About Corazon

Friday, May 27, 2011

Flags of our Fathers, Part I: The Gadsden Flag

A Small Portion of My Flag Collection:
Like many people I have, over the years, enjoyed collecting different types of memorabilia. During my youth I amassed (and still have) an impressive collection of baseball cards. Years later I made a brief attempt at collecting coins, but was never able to enjoy that collection as much as my baseball cards. And since then, nothing has been able to excite my interest in collecting the way baseball cards captured my youth.

That is until now. Over the past few years I have established a new collection that I enjoy even more than my childhood baseball card collection: historical flags! As a student of history, I have always enjoyed looking at how different events of the past were captured and brought to life by their participants, and the creation of flags is one of those fundamental symbols that help to encapsulate and internalize the past into the subconsciousness of later generations. As years pass, however, the important meanings behind these various flags (and the past they were meant to symbolize) are lost or often distorted, reducing the former glory of these banners to nothing more than mere cloth.

It is for these reasons that I have decided to share my love of historical flags and the history they represent. It is my hope that those who read this blog (or who might come across it in a Google search) will gain an appreciation for what these flags were meant to represent. After all, they can tell us a great deal about our nation's complex and fascinating heritage.

So, without further delay, I give you Part I in my new series, Flags of our Fathers Today's installment: the Gadsden Flag.


The Gadsden (Don't Tread on Me) Flag has played a unique role over the course of the past 200+ years. For a number of reasons, the flag has been a favorite for many generations of Americans, who have adopted the flag's coiled rattlesnake and inspiring words to fit their respective agendas. The yellow banner has been found on the masts of early revolutionary naval boats, at the vanguard of Civil War regiments and in the hands of common citizens, who find patriotic purpose in those four simple words: "Don't Tread on Me".

The origins of the Gadsden Flag are interesting to say the least. As I have pointed out in a previous post, early America's fascination with the rattlesnake is quite extensive. Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" political cartoon had effectively woven the rattlesnake obsession into the ongoing and ever-changing political discourse of the time. As a result, the image of the rattlesnake was incorporated into a plethora of different political broadsides, posters and yes, even flags.

In 1775, as war between Britain and her colonies became an inevitable reality, the Second Continental Congress authorized the creation of five companies of marines to accompany the naval forces that were already preparing to confront the British. These marines carried with them yellow-painted drums with the image of the coiled rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me". This was the first recorded occasion of the rattlesnake and motto being used together. As one "anonymous" writer (later identified as Benjamin Franklin) stated to the Pennsylvania Journal in December of 1775:
I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, 'Don't tread on me.' As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America.

[...]

I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers.

[...]

'Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.
It didn't take long for this image to catch on. While attending the Second Continental Congress, Colonel Christopher Gadsden (you guessed it, this is the guy whose name is associated with this flag), who was one of the commanding officers of the naval/marine venture, presented several delegates with his prototype for a flag that was to be flown on the mainmasts of their naval ships. From the South Carolina Congressional journals:
Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, "Don't Tread on Me!"
The Flag was an immediate success. In the early years of the Revolution, the infant Marines and Navy both flew the Gadsden Flag as their unofficial banner. And though eventually replaced by other more meaningful banners (i.e. the Betsy Ross Flag), the image of the coiled rattlesnake and its accompanying "Don't Tread on Me" motto remained popular and were included in later flags.

As for Christopher Gadsden, his story is one of those forgotten but incredible tales of bravery and duty. Gadsden rose to prominence during the French and Indian War, climbing to the rank of Captain. During the Revolution, Gadsden was a part of the Stamp Act Congress, First and Second Continental Congress, and was one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty in his native South Carolina. He was also elected to the position of Lt. Governor and helped to draft the state's constitution.

Gadsden also served with great distinction during the Revolution, climbing all the way to the rank of General. Gadsden was also a prisoner of war, and the tale of his time as such is a remarkable tale of bravery and defiance. From Wiki:
When the British laid siege to Charleston in 1780, John Rutledge, as president of the council fled to North Carolina to ensure a "government in exile" should the city fall. Gadsden remained, along with Governor Rawlins Lowndes. General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered the Continental Army garrison on May 12 to General Sir Henry Clinton. At the same time, Gadsden represented the civil government and surrendered the city. He was sent on parole to his Charleston house.

After General Sir Henry Clinton returned to New York, the new British commander in the South, General Cornwallis changed the rules. On the morning of August 27, he arrested about 20 of the civil officers then on parole. They were marched as prisoners to a ship and taken to St. Augustine, Florida. When they arrived, Governor Tonyn offered the freedom of the town if they would give their parole. Most accepted, but Gadsden refused claiming that the British had already violated one parole, and he could not give his word to a false system. As a result, he spent the next 42 weeks in solitary confinement in a prison room at the old Spanish fortress of Castillo de San Marcos. When they were finally released in 1781, they were sent by merchant ship to Philadelphia. Once there, Gadsden learned of the defeat of Cornwallis at Cowpens and withdrawal to Yorktown. He hurried home, to help the restoration of South Carolina's civil government.
As you can see, the Gadsden Flag represents much more than a simple rattlesnake. It embodies the spirit of the man whose name the flag carries, not to mention those early Navy and Marine soldiers who hoisted the yellow banner high on their mainmasts. Their defiance and stubbornness in the name of liberty stands as a greater monument than any flag could hope to capture. But perhaps those four simple words do aptly describe their zeal for independence:

DON'T TREAD ON ME!

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