Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 2 · January 2003
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Robert E. Bonner teaches American history at Michigan State University. He is the author of Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South (Princeton, 2002).

 

 

"It is worth considering why Americans have invested their flags with such importance and how the United States has become more saturated with patriotic color than any other country in the world. The comparative intensity of American loyalties is less noteworthy than the country's fixation on a single symbol, which has come to be associated with a remarkably wide range of emotions."

Star-spangled Sentiment
Robert E. Bonner

Part I | II | III | IV | V
O you up there! O pennant!
Out of reach — an idea only — yet furiously fought for,
risking bloody death — loved by me!
So loved! O you banner leading the day, with stars
brought from the night!
Valueless, object of eyes, over all and demanding all —
O banner and pennant! . . .
I see but you, O warlike pennant. O banner so broad
with stripes, I sing you only,
Flapping up there in the wind.
—Walt Whitman, Song of the Banner at Daybreak

I. O you up there! O pennant!

In 1861, the skies of New York were filled with red, white, and blue cloth, waving defiantly at enemies of the United States. The Confederate assault on Fort Sumter might have been bloodless, but it produced the same flag-draped mixture of anger, sorrow, and anxiety brought on by the nearly three thousand deaths on September 11, 2002. At the outset of the Civil War, as in the months following 9/11, America was ready to follow Walt Whitman and "see but you, O warlike pennant" and to "sing you only, / Flapping up there in the wind."

Patriotic fervor of the spring of 1861 reached a high point on April 20, when the oversized Stars and Stripes, recently evacuated from Fort Sumter, arrived in Manhattan. During a "monster rally," U.S. commander Robert Anderson carried this banner into Union Square and placed it in the sculpted hands of George Washington himself. A photographer captured the scene by positioning himself above both the crowd and the first president's huge equestrian monument. In this blurry image, the throng looked upward, gazing towards an emblem that would soon be carried into war.


Fig. 1. The "monster rally" in New York's Union Square, April 1861. From a stereoscopic image courtesy the New York Historical Society.

A few weeks after this spectacle, Henry Ward Beecher tried to make sense of the incessant Union flag waving. "Our Flag carries American ideas, American history, and American feelings," he explained, which had "gathered and stored" the idea of liberty ever since the colonial period. If Beecher overstated the Stars and Stripes' age, he still captured the main sources of its appeal. Weaving together abstract values, past events, and passionate emotions, the American flag had already become a nearly religious presence across the North. By the end of this war, it would generate an even more powerful aura, which would be perpetuated through America's uniquely flag-centered patriotism.

In recent years, the American flag's mystical power has never been far from sight. Pledges from schoolchildren, pregame renditions of the "Star Spangled Banner," and never ending controversies over flag desecration all testify to Americans' regard for patriotic cloth. During periods of crisis, Americans' flag passions rise to their highest levels of intensity. The past year and a half has made this clear, whether one considers the flag-draped coffins of New York or the Pentagon or the thousands, if not millions, of banners hung from windows and porches in the fall of 2001. In this most recent resurgence of patriotism, flags with special associations have generated the most attention, just as they did in 1861. A flag pulled from the Ground Zero rubble missing twelve of its stars gained headlines by traveling to the World Series, to the Super Bowl, and, in its last and most controversial public appearance, to the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Another, emblazoned with comments written directly on its cloth by visitors to the World Trade Center site, went via navy ship to Afghanistan, where United States troops raised it over Kabul.


Fig. 2. A "ground zero" flag

It is worth considering why Americans have invested their flags with such importance and how the United States has become more saturated with patriotic color than any other country in the world. The comparative intensity of American loyalties is less noteworthy than the country's fixation on a single symbol, which has come to be associated with a remarkably wide range of emotions. Americans' devotion to patriotic cloth has its taproot in the American Civil War, when the cult of the Stars and Stripes intensified just as it broadened its range of associations. During the war for the Union, the flag merged popular energies with government power, while sanctifying the country's idealism with the shedding of blood. As in the Union Square pairing of flag and founder, the national banner in these years also threaded together present emergencies with the country's imagined past.

America's emotional attachment to flags attests the country's penchant for patriotic spectacle. But flag culture had larger significance, especially in helping the country modify the European path to nationhood. What made the United States' case special, if not wholly exceptional, was that its flag cult helped to build collective authority on willing sacrifice rather than on sheer national strength. It was a combination of blood and cloth, rather than of blood and iron, that accounted for the star-spangled sentiment of the 1860s. This mixture gained potency as it was passed down to later generations, who would continue to use the flag both as a sign of inspiration and as an all-too-effective instrument against dissent.

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