Most people walking by don’t even to bother to look up and notice the display of historic flags along the front of the FBI Headquarters building. But they should, because they tell quite a bit about the proud history of the United States. Located along Pennsylvania Avenue, also known as “the Nation’s ceremonial route”, are ten historic flags, flanked on either end by today’s 50-star flag representing the 50 states of the Union. And on today’s bike ride, I rode there to see the display that illustrates the development of the “Stars and Stripes”. While I am not a vexillologist, I found all of the historic flags displayed outside the FBI building interesting and informative.
Beginning at the east end of the building near 9th Street and proceeding west toward 10th Street are these ten historic flags:
- The Grand Union, or Continental Colors, serving from 1775-1777, was first raised on January 1, 1776, on Mount Pigsah, Massachusetts, about the time the Continental army came into formal existence. It combined the British Union Jack and 13 stripes, signifying Colonial unity.
- The Flag of 1777, which had no official arrangement for the 13 stars. It was flown by John Paul Jones on the USS Ranger and was the first American flag to be recognized by a foreign power.
- The Betsy Ross Flag, 13 stars, designed by George Washington, Betsy Ross, and Francis Hopkinson. Although rarely used, it was adopted by Congress on June 14, 1777 – the official date of the holiday which is today known as Flag Day.
- The Bennington Flag, 13 six-pointed stars, allegedly flown August 16, 1777, over military stores at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont, when the Vermont militia beat back a superior British force.
- The Star Spangled Banner, 15 stars and 15 stripes, immortalized by Francis Scott Key in our National Anthem during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Maryland, in September 13, 1814.
- The Flag of 1818, 20 stars, commissioned by a Congressional Flag Act that returned the design to 13 stripes and stipulated that stars be added for each new state.
- The Great Star Flag, 20 stars, designed by Captain Samuel Chester Reid, U.S. Navy, at the request of New York Congressman Peter Wendover and flown over the U.S. Capitol on April 13, 1818. This flag has the stars arranged in the pattern of a star, symbolizing the motto “E Pluribus Unum”: Out of many, one.
- The Lincoln Flag, 34 stars, raised by President Lincoln on February 22, 1861, over Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to send a message to Southern states, which were preparing to secede from the Union.
- The Iwo Jima Flag, 48 stars, which was commissioned in 1912 but came to symbolize our nation on February 19, 1945, when U.S. Marines raised it on Mount Suribachi after fearful fighting in World War II’s Pacific campaign.
- The 49-Star Flag, commissioned in 1959 when Alaska achieved full statehood. It flew for only one year, until July 4, 1960, after Hawaii achieved its Statehood and when today’s 50-star flag became official.
And as I was leaving, I saw one more flag, on a flag pole around the corner of the 9th Street side of the building. It’s the current United States flag, which the FBI’s police force reverently raises each day at 5 am and then takes down again at dusk.