Special Report

How the Flag Came to be Called Old Glory

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

(Hugh Talman / NMAH, SI)
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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.”


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