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(Hugh Talman / NMAH, SI)

How the Flag Came to be Called Old Glory

New research may settle a family feud over the origins of an American icon

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A tale of fidelity, family feud and argument over ownership is the subject of a new inquiry by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Old Glory, the weather-beaten 17- by 10-foot banner that has long been a primary NMAH artifact, is second only to Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner as a patriotic symbol, and is the source of the term now applied generically to all American flags. “It represents success, righteousness, sovereignty,” says museum director John Gray, but also a conflict that is still “deeply contested in our souls.”

From This Story

During the Civil War, no flag became a more popular symbol of Union loyalty than the worn and imperiled standard belonging to 19th-century sea captain William Driver, who was originally from Salem, Massachusetts. His defiant flying of it—from his Nashville, Tennessee, household during the midst of the conflict— made national news.

Civil War-era citizens felt so passionately about flags that after the surrender of Fort Sumter, the garrison ensign toured the country for the duration of the war. The poet and hospital attendant Walt Whitman lamented the amount of blood spent to retain a simple, four-cornered regimental rag. “I have a little flag....It was taken by the Secesh [secessionists] in a cavalry fight, and rescued by our men in a bloody little skirmish,” Whitman wrote. “It cost three men’s lives, just to get one little flag, four by three.”

The flag was originally designed to unfurl grandly from a ship’s mast. Driver received the homemade flag with 24 stars in 1824, sewn for him by his mother and a group of young Salem female admirers to celebrate his appointment, at the age of just 21, as a master mariner and commander of his own ship, the Charles Doggett. According to legend, when Driver raised the flag up the main mast, he lifted his hat and declaimed, “My ship, my country, and my flag, Old Glory.” However, Salem historian Bonnie Hurd Smith has found “no evidence whatsoever” that Driver made such a stiffly grandiose pronouncement. He more likely named the flag when reflecting on his adventurous 20-year career as an American merchant seaman who sailed to China, India, Gibraltar and throughout the South Pacific, at one point ferrying survivors of the HMS Bounty from Tahiti to Pitcairn Island under the flag.

“It has ever been my staunch companion and protection,” he wrote. “Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?”

A portrait of Driver as a young captain shows a dashing man with black sideburns, a confident smile and a frothy white shirt. He made profits in the tortoise-shell trade, and could converse a bit in Fijian. Family memoirs tell stories of him seizing the wheel of his ship himself in gales, and facing down a hostile tribal chief in New Zealand with a pistol in hand and a dirk in his mouth.

“The flag embodied America as he knew it at that point, going across the world,” says NMAH curator Jennifer Locke Jones. “He carried it with him and it was the pride of this independent free spirit. He was taking a bit of America to uncharted territories and he felt very proud that this was the symbol he flew under. He took a piece of his home with him wherever he went.”

In 1837, Driver gave up seafaring after his wife, Martha Silsbee Babbage, died from throat cancer, leaving him with three young children. Driver decided to settle in Nashville, where his three brothers had opened a store. Only 34 years old, he quickly remarried the next year, choosing a Southern girl less than half his age, Sarah Jane Parks, and started a second family that grew to nine children.

Driver flew his flag on holidays “rain or shine,” according to one of his Nashville-born daughters, Mary Jane Roland. It was so large that he attached it to a rope from his attic window and stretched it on a pulley across the street to secure it to a locust tree. In 1860, according to Roland, he and his wife and daughters repaired it, sewing on the additional ten stars, and Driver himself appliquéd a small white anchor in the lower right corner to signify his career.

But as secession neared, Driver’s flag became a source of contention, and by the outbreak of the war, Driver’s own family was bitterly riven. Two of his sons were fervent Confederates and enlisted in local regiments; one of them would later die of his wounds at the Battle of Perryville. One can only imagine the tensions between the Salem-born and Nashville-born Drivers, whose relations may have already been strained by first- and second-family rivalry.

In March 1862, Driver wrote despairingly, “Two sons in the army of the South! My entire house estranged...and when I come home...no one to soothe me.”

Local Confederates attempted to seize Old Glory soon after Tennessee seceded. When Gov. Isham G. Harris sent a committee to Driver’s house to demand the flag, Driver met the men at the door. Picture a defiant 58-year-old with a chest still barrel-full and an out-thrust chin. “Gentlemen...if you are looking for stolen property in my house, produce your search-warrant,” he declared. Cowed, the committee left the premises.

Unsatisfied, local guerrillas made another attempt to seize the flag. When an armed squad arrived on Driver’s front porch, he stalked out to confront them. “If you want my flag you’ll have to take it over my dead body,” he threatened. They retreated.

Driver, by now convinced that the flag was in imminent danger, decided to hide it. With the help of the more loyal women in a neighboring household, it was sewn into a coverlet. It remained there until late February 1862, when Nashville became the first Southern capital to fall.

Union troops led by the Sixth Ohio entered the city. When Driver saw the Stars and Stripes and regimental colors of the Sixth Ohio go up the flagstaff of the capitol, he made his way there and sought out the Union commander, Gen. William “Bull” Nelson. As Nelson’s aide Horace Fisher recalled it, “A stout, middle-aged man, with hair well shot with gray, short in stature, broad in shoulder, and with a roll in his gait, came forward and asked, ‘Who is the General in command? I wish to see him.’” Driver introduced himself as a former sea captain and loyal Unionist and then produced his coverlet.

Fisher recalled: “Capt. Driver—an honest-looking, blunt-speaking man, was evidently a character; he carried on his arm a calico-covered bedquilt; and, when satisfied that Gen. Nelson was the officer in command, he pulled out his jack-knife and began to rip open the bedquilt without another word. We were puzzled to think what his conduct meant.”

Finally, Fisher added, “the bedquilt was safely delivered of a large American flag, which he handed to Gen. Nelson, saying, ‘This is the flag I hope to see hoisted on that flagstaff in place of the [damned] Confederate flag set there by that [damned] rebel governor, Isham G. Harris. I have had hard work to save it; my house has been searched for it more than once.’ He spoke triumphantly, with tears in his eyes.”

General Nelson accepted the flag and ordered it run up on the statehouse flagstaff. Roland claimed to have witnessed what happened next: It was greeted with “frantic cheering and uproarious demonstrations by soldiers,” many of them from the Sixth Ohio. The regiment would adopt “Old Glory” as its motto.

The confusion over flags began later that night, when a storm threatened to tear the banner to pieces. Driver apparently replaced it with a newer, stronger one, and once again stowed Old Glory away for safekeeping. There were also reports that Driver gave a flag to the Sixth Ohio as it left the city. According to Roland, however, the main flag remained stored in the Driver home until December 1864 and the second battle for Nashville.

Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood fought his army to bits trying to retake the city. As the battle raged, Driver hung his flag out of the third-story window “in plain sight,” according to Roland. He then went to join the defense of the city, telling his household before he left, “If Old Glory is not in sight, I’ll blow the house out of sight too.” Driver spent the rest of the war as a provost marshal of Nashville and worked in hospitals. According to Roland, several years before his death, he gave her the flag as a gift, on July 10, 1873. “This is my old ship flag Old Glory,” he told her. “I love it as a mother loves her child; take it and cherish it as I have always cherished it; for it has been my steadfast friend and protector in all parts of the world—savage, heathen and civilized.”

***

William Driver died on March 3, 1886, and was buried in Nashville. That same year saw the genesis of the family feud over the flag when his niece, Harriet Ruth Waters Cooke, daughter of his youngest sister and a Salem-born socialite highly conscious of her genealogy, claimed to have inherited it. She presented her version of Old Glory to the Essex Institute in Salem (now the Peabody Essex Museum), along with family memorabilia that included a letter from the Pitcairn Islanders to Driver. Why Driver would have given his precious flag to a niece in far-off Massachusetts is unclear—perhaps because he didn’t trust his Confederate-sympathizing children to care for it? Cooke also produced a family memoir that she self-published in 1889, in which she omitted the existence of Driver’s daughter Mary Jane.

Roland fought back. She set about documenting the history of the flag her father had given her, and in 1918 published her own account, Old Glory, The True Story, in which she disputed elements of Cooke’s narrative and presented documentary evidence for her claim. In 1922, Roland presented her Old Glory as a gift to President Warren G. Harding, who in turn delivered it to the Smithsonian.

That same year, the Peabody Essex also sent its Old Glory to the Smithsonian. But the museum chose to regard Roland’s flag as the more important one: It was directly descended from Driver, and documentary evidence in the Tennessee State Library and Archives strongly suggested it was the one hidden in the quilt and presented to Union troops who took Nashville.It also had common sense on its side: Driver would have hoisted his largest flag over the capitol dome.

The Peabody flag sank into insignificance. It has remained on loan at the Smithsonian since 1922, but has gone largely unexamined, given the emphasis on the larger Old Glory. However, it became the subject of renewed curiosity this July during a conservation evaluation of both flags by curator Jones and textile conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss. As they surveyed both flags, they began discussing the odd family history, which has been periodically resurrected in local Salem news stories along with suggestions that the Peabody flag might have a legitimate claim. They decided to embark on a more exhaustive analysis of both flags.

It’s unlikely that the Smithsonian project will lay to rest the 125-year-old family quarrel. Nor is it likely that the smaller, 12- by 6-foot Peabody flag will supplant the traditional Old Glory in the eyes of Smithsonian curators, who report that the preliminary study indicates that the larger flag still has the much stronger claim.

But the Peabody flag is a historical curiosity in its own right, says Jones. Initial analysis shows it is a legitimate Driver family heirloom and Civil War-era relic, but it is also something of a mystery, with several anomalies.

According to textile preservationist Fonda Thomsen, who has helped conserve articles ranging from flags to the garments President Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated, a single thread can tell a story. Each flag will contain signatures, clues left in seams and stitching, as well as in the dyes and materials used. “You can determine, were they made by the same person?” Thomsen says. “Did they finish their seam the same way, the stars the same way? How did they knot it off? Everybody leaves a little trail of their work.”

Although the Old Glory textile project is just beginning, there have already been a couple of definitive conclusions. While the Peabody flag clearly dates to the same era as the larger Old Glory, it lacks the wear and tear of a seagoing flag. The fly edge is intact and not worn. In fact it seems as if the flag was hardly flown. “What we’re looking at is inconsistent with use on a naval vessel,” Jones says. There are also baffling soil lines on the flag, and parts of it appear to be newer than others. “We’re thinkingparts of it are older, and parts are questionable,” Jones says. “It could be that it was remade.”

The larger Old Glory has wear and tear consistent with seafaring. It was indeed made during the 1820s and has all the earmarks of a heavily used naval flag. Its fly edge shows signs of wear, suggesting it spent a lot of time flapping in stiff winds. “When a flag is flown, you get distortion of the fabric, and wear on the leading edge,” Thomsen says. “It beats the bejesus out of them.”

This does not mean the Peabody flag is illegitimate. Captain Driver would have had more than one flag: Ship captains carried ceremonial flags, storm flags and flags designed to be visible from very long distances. Driver family memoirs and other records contain references to a “merino” flag owned by the captain, a storm flag, and then there was the flag that was draped over his coffin. The Peabody flag surely has a story in its own right. “We’re looking at where it resided, the history of it and then, at the object itself, asking, ‘What are you telling us?’” Jones says.

Paula Richter, curator for the Peabody Essex, is awaiting the outcome of the analysis before she offers an opinion. “It does seem like there is a growing consensus that the Smithsonian’s is the actual Old Glory, but it’s interesting to think about the relationship [of the two flags] to each other,” she says.

Also intriguing is the fact that the Peabody Essex Museum’s card catalog contains other “remnants” of flags purporting to be pieces of Old Glory, gifts from various donors. These may well be pieces of Old Glory—“souvenir” patches that were cut away, a common practice with treasured Civil War banners. There is no evidence of “souveniring” of the Peabody flag. But Jones believes that other items from the Peabody Essex catalog may match the weave of the Smithsonian flag.

Each vestige, even the most fragmentary scrap, is potentially meaningful. “Pieces of those flags are held sacred,” Jones says. "They embody a common experience."

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