Old Glory

Old Glory has long been the nickname for the American flag but do you know where this name originated?

You can view the first flag to be called Old Glory and learn it’s story at the National Museum of American History. Before we go into the history, let’s set the stage for my 2021 viewing of this artifact.

The trip to DC was originally planned for Labor Day 2020 but was Covid cancelled like everything else. By the time we made it there this year, it was part vacation, part educational experience, and part healing journey.

Just nine months before my DC visit, citizens of our nation staged an attack on our own Capitol. Footage of the violence, the deaths of Capitol Police officers, and politicians downplaying the severity of this event had left my morale and hope for the future feeling beaten and bloodied.

I’m still trying to make sense of how politics have left us so divided there are leaders who think it’s ok to dismiss the threat of domestic terrorism in exchange for a few votes.

By the time we made it to see Old Glory, we had already done many things in the Capitol city.

We had watched ducks peacefully splashing in the watery reflection of the US Capitol building early one morning. It was so peaceful you wouldn’t have guessed what went on here before. We had visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon and learned about this founding father who understood the need for national unity. We had paid our respects to brave men and women who rallied to defeat the enemy at the World War II Memorial.

I have thought a lot about how we have lost sight of the collective good in favor of what’s good for the individual. We’ve lost our ability to set aside differences to fight a common enemy. Heck, we’ve lost the ability to even identify the enemy. The enemy is within us and we have become our own worst enemy. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if World War II were fought today. This is a particularly disturbing thought where I prefer not to dwell.

With this in mind, seeing Old Glory was strangely therapeutic and restorative.

To get to the flag, you enter a pitch black hallway lined with dimly lit displays on one side. That’s handy because you are likely to stand in line for a few minutes on your way to the flag.

Here you’ll learn about how the flag belonged to ship captain William Driver, a Salem, Massachusetts native who received the handmade 24 star flag from his mother and a group of women. It was a gift to celebrate his appointment as a master mariner and commander of his own ship. He was just 21. That was in 1824.

Captain Driver sailed the world during his 20 year career. To China and India and throughout the South Pacific, he sailed always under that flag.

He treasured that flag and kept it with him when he retired to Nashville, Tennessee where he flew it from his home on holidays and carefully cared for this very personal symbol of national pride. In 1860, Captain Driver, his wife and daughters are said to have repaired the flag and updated it by sewing on ten additional stars. He also added a small white anchor in the lower right corner to signify his maritime career.

He later would hide and protect the flag when the Confederates attempted to seize it during the Civil War. He sewed it inside a coverlet and hid it until Nashville fell to the Union Army.

Captain Driver eventually gifted it to his daughter who presented it to President Warren G. Harding in 1922. President Harding had the flag sent to the Smithsonian where it was authenticated as the real Old Glory despite claims from another relative that she had the real Old Glory.

There is much more to the story of this flag and of Captain Driver’s adventures. If you’re inclined, there’s been much written including a novel depicting Driver’s adventures that was written by his great great grandson. Better yet, go see the flag for yourself.

At the museum, once you pass through the hallway and round the corner, this 17×10 foot flag is behind a large glass window. Climate controlled and dimly lit to protect the delicate fabric, the display is simple and it is breathtaking.

You cannot take pictures anywhere in this exhibit so I am borrowing this image from the Smithsonian.

I sat on a bench, staring at the flag and absorbing the moment for as long as I could justify. It was a moment worth savoring and committing to memory.

She’s been painstakingly restored by the Smithsonian. She was lovingly protected by a family that understood her value. If she could talk, I’m sure her stories would fascinate and delight, shock and enthrall us.

But she can’t speak which is why it’s up to the rest of us to speak for her, to stand up for what she represents, to protect the Democracy that has been threatened by people who don’t understand that being an American isn’t about following a single person or party or about one’s rights to do what pleases us.

It’s bigger than us all.

6 thoughts on “Old Glory

  1. Well stated and in many respects I agree with your sentiments. Sometimes I wonder if the flag promotes the idea of American exceptionalism and creates further division within and between nations.

  2. Pingback: Capitol Views | Make the Journey Fun

  3. Pingback: A Perfect Birthday Eve | Make the Journey Fun

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