As symbols of unity, flags are often part of key historic events—the banner to which people flock, the symbol of a nation’s claim, or the ensign on a ship that must be surrendered. Below are seven amazing historic flags that have survived wars, expeditions, surrenders, and the passing of time:
1. ORIGINAL STAR-SPANGLED BANNER // WASHINGTON D.C.
The original Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814 during the British bombardment can be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It was the sight of this very flag, flying victorious, that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Defense of Fort M’Henry"—the poem that went on to become the national anthem.
It took flag-maker Mary Pickersgill and her assistants seven weeks to hand-stitch the 30 x 42-foot garrison flag as well as another storm flag used for inclement weather. After the victory, the commander of Fort McHenry during the bombardment, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, kept the flag as a family keepsake, occasionally displaying it at patriotic celebrations. By the 1870s the flag and the anthem had become famous across the nation and there were constant requests to put the flag on display; unfortunately, it was becoming more and more dog-eared as small sections were snipped off as gifts, including one of the stars. When New York stockbroker Eben Appleton inherited the family heirloom it had become something of a burden, and as a result he decided in 1907 to first loan, then later gift, the flag to the Smithsonian Institution, with the condition that it would be permanently displayed.
The flag has since been mended and restored a number of times, the last in 1998, when a $7 million project to clean and conserve it took 10 years to complete. After the thorough conservation, the flag was moved into its new home in a special climate-controlled case, where it is kept away from direct sunlight to preserve it for future generations.
2. GIANT TRICOLOR // NORWICH CASTLE, UK
An extremely rare 52 x 27-foot French tricolor flag will go on display at Norwich Castle in England this summer. The flag was flown on the French ship Le Généreux before being captured during the Battle of the Malta Convoy in 1800, and was later presented by famous British war hero Admiral Lord Nelson and his Captain Edward Berry to the city of Norwich. The trophy is thought to be one of the earliest examples of a tricolor flag, which came into use in 1794 as the official national flag of post-revolutionary France. The flag last went on display in 1905 and is undergoing restoration before it goes on display again.
Due to the enormous size of the flag, finding a space to unroll and inspect it wasn't easy. Fortunately, a nearby medieval friary, St Andrew’s Hall, proved large enough for the delicate flag to be laid out for review. Conservators were very excited to discover an old nail that would have been used to pin the flag to the mast, as well as traces of gunpowder and splinters of wood—the flag's battle scars.
3. FLAG RAISED BY ABRAHAM LINCOLN // GETTYSBURG FOUNDATION, PHILADELPHIA
On February 22, 1861, Washington’s birthday, President-elect Abraham Lincoln visited Philadelphia's Independence Hall and raised a flag with 34 stars. The country was then on the brink of civil war, with many southern states seceding from the Union, and as the flag was raised Lincoln talked about the specter of the coming conflict and his hopes that it might be averted (unfortunately, the Civil War broke out just five weeks after his inauguration). Fragments of this famous flag survived and were recently acquired by the Gettysburg Foundation, which will conserve and display them at their home in Pennsylvania.
4. SPANISH FLAG FROM THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR // NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
The ensign that flew from the Spanish ship San Ildefonso during the famous Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, when British hero Admiral Lord Nelson defeated French Emperor Napoleon, has been safely stored at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London for over 100 years. Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish forces were intent on invading Britain and wiping out her naval might, but during the battle, Nelson outmaneuvered the French and took a decisive victory: Napoleon’s fleet lost 22 ships, while the British lost none.
However, the battle did claim the life of Lord Nelson, who was shot by a French soldier. At Nelson’s funeral, the huge 32 x 47-foot Spanish flag captured from the 74-gun Spanish warship was hung at St. Paul’s Cathedral as a symbol of his victory. In 1907 it was gifted to the Royal Naval Museum (now part of the Maritime Museum). The wool flag still shows signs of the damage it sustained during the battle and is so enormous it is very rarely put out on public display. The last time it was shown was in 2005, 200 years after the fateful battle.
5. CSS SHENANDOAH: LAST LOWERING OF CONFEDERATE FLAG // AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MUSEUM
During the Civil War, Confederate States cruiser the CSS Shenandoah circumnavigated the globe in an attempt to disrupt Union ships. Between October 1864 and August 1865 the ship flew a Confederate Second National flag, which today is housed at the American Civil War Museum in Virginia, while it attacked or sunk some 38 Union merchant vessels. When the ship encountered a British crew sailing out of San Francisco harbor, they discovered that the war had ended some months earlier. The ship then sailed for Liverpool in England, where on November 6, 1865 they surrendered to the British—the last surrender of the Civil War and the last lowering of a Confederate flag.
6. CAPTAIN SCOTT’S SLEDGE FLAG // NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
The flag that flew from Robert Falcon Scott’s sledge during his 1910-1913 expedition to the South Pole can be seen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. The small flag, machine-stitched in the shape of a medieval standard, is only 1 x 2.7 feet in size and is made from silk sateen. The English cross of St. George is near the hoist and the remaining flag is white over blue, with the crest of the Scott family—a stag’s head—hand-embroidered alongside the motto “Ready Aye Ready.”
When Scott and his team reached the South Pole they found, to their dismay, that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. Sadly, Scott and his four fellow explorers died on the grueling return journey and eight months after their deaths the flag, as well as journals, letters, and pictures of the doomed group, were retrieved from Scott’s tent by a relief party.
7. ENGLISH CIVIL WAR BATTLE STANDARD // NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM, LONDON
An extremely rare flag from the Parliamentarian army that fought in the English Civil War some 350 years ago has recently gone on display at the National Army Museum in London. It is thought that only about six Civil War Parliamentarian flags have survived, and most are in private collections, so it is especially amazing to see such a flag on public display. The 25-square-foot-flag features the cross of St. George in one corner, with five blue stars descending diagonally from the cross on a yellow background.
The flag originally belonged to Parliamentarian commander Sir John Gell and was stored at the ancestral family seat by 11 generations of the same family, alongside some other valuable pieces of Civil War memorabilia. The National Army Museum bought it in 1994.
BONUS: EARLY AMERICAN FLAG // BOUND FOR SPACE
While on a private tour of Glamis Castle in Scotland, NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock spotted a stars and stripes in the attic with just 48 stars. Wheelock realized the flag must be from before the last two states joined the union in 1959, and began taking pictures of it to show his colleagues. The astronaut’s enthusiasm for the old flag came to the notice of Mary, Dowager Countess of Strathmore at Glamis Castle, and she decided to give the flag to Wheelock on the condition that he take it with him when he next goes to space. Wheelock is due to go to space in 2019, and he intends to unfurl the flag on the International Space Station then.