the king’s speech, which they burnt, they hoisted the union flag, which is here supposed to intimate the union of the provinces.”
The British Annual Register says,
They burnt the king’s speech, and changed their colors from a plain red ground, which they had hitherto used, to a flag with thirteen stripes as a symbol of the union and number of the colonies.”
A letter from Boston in the Pennsylvania Gazette, says:
the grand union flag was raised on the 2d, in compliment to the United Colonies,”
a British lieutenant writing from Charleston Heights, Jan. 25, 1776, mentions the same fact and adds
It was saluted with thirteen guns and thirteen cheers.”
Botta, in his History of the American Revolution, derived from contemporary documents, writes thus:
The hostile speech of the king at the meeting of parliament had arrived in America, and copies of it were circulated in the camp. It was announced there also that the first petition of congress had been rejected. The whole army manifested the utmost indignation at this intelligence, the royal speech was burnt in public by the infuriated soldiers. They changed at this time, the red ground of their banners, and striped them with thirteen lists, as an emblem of their number, and the union of the colonies.”
We have here contemporary evidence enough as to the time and place when “the grand union striped flag,” was first unfurled, but it will be observed there is nowhere mention of the color of the stripes that were placed on the previously red flag, or the character of its union, or other than presumptive evidence that it had a union.
Bancroft, in his recent History of the United States, describes this flag as…
the tricolored American banner, not yet spangled with stars, but showing thirteen stripes alternate red and white in the field, and the united crosses of St. George and St. Andrew, on a blue ground in the corner;”
…but he fails to furnish his authority for this statement. Fortunately we are able to furnish corroborative evidence of his being correct. Since the publication of Bancroft’s History, Mr. Benson J. Lossing, the eminent American historian, has found among the papers of Major Gen. Philip Schuyler, and has in his possession, a water-color sketch of the Royal Savage, one of the little fleet on Lake Champlain, in the summer and winter of 1776, commanded by Benedict Arnold. This drawing is known to be the Royal Savage from its being endorsed in the hand writing of General Schuyler as Captain Wynkoop’s schooner, and Captain or rather Colonel Wynkoop is known to have commanded her at that time. There is no date on the drawing, but nevertheless it may be considered as settling what were all the characteristic features of the new flag. At the head of the main topmast of the schooner, there is a flag precisely like the one described by Bancroft, and it is the only known contemporaneous drawing of it extant. Through the kindness of Mr. Lossing I am able to give a facsimile in size, form and color from the original of this interesting drawing.  (Plate VII).
 John Adams, who was a member of the marine committee of congress, gives the following reasons for the choice of these names: “This committee soon purchased and fitted five vessels. The first was named Alfred, in honor of the founder of the greatest navy that ever existed. The second, Columbus, after the discoverer of this quarter of the globe. The third, Cabot, for the discoverer of the northern part of this continent. The fourth, Andrew Doria, in honor of the great Genoese admiral ; and the fifth, Providence, for the name of the town where she was purchased, the residence of Governor Hopkins and his brother Esek, whom we appointed the first captain.”
 Mr. Lossing informs me in his forthcoming life of Schuyler, he intends reproducing a fac simile drawing of the whole schooner.