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A new constellation

Flag Day is June 14th, but I had my own personal flag day last November when I visited the great-granddaughter of a Civil War hero, Thomas Wolfe. Thomas was a sea captain, transporting goods for the Union, when he was captured by the Confederates and thrown into a North Carolina prison that rivaled Andersonville for its vile conditions. One desperate night, he and a few companions began an improbable escape to a Union fort over 300 miles away. When the starving, exhausted men stumbled into the fort and saw the American flag, they wept.

The symbol of his country must have meant a lot to Thomas because his great-granddaughter showed me two flags that he’d owned; they date from 1848 and 1870, and feature 30 and 37 stars respectively. The 1848 flag flew on the Jane Bishop, a barque that Thomas commanded at one point in his maritime career. Thomas was a real person with a real family who worried about him. His sister, Emma Ann, once noted in her diary that a coastal winter storm in Mystic was so severe she was afraid the cupola on the house would blow away; she hoped her brother, off South Carolina on the Jane Bishop, was safe.

It was a special treat to see these flags. They added another dimension to what I already knew about a man who’s one of my favorite subjects.

Another flag that tells an important story is the Nathaniel Shaw American flag on display at the New London County Historical Society’s headquarters at the Shaw Mansion. Experts who’ve examined it believe it’s one of a tiny handful of flags still in existence from the Revolutionary War era. During that war, Nathaniel Shaw was the naval agent for Connecticut and the Continental Congress. His responsibilities included drawing up orders for privateers and distributing captured prizes. His wife, Lucretia, died of typhoid she contracted from POWs whom she cared for in the mansion. Did Lucretia fashion this flag? We don’t know, but this little piece of cloth, lovingly hand-sewn from bits of ribbon, symbolizes the Shaws’ courage, sacrifice, and vision.

Another historic local flag is the one that flew at Stonington when the British attacked the Borough during the War of 1812. (It’s unique for having 16 stars and 16 stripes.) In the lopsided battle between the British Navy and a tiny village, the gutsy village prevailed, in part because of the leadership of Jeremiah Holmes, a man who despised the British and knew how to fire cannons. At one point in the battle, the Americans considered taking the flag down for its protection, but Jeremiah said no, that flag would fly as long as he was alive. To make sure, he boosted up a companion who nailed it to the flagpole. Today the flag is kept in storage because of its fragile condition. It rarely makes public appearances, but with its inspiring history, it remains a symbol of defiant courage against all odds.

On a personal note, I have an old photograph that shows a family flag. In the picture, the Chappell family is assembled outside their ancestral homestead on Butlertown Road in Waterford. It’s 1884, and they’re enjoying their third family reunion in what would become an annual event spanning 100 years. The picture is grainy, but I count over 40 people, all dressed up and looking spiffy. Children are sitting sedately, at least for the moment, in a row on the ground. My grandmother is one of them. A large American flag with 38 stars waves on a line strung between two trees. The Chappells had a lot to celebrate: their love for one another and their love for the country they’d helped build. It must have been a wonderful day.

Back on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the Flag Act, replacing the Grand Union flag, which featured 13 stripes and the Union Jack in the upper left corner, with the Stars and Stripes. As Congress explained, the stars represented “a new Constellation” in the galaxy of nations. It’s been a beloved symbol ever since.

 

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