Stars and Stripes and America’s National Parks

Katherine Rivard & Rebecca WatsonNPF Blog
american flag flying in the foreground with a huge snowy mountain in the distance
Flag flying at Denali National Park & Preserve - NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank

The American flag is a constant reminder of America’s ability to overcome hardship and adversity, as well as the nation’s multifaceted history, with all its beauty and imperfection. Its iconic stars and stripes underscore the country’s fight for unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The National Park Foundation’s (NPF) work in preserving history and culture in our parks helps safeguard the historic sites and collections, including those containing items like preserved American flags. These items hold our shared history, helping all people gain a deeper understanding of parks as our common ground and shared inheritance.

First Flag

A view of the north side of Independence Hall, showing the main building in the center with the east and west wings on the sides

Independence Hall in Independence National Historical Park

NPS Photo

Betsy Ross was an upholsterer, a trade often called upon for flag making, and happened to pray in the church pew next to George Washington. Ross is said to have created the first American flag, not far from Independence National Historical Park. The flag used the official colors chosen by the Continental Congress in 1777 – red for valor and bravery, white for purity and innocence, and blue for perseverance, justice, and vigilance. The park today preserves sites that served as the backdrop for many major events during the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which was the nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800, including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

Never Surrender

Fort Stanwix National Monument
National Park Service

The dramatic siege of today’s Fort Stanwix National Monument in August of 1777 began with the Americans refusing to surrender and a scrappy flag. Locals claimed that this flag was the original “Stars and Stripes.” However, it is uncertain what the flag looked like, though some say it may have looked closer to the modern-day New York State flag. Ultimately Fort Stanwix became the only American fort to never surrender under attack during the American Revolution and locals from the region continue to take pride in this courage and the flag that inspired it.

Baltimore’s Great Garrison Flag

Drummers in full military regalia in front of the American flag

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

NPS Photo

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine was once home to the Great Garrison Flag, measuring 30 by 42 feet and weighing 50 pounds. The flag was ordered by Major George Armistead, one of five brothers who served in the War of 1812, who wanted to have “a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” The Great Garrison Flag was made by Mary Young Pickersgill (whose mother Rebecca had been a flag maker during the American Revolution), her daughter Caroline, her two nieces Eliza and Margaret, and an African American indentured servant, Grace Wisher. NPF’s Women in Parks initiative helps to emphasize and amplify the contributions of women, such as those who constructed the Great Garrison Flag, throughout American history.

The Great Garrison flag would go on to inspire Francis Scott Key’s "The Star-Spangled Banner," after he watched the 25-hour bombing of Fort McHenry from the safety of an American ship off the shore of Baltimore. Today, the flag is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Fittingly, Fort McHenry also lies upon the route of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, which tells the stories of the events, people, and places that led to the birth of the U.S. national anthem. It wasn’t until March 1931, more than 100 years after its composition, that Key’s poem became our national anthem.

Allegiance to the Union

Andersonville National Historic Site
National Park Service

For much of the Civil War, the Confederate flag was the only flag hung at Andersonville National Historic Site, the site of what was one of the largest Confederate military prisons. Built in 1864, Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was officially known, confined more than 45,000 Union soldiers over its 14-month existence, and nearly 13,000 died there. Though the American flag was contraband at Andersonville, it was kept by the men of the 16th Connecticut Infantry after their capture. Cutting the flag into fragments to prevent capture, they pieced it together on July 4th and waved it amongst the prisoners to rouse their spirits. Though the Confederates searched for the men responsible, they could not find them.

Today, the park serves as a memorial to all American prisoners of war throughout the nation’s history. In 1998 the National Prisoner of War Museum opened at Andersonville, dedicated to the men and women of this country who have suffered captivity.

A Fort Filled with Flags

Historic flag

The garrison flag was flown over Fort Sumter from January to April 1861, then re-raised over the fort on April 14, 1865, the four year anniversary of its surrender to the Confederacy. Today this delicate artifact is on exhibit. The flag is stored in a specially designed case to help preserve the fabric.

NPS Photo

At Fort Sumter, part of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park, several flags were flown during the Civil War. In 1861, one such flag, the 33-star U.S. flag, representing each state in the Union, flew over the fort for two days in April 1861. After the battle, President Lincoln was given the choice to keep all 33 stars or remove those of the seceded states. With the goal of preserving the Union, he chose to keep all the stars. This is only one of the numerous flags used at the fort and can still be seen at the park’s museum today. Another original flag at Fort Sumter can still be viewed today, thanks to a 1986 grant from NPF to help preserve it.

Waving in Foreign Lands

US Marine Corps War Memorial at sunset
National Park Service

One of the most iconic images of the American flag remains Joe Rosenthal’s image of five marines raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi’s rough terrain after a World War II victory on Iwo Jima. This photo went on to inspire the United States Marine Corps Memorial which was dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 to all the marines who have fought for our flag through the years. The memorial can be visited today in George Washington Memorial Parkway. For active-duty military members and veterans, as well as their families, national parks, monuments, and memorials like these can provide a place of solitude, beauty, reflection, and recreation.

Whether you’re placing small flags on the graves of our fallen soldiers surrounding Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, or watching a flag change at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the history preserved and shared in our parks is intertwined with that of the American flag. With hundreds of years of history and so many heroic stories and powerful values behind it, the American flag remains one of the country’s most enduring symbols of freedom today.


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