Category Archives: War of 1812

Waving the Vexillologists’ Banner


The first step on the path to recovery is admitting that you suffer from vexillology. Let’s say it together, “I am a vexillogist.” Great. Now that we have that out of the way, we can begin to examine this illness along with the diagnosis – treatment relationship.

By now, I am sure that you’ve already sought the definition of the term and know that vexillology is neither a medical or psychological condition requiring any sort of treatment. Many of you would hardly fancy yourselves as vexillologists, yet you do have interest in the subject matter. For me, I only dabble and have a specific, myopic interest as it pertains to my own militaria focus. For those of you who decided to forgo your own online search (knowing that I would eventually get to it), Merriam-Webster defines vexillology very simply as, “the study of flags.” I’ll leave the etymology of the (relatively new) term for you hardcore folks.

My post today really isn’t about the study of flags per se, but it does play into what I want to share with you. Learning where to turn for sound research and trusted sources is highly important to verifying details as to the authenticity of a flag: the maker, when it was made, who it was made for, et cetera.

Flags play a significant role in militaria collecting. While creating a display with period-correct items, collectors may seek a flag that would provide an appropriate accent or aesthetic value. For a World War II display, the requisite 48-star flag would be fairly easy to source. Or, perhaps a captured German or Japanese flag would be fitting? Acquiring flags that look correct is one thing but buying the real thing requires due diligence and still might not guarantee an authentic flag purchase.

A beautiful example of a WWII Pacific Theater submarine battle flag from the USS Blackfin (SS-322) (source: Naval Historic & Heritage Command).

A beautiful example of a WWII Pacific Theater submarine battle flag from the USS Blackfin (SS-322) (source: Naval Historic & Heritage Command).

Perhaps the ultimate American vexillological artifact is the subject of a bicentennial celebration that took place just a few years ago. More than two hundred  years have passed since the last national conflict with Great Britain concluded– which is also the last time a foreign enemy invaded the home front (not counting the Confederate northward invasion of 1863) – and there are celebrations and recognition events that took place throughout the United States. The most significant flag of the United States, The Star Spangled Banner, whose popularity stems from the Francis Scott Key poem of the same name, was also recognized during these bicentennial celebrations (the Battle of Baltimore and the shelling of Fort McHenry occurred September 5-7, 1814).

Documenting the Star Spangled Banner: Because of its size and the confined space of the lab, the flag could not be photographed as a whole. This is a composite of seventy-three separate images (source: Smithsonian Institute).

Documenting the Star Spangled Banner: Because of its size and the confined space of the lab, the flag could not be photographed as a whole. This is a composite of seventy-three separate images (source: Smithsonian Institute).

Canvas Bag - the Armistead family kept the Star-Spangled Banner in this large canvas bag (source: Smithsonian institute).

Canvas Bag – the Armistead family kept the Star-Spangled Banner in this large canvas bag (source: Smithsonian institute).

The commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead anticipated a British attack and desired to have an enormous American flag flown over the fort. The renowned flag maker, Mary Pickersgill, was contracted to construct the garrison flag that measured 30 by 42 feet. Pickersgill and her assistants spent seven weeks constructing the flag (along with a smaller, inclement weather or storm flag that measured 17’ x 25’). In the years following the battle, Armistead’s family kept the flag, passing it down two generations. 90 years after the Ft. McHenry bombardment, Key’s poem had gained incredible popularity and the legend of the flag blossomed. Armistead’s grandson, Eben Appleton, released the flag for public display during Baltimore’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1880. The flag then remained in locked storage (in a New York safe deposit box) as deterioration had become an issue. By 1912, the flag was permanently donated to the Smithsonian Institution by Appleton with the directive that it be forever viewable by the American public. The provenance for this flag is traceable and verifiable over the course of the last 198 years, making it truly priceless.

In my collection, I have some significant flags that have more personal historical importance. I served aboard the Navy’s newest (at the time) cruiser, the first of its kind to serve in the Pacific Fleet. I was assigned to the ship 10 months prior to her commissioning. Because of the significant period of time spent with the ship as she was being completed, I developed quite a fondness for her and her legacy (three previous naval warships proudly carried the name). I suppose that my desire for the preservation of history was nurtured in these early years, prompting me to save a number of disposable artifacts.

I have yet to actively pursue any flag purchases, however during that time aboard my ship, five vexillological artifacts found their way into my collection. The most significant (to me, at least) was my ship’s very first commissioning pennant and the acquisition was a matter of happenstance.

During our transit to our home port from Mississippi (where the ship was built and commissioned) a few weeks after the ship was placed into service, I found myself coming off a 4-8am watch, making my way back to the signal bridge to catch up with one of my friends who was a signalman. He was in the process of swapping out the grungy, grimy commissioning pennant with a brand new one, prompting me to ask if I could have it. My shipmate confirmed that the grayed and soiled pennant had flown since the commissioning ceremony and that it was destined for the shredder before I rescued it.

In addition to the pennant, I also have a standard (daily) ensign and union jack set that flew on the ship while in port in 1987. The other two flags were from the captain’s gig (ensign and jack), obtained when I was part of the boat crew serving as the rescue swimmer.

This standard navy Ensign flew over the USS Vincennes CG-49 during the 1988 deployment in the Persian Gulf. The fly is tattered from the winds and there is some soiling from the stack gasses (exhaust) from the ship's gas turbine propulsion.

This standard navy ensign’s  fly is tattered from the winds and there is some soiling from the stack gasses (exhaust) from the ship’s gas turbine propulsion.

A few years ago, an auction listing for a standard naval ensign that was described as having flown over the USS Vincennes (CG-49) during her 1988 deployment to the Persian Gulf. My interest piqued (mostly fueled by skepticism as to the authenticity of the flag and the credibility of the seller) I placed a watch on the auction. Since I served aboard the ship during that time, I contacted the seller to ascertain details that would prove (or disprove) the veracity of the seller’s description. The seller responded that he was a commissioned officer who had served as the ship’s navigator. This officer departed the ship just prior to the conclusion to our time in the region and was presented the flag by the chief signalman as a memento of the trying deployment and his time serving aboard the ship. A few days later, the auction closed and my bid was one of only three. I was very proud to have the flag along the accompanying provenance from the officer (in a printed email) to add to my collection.

I obtained this flag from the ship's navigator a few years ago. The flag was presented to him by the chief signalman upon detaching from the ship, bound for a new command.

I obtained this flag from the CG-49’s former navigator a few years ago. The flag was presented to him by the chief signalman upon detaching from the ship, bound for a new command.

The ship was decommissioned a few years ago and subsequently scrapped, making these flags even more significant in my collection. As of yet, I have not affixed any documentation or description to provide provenance to the flags and pennants. If something should happen to me, these flags become nothing more than nice examples of naval flags. With the Star Spangled Banner, the flag was kept in a bag that possessed the documented provenance along with the narrative that was passed down from one generation to the next.

Flag Collecting Resources/References