French Masthead Pennant, L'Insurgente - Quasi-War with France 1798-1800
French Masthead Pennant, French Quasi-War, 1798-1800
This is a long, wool French Republic masthead pennant adopted in 1794. A masthead pennant was the distinguishing mark of a nation's warship in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century they became known as commission pennants. In the 20th and 21st centuries they were greatly reduced in size so as not to interfere with modern warship's electronics. In the past, a long pennant fluttering from the mainmast was a common sight at sea.
This pennant is a trophy of war, taken by the USS Constitution earlier in her career during the Quasi-War with France. From 1798 to 1800, the U.S. fought an undeclared war with the French Republic. During this conflict, the USS Constitution captured six French ships as prizes of war; the L'Insurgente, Spencer, Carteret, Amelia, Sally and Sandwich. However, five of the six ships were merchantmen or privateers and would not have worn a masthead pennant as they were not commissioned warships. Only the L'Insurgente was a French frigate, and entitled to display the commission pennant of the French Republic. The L'Insurgente was recommissioned the USS L'Insurgente and served the US Navy until 1800 when she was lost in a storm.
A trophy pennant would have been retained and given a special place and status aboard the Constitution. Trophies had a highly symbolic meaning to a ship's company and this pennant is in remarkable condition for a pennant taken in the late 18th century.
After the Quasi-War, and distinguished service during the War of 1812, the USS Constitution served for the US Navy for several decades. In 1858 she was placed in ordinary to be refitted. In the 19th century, 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 decommission it by removing her armaments, masts, rigging and sails, and light gear and storing them ashore. Ships that were placed into ordinary were often used as receiving ships and even though they were still in commission, they were only minimally crewed and were generally under the charge of warrant officers.
This pennant was among the flags acquired by the U.S. Naval Store Keeper Virgil D. Parish when the light gear of the USS Constitution was auctioned in 1858, making it, perhaps, one of the oldest French flags or pennants extant.
The design of the pennant does not help reveal its age. The revolutionary government of the French Republic adopted a masthead pennant by decree of the French National Convention on 27 PluviÃ´se of the Year II or 15 February 1794. According to the provisions of Article IV, the pennant should have three colors with one-fifth blue, one-fifth white and three-fifths red. This pennant is roughly equal parts each of blue, white and red, indicating that it was made by someone either ignorant to the specifications, someone who chose to ignore the specifications or by someone that could only use materials that they had to hand.
The pennant shows both use and expert repairs, but exactly how and by who still eludes us. It will require further study in order to determine its origins.
H. Richard Dietrich III who displayed it privately in his Bucks County home
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.
â€¢ French Republic corvette L'Insurgente, late 1790s.
â€¢ USS Constitution, until 1858.
â€¢ Acquired at auction by Virgil D. Parris, U.S. Naval Keeper of Stores at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,1858.
â€¢ By descent in the Parris Family, to Ken Parris (grandson), until 1964.
â€¢ Purchased by Julie & Dort Bigg, Turner Center Antiques, Turner Center, Maine, 1964.
â€¢ Purchased by Elinore & Horace Gordon, Oriental Lowestoft, Villanova, PA, 1964.
â€¢ Purchased by Philadelphia philanthropist H. Richard Dietrich III who displayed then privately in his Bucks County home, 1964
â€¢ By descent in the Dietrich Family Family (Dietrich American Foundation) after the death of H. Richard Dietrich III in 2007.
â€¢ Sold via Freeman's Auctions of Philadelphia, PA to the Zaricor Flag Collection, 2012.