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Tennessee (U.S.)

Last modified: 2023-12-16 by rick wyatt
Keywords: tennessee | united states | star |
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[Flag of Tennessee] image by Clay Moss, 17 November 2006

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In 1818, five stars were added, representing Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee, bringing the total number of stars on the U.S. flag to 20. There were thirteen stripes representing the thirteen original colonies.

Development and Description of the Flag

The Tennessee State Flag was designed by Captain LeRoy Reeves of the Third Regiment, Tennessee Infantry. Captain Reeves explained the design of his flag as follows:

Tennessee is divided into three regions - the Tennessee River divides West Tennessee from Middle Tennessee, and East Tennessee is the area of the Smokey Mountains and east - the "Grand Divisions. The three stars are of pure white, representing the three grand divisions of the state. They are bound together by the endless circle of the blue field, the symbol being three bound together in one.... an indissoluble trinity. The large field is crimson. The final blue bar relieves the sameness of the crimson field and prevents the flag from showing too much crimson when hanging limp. The white edgings, contrast more strongly the other colors.
This flag was adopted as the official flag of the State of Tennessee by an act of the Legislature passed and approved April 17, 1905. The design of the flag was described by that act, Chapter 498 of the Public Acts of 1905, as follows:
An oblong flag or banner in length one and two thirds times its width, the large or principal field of same to be of color red, but said flag or banner ending at its free or outer end in a perpendicular bar of blue, of uniform width, running from side to side; that is to say, from top to bottom of said flag or banner, and separated from the red field by a narrow margin or stripe of white of uniform width; the width of the white stripe to be one-fifth that of the blue bar; and the total width of the bar and stripe together to be equal to one-eighth of the width of the flag.

In the center of the red field shall be a smaller circular field of blue, separated from the surrounding red field by a circular margin or stripe of white of uniform width and of the same width as the straight margin or stripe first mentioned. The breadth or diameter of the circular blue field, exclusive of the white margin, shall be equal to one-half of the width of the flag. Inside the circular blue field shall be three five-pointed stars of white distributed at equal intervals around a point in the center of the blue field and shall be of such size and arrangement that one point of each star shall approach as closely as practicable without actually touching one point of each of the other two around the center point of the field; and the two outer points of each star shall approach as nearly as practicable without actually touching the periphery of the blue field. The arrangement of the three stars shall be such that the centers of no two stars shall be in a line parallel to either the side or end of the flag, but intermediate between same; and the highest star shall be the one nearest the upper confined corner of the flag.

Three stars

Tennessee is divided into three regions by the Tennessee River - West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee - the "Grand Divisions". Those familiar with Tennessee's geography and politics have no trouble identifying the meaning of the three stars. Culturally and geologically, East, Middle, and West Tennessee are as different as any three states could be. Yet non-Tennesseans are often confused about the symbolism of the tri-star flag.

In its October 1917 issue, National Geographic magazine featured a colorful and detailed article about the flags of the world. The author of the article was apparently not familiar with Tennessee, and, rather than consulting Tennessee sources for an explanation of her flag, he seems to have invented a theory based upon the coincidence that Tennessee was the sixteenth state to be admitted to the American Union, i.e., the third after the original thirteen. The National Geographic article was so widely circulated, and the prestige of that journal so great, that this erroneous notion of Tennessee's three stars became widely accepted. As a result in 1920 John Trotwood Moore, director of the Tennessee Department of Library, Archives, and History (now the State Library and Archives), asked the flag's designer to explain the meaning of the stars. After reasserting that the stars represented the Grand Divisions of the state, Captain Reeves went on to say:

"I remember to have seen published in the past a statement the three stars were intended to represent the fact that Tennessee, which was the sixteenth state to be admitted, was the third state after the original thirteen. I had nothing of the kind in mind when I designed the flag prior to its adoption in 1905"
Ever since, every publication by the state of Tennessee on the design and meaning of the Tennessee flag has emphasized that the stars represent the Grand Divisions of the state. Yet the misinformation published in the National Geographic in 1917 continues to be republished by sources outside of Tennessee."
Stephen C. Fall, 2 December 1997

What way is up?

The three stars are all oriented with a point toward the center, but when it's right, the star at the top near the hoist has a point upright --- and when it's wrong, the star nearest the fly has a point aimed straight up.
Bill Dunning, 12 August 2003

Just look for the "nearest and dearest" star. That's the star nearest to the hoist, and being dearest you place it above all others.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 August 2003

The statutory version is as follows: "The arrangement of the three (3) stars shall be such that the centers of no two stars shall be in a line parallel to either the side or the end of the flag, but intermediate between the same; and the highest star shall be the one nearest the upper confined corner of the flag." In terms of the dial of a 12 hour clock, it seems to most nearly fit that the centerlines of the stars are in the positions of 2:30, 6:30 and 10:30.
Devereaux Cannon, 15 August 2003

State flag poem

In "The Tennessean", 24 March 2006, Stephanie Toone reported the following:

"A proposal to honor a four-line poem as the official salute to the Tennessee state flag may be nearing approval by the state legislature. The state Senate unanimously approved a bill yesterday to give official recognition to the poem, starting with "Three white stars on a field of blue/God keep them strong and ever true," penned years ago by Lucy Steele Harrison. The 28-0 vote yesterday sets the stage for a vote in the House. If it passes the larger chamber, the idea needs the governor's signature to become law.
The legislation does not intend to require students to recite the salute at school, [Senator] Black said. It's only intended to inform young people about the significance of the flag and make the salute a part of the official state Blue Book. [...]"
Ivan Sache, 9 April 2006

First state flag

"The Time-News", 20 February 2006, has an article by James Brooks entitled "Tennessee's first state flag on exhibit at ETSU museum". ETSU is the East Tennessee State University, located in Johnson City. The article reports:

"[...]The flag was first flown over the old National Guard Armory on West Market Street.[...] The exhibit is on loan from the Tennessee State Museum. It also includes two designs that didn't make the cut, including one with the number 16 for the 16th state admitted to the Union, and another with the state seal instead of the three stars.[...]"
The article gives a short biography of the flag designer, LeRoy Reeves:
"Born in Johnson City in 1876, Reeves attended Johnson City High School and studied French, German, Latin, logic and mathematics at Johnson City College and Normal Institute. He taught in public schools from 1896-98, was admitted to the bar in 1899, and practiced with his father until 1905. In 1903 he organized Company F, Third Infantry, Tennessee National Guard and was commissioned as its first captain. He was later appointed major judge advocate of the Tennessee National Guard and served in the Mexican border campaign in 1916. In 1918 he entered Officers Training School at Camp McClellan, Ala., and was commissioned a major in the Army in 1919. He served in the judge advocate general's department in Washington, retiring in 1940 as a colonel. He died in 1960 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Johnson City."
Ivan Sache, 22 February 2006

The 'two designs that didn't make the cut' are, in fact, two earlier Tennessee flags, the one with the number 16 is the flag adopted in 1897. The other 'with the state seal instead of the three stars', sis a blue flag is a blue militia colour (a reproduction, as is the 1897 flag) from the 1880s. In addition to these two earlier flags, the display includes the 1861 proposal that was never formally adopted. All three of these reproduction flags in the exhibit are from my collection, on loan to the Tennessee State Museum.
Devereaux Cannon, 25 February 2006

Tennessee Civil War Flags

A collection of state civil War flags, belonging to the State of Tennessee and published by the Tennessee State Library and Archives, can be seen at These are all Confederate flags, but it has always been my understanding that several regiments (number unspecified) were raised mostly in east Tennessee and which served in the Union Army.
Ron Lahav, 21 November 2008

Tennessee did indeed raise a number of Union regiments (more than any Confederate state) and while most came from East Tennessee, there were Middle and West Tennessee Union units as well. What became of their flags is a huge mystery as very few have been located today. West Point has most of the flags for the Nashville-raised US Quartermaster Forces regiments and a few Union guidons also exist for TN units - but the vast majority have simply been lost over time. Tennessee was overrun very early in the American Civil War and after it was over and the state came out of Reconstruction, the former Confederates got elected to many state offices from governor on down. At this time, the Unionist sentiments were pretty well squashed and I can only presume that the flags were retrieved from the state (they had been ordered to be turned in to the state in June, 1865) and taken back by the colonels or family members for safe keeping. This may be where they are today.
Greg Biggs, 22 November 2008

Governor's flag

[Governor of Tennessee] image by Clay Moss, 13 March 2009

In use since 1939. Red with the state military crest on the center (blazoned by the U.S. Army as "on a wreath of the colors, upon a mount vert a hickory tree proper charged with three mullets one and two argent") and a white star in each corner. [smi75a] Smith says this flag was unofficial as of 1975; I have no information to say whether it has been made official since then.
Joe McMillan, 27 February 2000

General Assembly flag

[General Assembly of Tennessee] image located by Dave Fowler, 7 April 2023
based on image in Wikipedia

State Military Crest

image by Joe McMillan, 21 April 2000

The state military crest, which is the crest used in the coats of arms of units of the National Guard, as granted by the precursor organizations of what is now the Army Institute of Heraldry. The official Institute of Heraldry blazon is "Upon a mount vert a hickory tree proper charged with three mullets one and two argent. [An allusion to President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, whose nickname was "Old Hickory."]"
Joe McMillan, 21 April 2000

55th Brigade - United States Service Command

image by Ray Sholar, 16 November 1999

Located in Nashville, Tennessee. All-volunteer disaster relief group serving Tennessee and the Southeast United States. Provides trained personnel to assist any relief agency or can function independently. USSC is a member of Tennessee VOAD and is a non-profit, non-governmental, non-military organization.
Ray Sholar, 16 November 1999

TN Version of CSA Statement Flag

[TN Confederate statement flag] image by Randy Young and António Martins-Tuválkin, 9 March 2018

I found a flag for Tennessee using the three-star device from the center of the Tennessee state flag to replace the central star of the official confederate naval jack. These flags became popular in the South during the debates and arguments that began in 2001 over the 1956 Georgia state flag. In each case, the 1956 Georgia flag design was adapted to one of the former Confederate states by replacing the Georgia state seal with the seal or other prominent flag emblem from one of the states. The idea behind the flags following this pattern was to show support for and solidarity with the supporters of the 1956 Georgia state flag design.
Randy Young, 22 January 2016