USS Constitution No. 1 Ensign - 1845 to 1850.
In the history of the United States Navy, no ship has as much tradition, lore and heritage as the USS Constitution. She was commissioned on 21 October 1797 and is often referred to by her nickname "Old Ironsides". Virgin American Oak was used in her construction and to strengthen the keel, additional "ribs" were spaced closer together which resulted in enemy cannon balls bouncing off the sides, hence the nickname: "Old Ironsides."
In the spring of 2012, naval historians and flag collectors were surprised to learn that 11 flags from the mid-19th century had survived from their days on the USS Constitution and would be available through auction in Philadelphia in late April 2012. The Zaricor Flag Collection was successful in purchasing two of the 11 flags that remained from the formative years of the USS Constitution's history. This flag is one of the earliest surviving flags from the ship and it features a rare 28-star pattern and an even rarer example of stars that were later added to the flag to represent other states.
This large, hand-sewn wool bunting number 1, 28-star ensign, made to commemorate the admission of Texas, (later converted to 29 stars for Iowa and to 30 stars for Wisconsin) is from the most famous ship in the United States Navy. These U.S. ensigns with these particular star counts were official between 1846 and 1851. (See the USS Constitution's time chronology in "DOCUMENTS" located in the "PAPERWORK" section for this flag)
In 1846, when the star count on the U.S. ensign officially increased to 28 stars with the admission of Texas, the USS Constitution joined a round-the-world cruise that had already begun two years earlier in 1844, when the then 26-star flag was in use. While cruising off the coast of Singapore, the number of stars on the United States ensign increased to 27 when Florida joined the Union in 1845. That star count was increased again after Texas was admitted to the Union on 29 December 1845.
The annexation of Texas, a functioning independent republic since 1836, and its subsequent admission to the Union as the 28th state, was fraught with controversy. The Republic of Mexico did not recognize the independence of Texas and still considered it to be a rebellious province over which it retained a claim of nominal sovereignty. Mexico went on to threaten war with the United States if Texas was annexed. Thus both the annexation and the subsequent problems with Mexico had long been anticipated by the U.S. Government and the U.S. Navy in particular.
The U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution regarding the annexation on 26 February 1845, initiating almost a year of negotiations with Texas during which the USS Constitution plied the waters of the Indian and South Pacific oceans. The state of awareness among the officers of the USS Constitution about the issue surrounding Texas was high and they were full of anticipation, which had been building up over the previous 10 years and even more so in the last 12 months.
The admission of Texas was more like a foregone conclusion among the majority in Congress, except with the Whigs Party that was against the admission over the issue of slavery. They felt that Texas would enter the Union as a slave state but slavery was not the only issue. Others were opposed to the admission as they feared that Texas was too independent-minded and was a loner state, which did not bode well among the groups. However, the Democrats recognized that the expansion of Texas had many obvious benefits in terms of its size and its resources that fitted the pro Manifest Destiny advocates view of a nation connected continually "from sea to shining sea".
It seems likely that "Old Ironsides" left Norfolk, Virginia on her round-the-world cruise with enough material to make at least one full quota of flags for inventory in anticipation of the radical addition of stars to the flag. During this period, more states entered the Union in a short amount of time after the 13 original states. From 1845 to 1851, Michigan became the 26th state and then in rapid succession came Florida as the 27th, Texas 28th, Iowa 29th, Wisconsin 30th and California 31st making six states in six years with four free and two slave states.
Thus, the unanswered questions surrounding this number 1 ensign arose: was it made on board the USS Constitution's round-the-world cruise, was it obtained from another source during the voyage or was it acquired upon the completion of the voyage when the USS Constitution returned to Boston? However, while these questions remain unanswered, we do know that in 1846 the United States Navy arrived in ports in California with 27 and 28-star ensigns.
In the 19th century, ships belonging to the United States Navy routinely carried buntings from which to construct flags with and this could be one such flag. English bunting was the preferred material to use due to its long fiber that was light in weight and it was loosely woven to help catch even the slightest of breezes. This large wool ensign started its existence as a 28-star flag. The 28 stars are arranged in a rectilinear star pattern of four rows of seven five-point stars each and can be construed (with perhaps a single exception in the center of the second row) as all having one point of the star oriented to the upper fly edge of the canton. The 28 stars are all original and were hand sewn with an average of 10 to 12 stitches an inch that clearly represents the work of a skilled seamstress or sailmaker.
This led to speculation that this could have been a yard-made flag that was conveyed to the USS Constitution in November 1845 when she rendezvoused in Honolulu, Hawaii, with the Pacific Squadron's commander Commodore John Sloat and his flagship the USS Savannah. After his meeting with Commodore Sloat, Captain John Percival of the USS Constitution was redirected to Mazatlan, a port on Mexico's West Coast, in apparent anticipation of an imminent war with Mexico.
Arriving on 13 January 1846 (Texas had been admitted to the Union on 29 December 1845), the USS Constitution stayed in Mazatlan for four months, which was ample time to fabricate a sturdy 28-star ensign in anticipation of the upcoming official recognition of statehood for Texas on the next 4th of July. The flag's 20-foot fly and the fact that it was discovered with another similar sized flag marked "Constitution No.1", has led to speculation that these two ensigns were her number one ensigns - a warship's largest flags - used only for battle and display on Sundays and holidays.
It is entirely possible that the USS Constitution wore her 28-star ensign while in Mazatlan, and especially to symbolically reinforce the annexation of Texas as a show of solidarity. She departed for home on 22 April 1846, which was three days before the Thornton Affair of 25-26 April in Brownsville. Texas was the overt cause of the Mexican - American War, which was formally declared on 13 May 1846 while the USS Constitution was visiting Valparasio, Chile as she made her way down the coast of South America.
As the war unfolded without her participation, the USS Constitution was homeward bound. She rounded Cape Horn on 4 July 1846, which was the day the 28-star flag became official. As she turned northward up the Atlantic Seaboard of South America, the USS Constitution stopped in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 28 July to 5 August 1846 and she flew this ensign during her visit. The USS Constitution arrived home in Boston on 27 September 1846 and on 5 October,
Captain John Percival relinquished command and the ship was placed in ordinary, with her 28-star ensign still in a serviceable condition.
In the 19th century, an act of placing a ship into ordinary meant placing her in reserve. This could be in a dry dock or harbor preparatory for a refit or to be decommissioned by removing her armaments, masts, rigging and sails and storing them ashore or selling them. Ships in ordinary were often used as receiving ships, and although they were often only technically still in commission; they were minimally crewed and were generally under the charge of warrant officers.
The USS Constitution would remain in ordinary for all of 1847 and most of 1848 as she was being refitted for further duty with the Mediterranean Squadron. During this time, Iowa joined the Union as the 29th state, the war with Mexico was brought to a victorious conclusion and the 30th state of Wisconsin joined the Union. This meant that the ensign had to be altered to feature additional stars.
The 29th and 30th stars are easily discernible in the center of the flag as they are both larger than the original 28 stars and a close examination of them reveals that the stitching is different than that of the original construction, averaging only six to eight stitches per inch suggesting perhaps a seaman's hand was responsible. It is not known if the additional stars were added sequentially or both simultaneously but with their addition, the Constitution's number 1 ensign now bore 30 stars.
Special note should be taken of the size of these two larger stars. Since the beginning of the republic, United States flags often bore a star that was larger than its companion stars. Surviving examples and period images support this practice, but scholars differ as to their opinions of the significance of this practice. One theory holds that the larger star represents the last state to join the Union. If true, then the two larger stars sequentially represent the addition of Iowa and then Wisconsin.
However, another theory holds that this is a form of the Grand Luminary, popularized by the war in 1812 by privateer captain Samuel Reid and it represents a graphic representation of the national motto: e pluribus unum meaning 'out of many, one'. However, this does not explain why the revolutionary examples have been documented while Samuel Reid was just a young boy.
The use of different sized stars may be a design that the maker simply found pleasing in the absence of official specifications that didn't arise until 1916 and the large stars may have been made by the choice of the flag maker. The exact reason has been lost in history but these stars may well have been intentionally made larger, perhaps in cognizant recognition of this convention.
Another more symbolic reason tells a story of early national unity that took place during the debate and vote in 1776 for the Declaration of Independence. It was extremely important that the vote be unanimous, to impress the English, especially King George III, with America's determination. But there was a problem, New York was holding out and as the role was called, New York faced imminent invasion of 30,000 British and Hessian troops. The New York delegates, though in support of the Declaration, were also concerned that if they voted yes, then the invasion would be especially harsh and the other delegates were sympathetic to this.
As the role was called, the other delegates anxiously waited for New York's vote and they anticipated a 'no' which would dilute the act of defiance. However, to every delegate's relief and surprise, New York voted to abstain. The thinking was that they would accomplish what they wanted and what New York wanted. As a consequence, all of the delegates were in praise of New York and vowed to include New York in their circle of defiance, which they would protect to the end.
It is from such a story that the early American flag that was widely used in other patterns features a large star standing in the middle of a circle of 12 stars and a larger single star that is protected by a circle of 12 smaller stars. This pattern exists on surviving period flags and paintings on flags from the Constitution parade of 1788 when the Constitution was adopted. It can also be seen in drawings of George Washington at camp in Yorktown where the flag is pictured behind him. This may be the reason collectors have seen and collected flags through the late 18th and much of the 19th century that show a large star surrounded by other smaller stars, even when more states were added. Maybe this is the answer that historians and collectors have been trying to find for decades because the reason for the existence has previously been lost in the past.
The widespread outbreak of revolutions and turmoil in Europe in 1848 accelerated the return of the USS Constitution to active duty. On 9 October 1848, Captain John Gwinn assumed command and sailed from Boston with the ensign (which was then in its 30-star configuration) for service with the Mediterranean Squadron. His orders were to take the USS Constitution on a "ship of state" tour to show off the flag in the unsettled region, protecting the economic interests of the U.S. by attending to American diplomatic needs. The most significant events of the Mediterranean cruise occurred when the USS Constitution was under the command of Captain Gwinn.
Captain Gwinn went to his first port-of-call in Tripoli, Libya, which was then a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. He arrived on 19 January 1849 to pick up American diplomat Daniel Smith McCauley and transport him to his new post as a U.S. agent and counsel to Egypt, which was another nominal state of the Ottoman Sultan. While he was enroute to Egypt, his wife gave birth to a son who was christened Constitution Stewart McCauley.
The USS Constitution stayed in Alexandria, Egypt for one month and while there, Captain Gwinn learned that Commodore William Bolton (the commander of the Mediterranean Squadron) had passed away and that he was now the acting commodore. This meant that for the next few months, this 30-star flag was the number 1 ensign of the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron.
As commodore, Gwinn sailed to Italy on the 27th of March to see for himself the turmoil in northern Italy and after visiting Spezzia and Leghorn, the USS Constitution arrived in Naples, which was suffering from its own unrest because of King Ferdinand II's support for Pope Pius IX who was battling the Austrians for control of the Papal States. The USS Constitution spent the rest of June and most of July in Naples as a visible reminder that the neutrality of Americans would be protected by this flag.
While anchored in Naples, Commodore Charles W. Morgan arrived and assumed command of the Mediterranean Squadron, transferring the commodore's broad pennant to the USS Mississippi and this flag ceased to be the number 1 ensign of the flagship. On 1 August 1849 while visiting Gaeta in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and flying the 30-star ensign, the USS Constitution welcomed King Ferdinand II of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Pope Pius IX. This marked the first time a pontiff had set foot on U.S. territory or its equivalent (See image of this print of this visit near the bottom of the photos on this page).
On their arrival, the USS Constitution manned the yards and rendered a 21-gun salute to each of the royal and holy personages, as both their flags were raised as a courtesy to accompany this flag in the harbor at Gaeta. A striking original painting of this event called "Ship of State" was painted by renowned nautical artist Tom Freeman and was presented to His Holiness Pope John Paul II in Vatican City in 2001. Please examine its image it in the photo section, and see ZFC3763.
The regal and pontifical tour lasted more than three hours during which time the Catholic crewmen of the USS Constitution were assembled on the gun deck under the flag, in order to receive a papal benediction. Refreshments were served in Gwinn's cabin where the pontiff took a brief respite for apparent seasickness. At the conclusion of the tour, the yards were again manned and the 21-gun salutes were repeated as the flag of the visiting dignitaries were lowered while this ensign graced the gaff.
A month later, the ensign of the USS Constitution was placed at half-mast upon the death of Captain John Gwinn, who died on board and was buried in the lazaretto in Palermo, Sicily. First Lieutenant James Rowan assumed command until the 28 September 1849 when Captain Thomas A. Conover arrived to take over.
He continued the mission of "showing the flag" and cruised the western Mediterranean, visiting important ports such as Spezzia, Genoa, Leghorn, Toulon, Marseilles, Naples and Gibraltar until his departure for New York on 1 December 1850 where he eventually arrived on 11 January 1850. On the 16th of January, Captain Conover relinquished command and the USS Constitution again went into ordinary for a refit until 22 December 1852.
From 1852 to 1855 the USS Constitution was assigned to the African Squadron under the command of Commander John S. Rudd. By that time, the 31st state California had joined the Union and the ship sailed with a new 31-star Number 1 ensign. The old ensign used in the Mediterranean was assigned to the flag locker as obsolete, stored for potential cannibalization to make other flags, as was the custom of the United States Navy at that time. It is probable that this flag header was removed and used for the new 31-star ensign at this time.
It is interesting to note that the 28/29/30 star ensign is in excellent condition, which is largely because the USS Constitution was never in battle during the Mediterranean cruise and would only have used this ensign on important occasions. Small repairs can be seen in the hoist and fly corners, which are the most common points for wear and tear. The flag's only deficit is that it is currently missing its heading along the hoist and it is thought that the heading and rope were repurposed to the new 31-star ensign. The old ensign was no longer capable of being used and stayed in its present condition in the Constitution's flag locker unused.
The ship was decommissioned on 14 June 1855 when the ship returned from service with the African Squadron. The ship was in a dilapidated condition and she faced an uncertain future. In 1856, former U.S. representative from Maine Virgil D. Parris was appointed "Keeper of Stores" at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where the USS Constitution was berthed. It was ordered that her light gear - sails, rigging, spars, various instruments, flags and signals - were to be condemned and sold at auction. Sometime between 1856 and 1858, Mr. Parris acquired at auction the flag locker of the USS Constitution and they remained in the Parris family until 1964.
The contents of the flag locker were retained by the Parris family at their Maine home and the number of flags originally in the locker is unknown. In the 1940s, Ken Parris, Virgil's grandson, reported that insects had consumed many of the signal flags and the small boat flags, reducing them to heaps of brilliant red, blue, green, yellow and white powder. In 1964, the 11 surviving Constitution flags and pennants were sold to Philadelphia philanthropist H. Richard Dietrich III, who cared for them in his Bucks County home, displaying them privately until his death.
The USS Constitution is still in commission and is used as a museum ship that is berthed permanently at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, MA. She is crewed by active duty naval personnel and serving aboard her is considered to be a huge privilege. In 2009, Congress declared: "It is the sense of Congress that the President, Vice President, executive branch officials and members of Congress should use the USS Constitution for the conducting of pertinent matters of state, such as hosting visiting heads of state, signing legislation relating to the armed forces and signing maritime related treaties" and declared her to be the official ship-of-state of the United States of America.
Freeman's Auctioneers and Appraisers
1808 Chestnut St.
Display Gallery Exhibition
25-30 April 2012
Freeman's Auctioneers & Appraisers, Historic USS Constitution Color from the Collection of H. Richard Dietrich Jr. Auction 04/03/12, Exton, Brilliant Studio, 2012.
Schrambling, Regina, "A Lifelong Pledge." Collection, Published by Robb Report, June 2014, p. 48B-48C.
• USS Constitution 1845 to 1858.
• Acquired at auction by Virgil D. Parris, U.S. Naval Keeper of Stores at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, 1858.
• By descent in the Parris Family, to Ken Parris (grandson), until 1964.
• Purchased by Julie & Dort Bigg, Turner Center Antiques, Turner Center, Maine, 1964.
• Purchased by Elinore & Horace Gordon, Oriental Lowestoft, Villanova, PA, 1964.
• Purchased by Philadelphia philanthropist H. Richard Dietrich III who displayed then privately in his Bucks County home, 1964
• By descent in the Dietrich Family Family (Dietrich American Foundation) after the death of H. Richard Dietrich III in 2007.
• Sold via Freeman's Auctions of Philadelphia, PA to the Zaricor Flag Collection, 2012.