Stonington’s fragile battle flag is a centerpiece of local history

Stonington’s fragile battle flag is a centerpiece of local history

The Westerly Sun

STONINGTON — If Francis Scott Key had been in Stonington in August 1814, “The Star-Spangled Banner” could have been written about the Stonington Battle Flag.

The flag was hand-sewn in Stonington by the women of the Stonington Congregational Church, according to the Stonington Historical Society’s website. The best estimate for the age of the wool banner was that it was sewn sometime between 1796 and 1803.

Physically, it’s a unique flag because it has 16 stars and 16 stripes, and there was never an officially sanctioned flag with that configuration.

The Continental Congress adopted a flag with 13 stars and 13 stripes in 1777. After Vermont and Kentucky joined the union, the new official flag had 15 stars and 15 stripes as of 1795.

The Stonington women made the Stonington Battle Flag when official flags had 15 stars, but because Tennessee was either about to become a state or had just achieved statehood, they made their flag with 16 stars and 16 stripes.

Tennessee did become a state in 1796, followed by Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi between 1803 and 1817. Congress caught up with the new states in 1818, authorizing a flag with 20 stars and 13 stripes.

There was never an official 16-star, 16-stripe flag, and Stonington may have the only one.

The flag flew above the cannon battery in what is now Stonington Borough, as the men of Stonington exchanged cannon fire with a British squadron offshore.

“Stonington’s flag smelled the gunpowder from British attacks,” said historian Glenn Gordinier, the primary author of “The Rockets’ Red Glare: The War of 1812 and Connecticut.”

Although some of the holes in the flag today are likely due to insect damage over the years, some may have been caused by battle shrapnel.

About a month after the Battle of Stonington, a different U.S. flag was raised over Fort McHenry in Baltimore following a hard-fought U.S. victory over the British. Inspired by the sight of his nation’s flag in the dawn’s early light, and knowing that it meant Baltimore was safe, U.S. District Attorney Francis Scott Key penned a poem that is known today as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Had he seen the Stonington Battle Flag survive days of British bombardment, Key might have found himself even more inspired.

The Stonington Battle Flag stayed with the local militia after the battle, and then with a militia member’s family following the group’s disbanding.

Eventually, it was donated to the historical society in the 1890s. Executive Director Mary Beth Baker said it was an informal group at the time and that the members became more organized in 1895 just so they could take care of the flag. It remains the star of the society’s collections.

“The history of this society has a lot to do with this flag,” she said.

Because of its size, approximately 12 feet by 18 feet, there were few options for displaying the flag. It eventually underwent a restoration in 1949, when it was cut into pieces that were sewn onto a backing with a zig-zag sewing machine.

The work, which cost $1,000, was performed in the same Annapolis studio that restored the Star Spangled Banner in 1914. Following that restoration, it hung in a case behind the tellers in Stonington Borough’s Ocean Bank, located opposite Cannon Square.

“It hung behind the tellers for years and years and years,” said Baker, “until somebody noticed it wasn’t doing too well.”

The flag was removed from its case at the bank and was examined by textile experts at the University of Rhode Island.

One of those experts was Susan J. Jerome, who wrote an informative article about the flag in the most recent issue of Historical Footnotes, the Stonington society’s publication. Members of the historical society cleaned the flag, and stored it on a roller with a protective cloth sleeve.

Too large to display flat and too fragile to hang, it remains in storage at the historical society’s R.W. Woolworth Library at 40 Palmer St.

In 2012, it went on display in a specially-built case at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London as part of the museum’s exhibit, “The Rockets’ Red Glare: Connecticut and the War of 1812.” It will go on display in Stonington again, Baker said, for one day during the Battle of Stonington bicentennial celebration.

The historical society will also be releasing a book about the flag called, “Our Flag is Still Here: The Story of Stonington’s Unique Star-Spangled Banner.” Written by Jim Geary, the book is expected to be released in a few weeks.


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