Modelers and artists want to get the details right, and they frequently turn to us for answers to some great questions. We love these sorts of inquiries because they make us take a closer look at the minutiae that make up the ship. From paint colors and gun tackles to crew clothing and barrel capacity, we’ve answered them all. We’ve recently had an influx of inquiries about Constitution’s national ensigns during the early part of her career. By the 1830s or so, the answer is straightforward. Nearly all artistic depictions of the ship show a flag with thirteen stripes and the requisite number of stars, depending on the number of states in the union.
Before the 1830s, however, the situation becomes a bit more confused. In 1818 Congress passed a Flag Act officially mandating thirteen red and white stripes for the US flag. In addition, it stipulated that a new star would be added to the blue union for each new state. This legislation superseded the Flag Act of 1794, which designated a national flag of 15 stripes and 15 stars. Incidentally, that same Congress authorized the building of six original frigates.
Nevertheless, the earliest depiction of Constitution, a superlative 1803 watercolor by Michele Felice Cornè, shows the ship flying an ensign with seventeen stars and sixteen stripes. Cornè precisely delineated the smallest detail of the ship, so it would be strange for him to have mis-represented the flag. The number of stars is certainly correct for the period (Ohio was admitted to the union as the seventeenth state in 1803), but the mismatched stripes are curious.
By the War of 1812, the ship is most frequently depicted with the 15 star and stripe flag. Cornè’s famous depiction of the fight with HMS Guerriere, as well as George Ropes’ paintings of the same engagement, features stars in three parallel rows of five. Another watercolor of about 1810 to 1812 by an anonymous artist shows the same ensign.
By the end of the war, the flags change. Charles Ware’s well-known sail plan from 1817 shows the ship flying a unique flag: 12 stars circling one large star, with 13 stripes. This design is repeated in Abel Bowen’s c. 1812 engraving of the ship, albeit with 14 stars and stripes. A post-1821 watercolor shows 21 stars and 13 stripes, while an image of the battle with Guerriere recently sold by the Hirschl & Adler Galleries (and probably painted after the war) has 18 stars and 16 stripes. An 1814 painting of the launch of the USS Washington in Portsmouth also features a similar flag.
The number of stripes and stars on these flags may have been artistic license, but one suspects that the general arrangement of small stars around one large central star may have been used for a few years after the end of the War of 1812. That these persisted after the Flag Act of 1818 is surprising. This is especially true given the circular sent to commandants of navy yards in 1818 by Board of Navy Commissioners president John Rodgers. His communiqué of May 18 spelled out the new law governing the flag and even gave specific dimensions for all Navy ensigns: “The size of the flag must be in the proportion of fourteen feet in width and twenty-four feet in length, the field of the union must be one-third the length of the flag, and seven-thirteenths of its depth, so that from the top to the bottom of the union there will be seven stripes, and six stripes from the bottom of the union to the bottom of the flag. The manner of arranging the stars you will perceive by the subjoined sketch [the sketch features four staggered rows of five stars each].”1
On September 18 he wrote again to amend the pattern of stars. The president had determined that the stars should be placed in four parallel rows, instead of the staggered rows first proposed. Rodgers further ordered that on the first hoisting of the flag, the yards were to fire a twenty gun salute, suggesting that most stations had yet to acquire the most up-to-date flag.2 Constitution flies this flag in an 1824 portrait by Nicolo Camillieri.
The persistence of out-of-date flags and unusual designs might not be that strange when one considers the expense of replacing large ensigns. In 1812, Boston merchant Daniel Rhodes supplied the frigate Chesapeake with four American ensigns, each 20 feet long and 11 feet 5 inches wide, as well as 2 boat ensigns 9 feet long and 5 1/2 feet wide.3 The large ensigns cost $22.16 each to make- not including the material. Based on other receipts from the Boston Navy Yard, the woolen bunting, as well as tow cloth for the hoist, cost a little more than $80 for each flag.
Incidentally, one of these ensigns still exists. When HMS Shannon captured the Chesapeake in 1813, the ensign journeyed to England. Today it resides, in fragmentary form, at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
1 Quoted in George Preble, The History and Origin of the American Flag (Philadelphia: Nicholas L. Brown, 1917), 349.
3 Voucher to Daniel Rhodes, 30 Nov. 1812, in Fourth Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, RG 217, Box 39, NARA.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.