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Stonington Flag (U.S.)


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[Stonington flag] image by Randy Young, 2 September 2004

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I spotted this article in my hometown paper in New London, CT. There are lots of examples of private groups making U.S. Flags in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, before the process was codified.

Struggle Stirs Over 16 Stars In Stonington

Day Staff Columnist
Published on 11/27/2003

Nearly 200 years after the Battle of Stonington, when plucky local souls rose up during the War of 1812 to repel a mighty British squadron, the Battle of Stonington II may be unfolding, or, more to the point, unfurling.

This one, though, is, at this juncture, something of a one-man campaign emanating from the hills of Tennessee. The target is not the Borough of Stonington, but ragged remains of the flag that flew over the village during that long-ago naval bombardment in August 1814.

Sam Wright of Signal Mountain, Tenn., and his wife, Mary, are history buffs and intrepid antique hounds and, as it happens, sailors often on the Chesapeake Bay. One summer they sailed toward Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor and saw the flag, the fabled Star Spangled Banner, witnessed through the night by Francis Scott Key.

They were chagrined to see only 15 stars. Tennessee, their beloved state, had been admitted to the union as the 16th state in 1796. But here was this War of 1812 banner with only 15 stars.

Wright began to investigate and came away profoundly discouraged. There was no flag with 16 stars. The next flag officially sanctioned by Congress flew in 1818, with 20 stars. Tennessee's statehood was consigned to symbolic obscurity.

Last summer, though, the Wrights were up here visiting Mary Wright's sister, Sandy Atkinson, and her husband, Irv, at their summer home in West Mystic. Poking around antique shops in Stonington Borough, Sam Wright wandered into the Lighthouse Museum and stopped, stunned. There was a replica of the flag that flew over Stonington in 1814. The flag had 16 stars.

"I couldn't believe it," said Wright this week from his home in Tennessee. "I counted the stars a few times. It was just wonderful to see that."

As reported by James Tertius de Kay in his engaging book, "The Battle of Stonington," the flag "is the only American flag in existence with 16 stars and 16 stripes. Apparently the ladies of the Stonington Congregational Church sewing circle designed it some time after Tennessee entered the union, assuming that Congress would authorize an additional star and stripe for the new state. But Congress never did, and the official American flag in use throughout the War of 1812 was the 15-star and 15-stripe design authorized in 1794 ..."

The original Stonington flag, an immense 9-by-16-foot banner barely tethered together, is on display under glass in the Fleet Bank in Stonington Borough, a building owned by the Stonington Historical Society. However, 3-by-5-foot replicas, at $72 apiece, are available from the American Legion James W. Harvey Post #58 in Stonington.

Wright purchased five of the replicas and so far has sent two to soldiers from Signal Mountain serving in Iraq.

But Wright is so taken with the 16-star flag that he's pondering a pitch to have it appropriated by Tennessee as its state flag. "I'm thinking about getting hold of Senator (Christopher) Dodd and Joe Lieberman and (Senate Majority Leader) Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander and saying Tennessee really needs its flag."

James Boylan, president of the Stonington Historical Society, said the flag isn't going anywhere. There's even debate among society members as to whether the flag can be restored and displayed in a more suitably climate-controlled locale than the old bank.

But, in that legendary Stonington tradition, Boylan did not shy from battle, or, at least, a good opening salvo. "They should talk to Mr. Lieberman," he said, "who might want to carry Tennessee some day."

This is the opinion of Steven Slosberg.

© The Day Publishing Co., 2003
Joe Bondi, 8 December 2003

The town of Stonington was the place of a famous battle during the war of 1812. Quoting Wikipedia:

"During the War of 1812, four British vessels, HMS Ramillies, HMS Pactolus, HMS Dispatch, and HMS Terror, under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy, appeared offshore on August 9, 1814. The British demanded immediate surrender, but Stoningtonís citizens replied with a note that stated, "We shall defend the place to the last extremity; should it be destroyed, we shall perish in its ruins." For three days the Royal Navy pounded the town, but the only fatality was that of an elderly woman who was mortally ill. The British, after suffering many dead and wounded, sailed off on 12 August."
In "The Day", 19 October 2008, Michael Naughton reports the effort made to preserve the historic battle flag from 1814, showing a photograph of the venerable flag handled by textile conservators:
The flag is one of the town's oldest and most beloved artifacts, a sentiment that was clearly seen in the careful cleaning it underwent in the basement of the historical society's Woolworth Library.
According to the historical society, the 11-by-18-foot flag was crafted by women in the sewing circle of the Stonington Congregational Church as a standard flag for the local 8th Company of the 30th Connecticut Regiment. It consisted of 16 stars and 16 stripes, leading historians to believe it was made between 1796, when Tennessee entered the union, and 1803, when Ohio became the 17th state.
The flag was last on public display in a glass case in the Ocean Bank building, leased by this historical society and close to the battle site. Because the glass display case was not airtight, however, the flag was affected by sunlight and particles in the air from the building's old furnace.
Baker [Director of the historical society] is considering having a replica of the flag crafted, using the analysis to find similar wool, for display. She said it's difficult finding a balance between preservation and the public's affection because the flag's importance to the town."
The article also gives the timeline of the flag, as reconstructed by the historical society:
1796-1803: Women of the Stonington Congregational Church sewing circle crafted the battle flag
1814: Nailed to a staff, the flag flew over the battery where cannons drove away British warships attempting to attack Stonington borough
1814-1895: Ownership changed among multiple keepers
1895: Historical Society received flag soon after its founding
1948-49: Tattered and falling apart, the flag was found in a drawer by society members who then mailed it to a Brooklyn atelier for preservation. The flag was stitched to a linen backing, which still is holding the remaining pieces together
1953: The Ocean Bank building, near the battle site, became the location where the flag is publicly displayed
2004: Preservationists took down the flag from public display at bank and sent for detailed analysis at URI [University of Rhode Island]
2007: Flag returned to historical society
2008: Flag unfolded, dusted and rolled for storage"
- The Day, 19 October 2008

Ivan Sache, 23 October 2008