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From the War of 1812 to the surface of the moon: 10 facts about the American flag

America is always better when we address our difficulties with big ideas along with open, honest and even roiling debate.
FILE - More than 3,000 American flags honoring the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are pictured at Utah’s Healing Field outside Sandy City Hall on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Here are 10 flag facts celebrating the American flag, from the number of flags on the moon to stories behind the original Star-Spangled Banner that inspired the U.S. national anthem.

Designing a flag

During the American Revolution, colonists flew a number of different flags which were often based on their unit or regiment. However, in 1777, the Second Constitutional Congress decided to change that.

Mixed among resolutions regarding things like payment to military captains and prepping for ships of war in the Delaware river, the June 14, 1777 journals of Congress included the following:

”Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

The roots of Flag Day

According to usflag.org, BJ Cigrand, a Wisconsin schoolteacher, celebrated the birthday of the flag with students on June 14, 1885. Similar celebrations snowballed from the local level to the state level, and President Woodrow Wilson officially established Flag Day on May 30, 1916.

”Let us on [June 14th] rededicate ourselves to the nation, ‘one and inseparable’ from which every thought that is not worthy of our fathers’ first vows in independence, liberty, and right shall be excluded and in which we shall stand with united hearts, for an America which no man can corrupt, no influence draw away from its ideals, no force divide against itself,-a nation signally distinguished among all the nations of mankind for its clear, individual conception alike of its duties and its privileges, its obligations and its rights,” the proclamation said.

President Harry Truman signed legislation in 1949 officially designating June 14 as Flag Day.

Old Glory

According to usflag.org, a shipmaster in Salem, Massachusetts named Captain William Driver was leaving on a voyage when some friends gave him a flag with 24 stars. “As the banner opened to the ocean breeze for the first time, he exclaimed, ‘Old Glory!’” the website said, and the nickname was born.

Driver retired to Nashville and hid the flag in his bedcover during the Civil War to protect it from Confederate soldiers. After Union forces captured Nashville in February 1862, Driver removed the flag from his quilt and raised it over the state capitol building.

Colors and symbols

The red on the flag symbolizes hardiness and valor, the white symbolizes purity and innocence, and the blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice, according to PBS.

Flags on the moon

There are six American flags planted on the moon, by crews from Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17, according to ABC News.

Cameras orbiting the moon have found the flags, USA Today reported in 2012. Of the six flags, all but one is still standing. The flag planted by Apollo 11 astronauts blew over from the rocket blast when the astronauts left the moon, Buzz Aldrin said.

Folding the flag

According to The American Legion, the 13 folds made when a flag is folded represent the following:

  1. Symbol of life
  2. Symbol of our belief in eternal life
  3. Symbol of honor and remembrance of the veteran who gave a portion of his or her life in defending the country
  4. Symbol of our weaker nature and trust in God
  5. A tribute to the United States of America
  6. Where our hearts lie
  7. Tribute to the armed forces
  8. “A tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor our mother, for whom it flies on Mother’s Day.”
  9. Tribute to womanhood, “for it has been through their faith, love, loyalty and devotion that the character of the men and women who have made this country great have been molded.”
  10. Tribute to father
  11. “In the eyes of Hebrew citizens, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
  12. “In the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost.”

After the flag is entirely folded, it appears like a cocked hat, which stands as a reminder of the soldier who served under George Washington and the marines who served under John Paul Jones. The stars are uppermost in a folded flag, as a reminder of the motto, “In God We Trust.”

The Star-Spangled Banner

Francis Scott Key, a lawyer living in Georgetown during the War of 1812, and another man sailed out to the British flagship to bargain for the release of a local physician. The British agreed to release the doctor, but refused to let the three Americans leave right away because they believed they had seen too much about the impending British attack on Baltimore, usflag.org said.

A giant flag — so big that “the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance” — flew over Fort McHenry when the bombardment began. Key and his two companions watched the battle from the ship until the British retreated, and after it ended, Key saw that the flag was still standing. He began to write a poem about the experience, which eventually became the national anthem.

Seeing history in person

The flag that inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The flag turned 200 years old in 2014 and measures 30 feet by 34 feet.

An online interactive display allows users to zoom in on the flag and learn stories behind it. These stories include information like:

”One of the flag’s fifteen stars was cut out and given away in the 1800s. Its present whereabouts are unknown.”

An “A” was “reportedly sewn onto the flag (on one of the white stripes) by Louisa Armistead, widow of the 1814 commander of Fort McHenry.”

”Each star measures approximately two feet across.”

Flying the flag

The U.S. flag is flown 24 hours a day in eight places, according to usflag.org. These are:

  • Fort McHenry, National Monument and Historic Shrine, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Flag House Square, Baltimore, Maryland
  • United States Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima), Arlington, Virginia
  • On the green of Lexington, Massachusetts
  • The White House, Washington, D.C.
  • United States Customs Ports of Entry
  • Grounds of the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge State Park, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
  • Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.

The modern flag

On April 4, 1818, President James Monroe signed the Flag Act of 1818 specifying that, “The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white, and the union of the flag shall be twenty stars, white in a blue field.”

The act also specified that “on the admission of a new state into the Union one star shall be added to the union of the flag; and such addition shall take effect on the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.”

The last states added to the U.S. were Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. Americanhistory.about.com provides a list of each state and when they were added.

Bonus: Flag birthday

The Star-Spangled Banner, or the flag that inspired the U.S. national anthem as it flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, will turn 201 years old in September.