Waving the Bloody Flag

by Joe Craig, Park Volunteer

On any given day at Saratoga National Historical Park interpretive rangers and volunteers are presented with a wide range of questions from visitors. These run the gamut from the mundane (“Um….bathrooms?”) to the deep (“Will there always have to be wars?”) to the existential (“We came here from the right is there a way to go back by going to the left?”) [Note: these are actual visitor questions.] Sometimes the questions get into specifics about the park or the story of events in 1777, and the interpreter can go into overdrive ­ okay, occasionally overkill­ with her/his answers.

One question that seems to crop up now and again involves flags, specifically what flag (national colors) was flown by the Army of the United States during the battles of Saratoga. The answer is “we do not know of a national color present at the battles of Saratoga.”

This of course flies in the face of the iconography of the 19th Century, but the evidence from the 18th Century is on that which the rangers hang their Stetson hats. The national colors authorized by the Continental Congress on 14 June 1777 was to create a flag by which American ships and any permanent installations (forts and such) could be identified: The Army of the United States at Saratoga qualified for neither category.

There were, of course, flags at Saratoga, each regiment was authorized to have regimental colors to identify itself on the battlefield and help keep its unit cohesion under fire. But national colors? To date, no record has been found.

To make things interesting, there is a mention of a flag and that has presented a puzzle. Only one account mentions it, which invites a level of skepticism, but there is good plausibility for authenticity, as will be seen.

Henry Jolly of Morgan’s Rifle Corps recalled:

“…the 7th of October, when the British came out and offered battle. At the discharge of their first cannon, up went the bloody flag in our camp. I think 50 or 60 feet high (the only time I have ever seen the bloody flag hoisted). We then marched out….”

Now, how could there be a more eye-catching phrase than “ the bloody flag”? But what, asks the Curious and Gentle Reader, could it possibly signify?

One possibility was that the flag in question was a national color in the form of a thirteen red and white striped banner. If such a flag was hanging limply the red stirpes might have appeared to be a red banner. This doesn’t hold much promise as the Army of the United States probably wouldn’t have a national color for the reasons stated above. And let’s face it, if Jolly couldn’t discern details like different colored stripes on a flag at fifty to sixty feet he couldn’t have been much of a rifleman.

It appears that flying a red flag as at Saratoga was not a unique event. Earlier in the war, a captain of an English transport wrote the owners of his ship about flags he witnessed at the siege of Boston, dated January 17, 1776:

“…I can see the Rebels' camp very plain, whose colours, a little while ago, were entirely red; but, on the receipt of the King' s speech, (which they burnt,) they have hoisted the Union Flag, which is here supposed to intimate the union of the Provinces….”

The correspondent apparently did not make any conjecture of a reason for the red flag. By contrast, at the American siege of Quebec in 1776, an unknown British officer noticed some flags flying over the besiegers’ camp:

“5th [March 1776] This day perceived that the enemy had displayed two flags, a red one at Mr. Lynd’s farm, and a black one in the neighborhood of the guard-house, near their old battery. Various are the conjectures concerning them; some imagine them to be signals for prisoners within (who are now very strictly looked after), while others say it is in commemoration of that seditious day at Boston, when Captain Preston is said to have ordered his soldiers to fire upon the populace, during the during the tumult, and killed several people of the town; and some few think it is to show they will give no quarter when they attack us again”

Whether the flags had any meaning attributed, apparently nothing came of any of their display. Indeed, two subsequent entries referring to the flags, do not shed too much light about their purpose:

“6tt. [March] All tranquility. Blowing hard, with hail and snow: ­ no flag seen to-day.

7th. Fine weather. Fatigue-parties out making a snow ditch without the walls, and mounting more cannon on the face of the ramparts. Many of the enemy seen marching backwards and forwards in the environs of the town. The red flag hoisted again.”

Could Jolly’s “bloody flag” at Saratoga have been a signal of a sorts as the Quebec officer speculated? Jolly mentions that it was run up “At the discharge of their first cannon” and the riflemen’s camp was at the Summit the high point of the American Lines. At such a prominent location a flag would have been within view of a lot of the Army of the United States.

It is noteworthy that when stationary forces were spread over a large area, flags could be employed as signaling devices. A report [7 March 1776] to His Excellency, General Washington by several of his general officers (including our very own Horatio Gates) recommended the use of flags and pennants to alert the entire army of any untoward actions by the besieged British:

“To His Excellency GENERAL WASHINGTON, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United Colonies:

In obedience to your Excellency' s orders, we have considered the matters referred to us, and beg leave to recommend the following Signals to be given from Roxbury, in case of any movement of the enemy to distress our people at Dorchester-Hill.

Signal in case the enemy begin to embark: a flag on Roxbury Meeting-House. If they actually land at Dorchester, two flags, one over the other. In case the number of the enemy exceed two thousand men, a flag at the east, and another at the west end of that Meeting-House. In case a reinforcement in addition to the two thousand are seen embarking, a flag on the east, a flag on the west, and a flag in the middle of that Meeting-House. In case the enemy begin to retreat, three flags, one above the other. In case the enemy carry the works, the flags are to be struck.

We further beg leave to recommend to your Excellency, that should it appear from the signals at Roxbury, or in any Other way, that an attack may be made upon Boston with good probability of success, we recommend that four thousand men embark at the mouth of Cambridge River — two thousand of them to be furnished from Cambridge, and two thousand from Prospect and Winter Hills; one thousand from each of those Hills. The two thousand from Cambridge to be commanded by Brigadier-General Sullivan, and the other two thousand by Brigadier-General Greene. The whole to be commanded by Major-General Putnam.

Signal for the embarkation: a pendant hoisted on Prospect-Hill….”

Much later in the conflict and an ocean away, French and Spanish forces besieged Gibraltar, and a red flag certainly was used by the British garrison as a signal:

“…In case of a [hostile] visit from [Spanish gunboats], signals were now determined upon, to intimate when the Artillery were to man the batteries. Two guns quick, and a red flag hoisted upon a flag-staff erected on the South bastion, was to be the day-signal….” [ From A History of the Late Siege of Gibraltar, by John Drinkwater 1786]

At the same shindig, the Spanish used a red flag for signaling as well:

“[October 24th 1781] About two this afternoon, a great firing was heard in the gut—the Spanish towers had a red flag hoisted, and several galleys pushed from Algaziras [sic] to the westward.­ We fear some unfortunate vessel destined for this place, has fell [sic] into the enemy’s clutches….” From A Circumstantial Journal of the Long and Tedious Blockade and Siege of Gibraltar , S. Ancell, 1784.

An alternative meaning for Jolly’s flag was suggested by Official Saratoga Battlefield Guide Jim Hughto,. Jim cited the siege of Derry, Ireland in 1689 at which affair, besieged Protestants flew a red flag as a sign of defiance against the Catholic forces surrounding the place. Considering the source of the tip, it was worth a look.

The 1861 book The Siege and History of Londonderry, edited by John Hempden related the following Seventeenth Century account:

In the evening James Rock, the Governor’s orders, struck the flag on the Church three times, and as often hoisted it up, then made a wave, which was done to let the fleet see our great distress, a signal frequent at sea….”

“28th of July 1689! [sic] ­ A day to be remembered with thanksgiving by the besieged of Derry as they live, for on this day we were delivered from famine and slavery. With the former they were threatened if they stayed here, and the latter if they went away, or surrendered the garrison to the enemy. The wind blew N.W. in the morning, in the evening more northwards. Our flag struck once or twice to let the fleet see once more our inevitable distress; as much as to say, if they came not now, the wind blowing fair, they might stay away for ever. Beside the flag eight cannons were fired from the steeple to let them fully into our situation and hasten their relief, then the flag made a wave. The fleet returned us six great guns in answer….”

Of course, it’s evident from the account that the red flag was not just as a sign of defiance, but also a way to let the relief forces to stop lollygagging and get their barnacle-encrusted rudders in gear. However, having outlasted the forces of the Jacobites, the heroics of the siege took on an aura given to Great Moments Proving God Likes Our Side and Not Yours (So There). And the flag, of course became the symbol of defiance.

By at least 1718 the event was being celebrated, by Derry’s Protestant population:

“1718­Aug. 1­ I read prayers, first and second services, at Londonderry. Col. [John] Mitchelburne’s Bloody Flag being hoisted y e first time on ye Steeple. P.M. Great guns and volleys. Even. Splendid treat in ye Tolsel. Fireworks and Illuminations.”

The astute reader will have already recognized the term used to describe the Derry banner as the same as Henry Jolly’s description of the Saratoga flag. As many of Morgan’s Riflemen were recruited from the “backcountry”, an area settled by many Ulstermen or Scot-Irish, it’s not hard to figure that the folklore surrounding siege of Derry might just be part of the mental baggage of Jolly and his compadres. Whatever official intent of the flag at Saratoga, Jolly may have read it as a symbol of defiance against a successor to the Catholic Jacobite forces of 1689.

Apparently red flags as a way of (metaphorically) giving a nose thumbing to the British:

24th [June 1780] This forenoon a Spanish 70 gun ship from the E. having an English ensign one her fore-top-mast-head, and a yellow flag over it as a signal of defiance….” From A Circumstantial Journal of the Long and Tedious Blockade and Siege of Gibraltar , S. Ancell, 1784

[October 16th, 1782] This forenoon a frigate came round the rock, hoisted a red flag, and fired a gun to windward, as a signal of defiance….” Ibid .

Despite all this fuss and bother we’re no closer to understanding what the purpose was for the “bloody flag” described by Henry Jolly. We can certainly say that flags played prominent roles in the early modern period as signals and as a way of telling off the opposition. But, until more information is found we do not know precisely the reason for the “ bloody flag” flying at Saratoga.

But we’ll keep looking.