Due to the use of flags by military units, 'flag' is also used as the name of some military units. A flag (Arabic: لواء) is equivalent to a brigade in Arab countries, and in Spain, a flag (Spanish: bandera) is a battalion-equivalent in the Spanish Legion.
In antiquity, field signs or standards were used in warfare that can be categorized as vexilloid or 'flag-like'. Examples include the Sassanid battle standard Derafsh Kaviani, and the standards of the Roman legions such as the eagle of Augustus Caesar's Xth legion, or the dragon standard of the Sarmatians; the latter was let fly freely in the wind, carried by a horseman, but judging from depictions it was more similar to an elongated dragon kite than to a simple flag.
During the High Middle Ages flags came to be used primarily as a heraldic device in battle, allowing more easily to identify a knight than only from the heraldic device painted on the shield. Already during the high medieval period, and increasingly during the Late Middle Ages, city states and communes such as those of the Old Swiss Confederacy also began to use flags as field signs. Regimental flags for individual units became commonplace during the Early Modern period.
During the peak of the age of sail, beginning in the early 17th century, it was customary (and later a legal requirement) for ships to carry flags designating their nationality; these flags eventually evolved into the national flags and maritime flags of today. Flags also became the preferred means of communications at sea, resulting in various systems of flag signals; see, International maritime signal flags.
Use of flags outside of military or naval context begins only with the rise of nationalist sentiment by the end of the 18th century; the earliest national flags date to that period, and during the 19th century it became common for every sovereign state to introduce a national flag.
The flag of the United States of America, often referred to as the American flag, is the national flag of the United States of America. It consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton (referred to specifically as the ,,union") bearing fifty small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternating with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states of the United States of America, and the 13 stripes represent the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and became the first states in the US. Nicknames for the flag include The Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, and The Star-Spangled Banner.
The current design of the U.S. flag is its 27th; the design of the flag has been modified officially 26 times since 1777. The 48-star flag was in effect for 47 years until the 49-star version became official on July 4, 1959. The 50-star flag was ordered by former president Eisenhower on August 21, 1959, and was adopted in July 1960. It is the longest-used version of the U.S. flag and has been in use for over 56 years.
At the time of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the Continental Congress would not legally adopt flags with ,,stars, white in a blue field" for another year. The flag contemporaneously known as "the Continental Colors" has historically been referred to as the first national flag.
The Continental Navy raised the Colors as the ensign of the fledgling nation in the American War for Independence-likely with the expedient of transforming their previous British red ensigns by adding white stripes-and would use this flag until 1777, when it would form the basis for the subsequent de jure designs.
The name ,,Grand Union" was first applied to the Continental Colors by George Preble in his 1872 history of the American flag.
The flag closely resembles the British East India Company flag of the era, and Sir Charles Fawcett argued in 1937 that the company flag inspired the design. Both flags could have been easily constructed by adding white stripes to a British Red Ensign, one of the three maritime flags used throughout the British Empire at the time. However, an East India Company flag could have from nine to 13 stripes, and was not allowed to be flown outside the Indian Ocean.
In any case, both the stripes (barry) and the stars (mullets) have precedents in classical heraldry. Mullets were comparatively rare in early modern heraldry, but an example of mullets representing territorial divisions predating the U.S. flag are those in the coat of arms of Valais of 1618, where seven mullets stood for seven districts.
On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: ,,Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. While scholars still argue about this, tradition holds that the new flag was first hoisted in June 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment.
The first official U.S. flag flown during battle was on August 3, 1777, at Fort Schuyler (Fort Stanwix) during the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Massachusetts reinforcements brought news of the adoption by Congress of the official flag to Fort Schuyler. Soldiers cut up their shirts to make the white stripes; scarlet material to form the red was secured from red flannel petticoats of officers' wives, while material for the blue union was secured from Capt. Abraham Swartwout's blue cloth coat. A voucher is extant that Capt. Swartwout of Dutchess County was paid by Congress for his coat for the flag.
The 1777 resolution was most probably meant to define a naval ensign. In the late 18th century, the notion of a national flag did not yet exist, or was only nascent. The flag resolution appears between other resolutions from the Marine Committee. On May 10, 1779, Secretary of the Board of War Richard Peters expressed concern ,,it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the United States." However, the term, "Standard," referred to a national standard for the Army of the United States. Each regiment was to carry the national standard in addition to its regimental standard. The national standard was not a reference to the national or naval flag.
The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement, number of points, nor orientation for the stars and the arrangement or whether the flag had to have seven red stripes and six white ones or vice versa. The appearance was up to the maker of the flag. Some flag makers arranged the stars into one big star, in a circle or in rows and some replaced a state's star with its initial. One arrangement features 13 five-pointed stars arranged in a circle, with the stars arranged pointing outwards from the circle (as opposed to up), the so-called Betsy Ross flag. This flag, however, is more likely a flag used for celebrations of anniversaries of the nation's birthday. Experts have dated the earliest known example of this flag to be 1792 in a painting by John Trumbull.
Despite the 1777 resolution, the early years of American independence featured many different flags. Most were individually crafted rather than mass-produced. While there are many examples of 13-star arrangements, some of those flags included blue stripes as well as red and white. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in a letter dated October 3, 1778, to the King of the Two Sicilies, described the American flag as consisting of ,,13 stripes, alternately red, white, and blue, a small square in the upper angle, next the flag staff, is a blue field, with 13 white stars, denoting a new Constellation." John Paul Jones used a variety of 13-star flags on his U.S. Navy ships including the well-documented 1779 flags of the Serapis and the Alliance. The Serapis flag had three rows of eight-pointed stars with stripes that were red, white, and blue. The flag for the Alliance, however, had five rows of eight-pointed stars with 13 red and white stripes, and the white stripes were on the outer edges. Both flags were documented by the Dutch government in October 1779, making them two of the earliest known flags of 13 stars.