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.”
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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.