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Flag of the United States of America
See adjacent text.
Names The Stars and Stripes, Old Glory
Use National flag and ensign
Proportion 10:19
Adopted June 14, 1777 (13-star version)
July 4, 1960 (50-star version)
Design Thirteen horizontal stripes alternating red and white; in the canton, 50 white stars on a blue field
Designed by Unknown, possibly Francis Hopkinson
Grand Union Flag.svg
FIAV historical.svg The Grand Union Flag

The ensign of the United States refers to the flag of the United States when worn as an ensign (a type of maritime flag identifying nationality, usually flown from the stern of a ship or boat).[1] All documented U.S. vessels, and all U.S. vessels in international or foreign waters, are required to display this ensign between 08:00 and sunset. Other U.S. vessels may use this ensign at their discretion.

Some other flags are often used as “civilian” or “yacht” ensigns in place of the national flag by small boats in United States waters; however this practice has no specific support in American law.


Military ensigns


The naval ensign and its first salute

The Grand Union Flag was the de facto first U.S. naval ensign. It was first raised aboard Continental Navy Commodore Esek Hopkins' flagship Alfred on the Delaware River on December 3, 1775; John Paul Jones, then the ship's senior lieutenant, personally claimed this honor.[2]

The current "Stars and Stripes" design was first adopted when the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."[3] Subsequent flag acts have revised the design as new states joined the union.[4]

The Netherlands was the first country to salute the Grand Union flag, when gun salutes by American ships were returned by officials on Dutch islands in the West Indies in late 1776: on St. Croix in October, and on St. Eustatius in November. (Though later, the better documented St. Eustatius incident involving the USS Andrew Doria is traditionally regarded as the "first salute".) France was the first country to salute the Stars and Stripes, when a fleet off the French mainland returned a gun salute by Captain John Paul Jones commanding USS Ranger on February 14, 1778.[5]

U.S. 13-star boat flag (1912-1916).svg
The 13-star "boat flag", 1912

In the 1800s the ensigns were quite large; the biggest ensign in 1870 measured 19 by 36 feet (5.8 by 11 m). By the early 20th century, as warships took on distinctive forms and could no longer be easily mistaken for merchantmen at a distance, ensigns began to shrink and today are a fraction of their earlier size — the largest ensign for daily use on ships is now 5 by 9.5 feet (1.5 by 2.9 m).[6]

Also in the 1800s, for the smaller ensigns used on boats and smaller ships, the U.S. Navy made use of a 13-star "boat flag" so that the stars could still be seen at a distance. This ensign was also used on early submarines and destroyers late in the century.[6] In 1912, President Taft formally approved of this practice in Executive Order 1637, and precise dimensions were defined. This lasted just four more years however, as President Wilson discontinued the practice in 1916 with Executive Order 2390, after which all ensigns were supposed to have the full complement of stars.[7] However, some of the flags remained in the supply system until the 1950s.[8]

The Coast Guard Ensign

Ensign of the United States Coast Guard.svg
Coast Guard Ensign

The United States Coast Guard flies a unique ensign to show that it has the authority to stop, board, examine, and seize vessels. It was designed by Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott for the Revenue Cutter Service in 1799, and was also used by the United States Customs Service. President Taft ordered the Revenue Cutter Service emblem added to their flag to distinguish the two (the other then became the Customs Ensign, flown on their boats). The Coast Guard inherited this ensign when it was formed, and in 1927 it was changed to use the Coast Guard's emblem. The design of the eagle was modernized around 1950.

Civilian ensigns

US Naval Jack 13 stripes.svg
Possible 18th century merchant ensign.

Striped merchant ensign

Information about early U.S. civil ensigns is scant, but there is evidence that at the time of the American Revolution U.S. merchant ships flew a horizontally striped flag of 13 alternating red and white stripes.[9] These flags with vertical strips are similar to ones flown by the Sons of Liberty [1] (Such ensigns may also have served as early U.S. naval jacks in conjunction with the Grand Union Flag used as a naval ensign.) In the early years of the United States, ensigns were not yet standardized, leading to number of known variations, such as the Serapis ensign used by John Paul Jones.

Yacht ensign

United States yacht flag.svg
The United States Yacht Ensign.

A special flag, looking like the national flag and ensign but with a fouled anchor in a circle of stars in the canton, was created in 1848 as a signal flag to be used by U.S. yachts. This was not intended to be an ensign, but was intended to be used as a signal flag by a yacht to declare itself exempt from customs duties. However, many boaters started using this as an ensign, and eventually the government announced that they would accept this practice for boats in United States waters; but the national flag was still the only ensign allowable in international or foreign waters.

The existence of the Yacht Ensign in United States law (46 U.S.C. section 109) was repealed by the Vessel Documentation Act of 1980 (Public Law 96–594). This leaves the national flag as the only allowable ensign for United States yachts (and other vessels). Nevertheless, the old yacht ensign is still widely used by boaters continuing a tradition which dates back to the nineteenth century. This is a legal option for undocumented vessels in United States waters, which are not required to wear an ensign.[10][11] The states of Arkansas,[12] Maryland,[13] and Washington[14] have each adopted flag protocols which provide that the U.S. ensign "and the U.S. Yacht Ensign, with a canton of 13 stars, are interchangeable on all types of recreational vessels while in national waters." Similarly, the United States Power Squadrons' guide to flags and flag etiquette, prepared in consultation with the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, New York Yacht Club, and others, provides that the flag may be flown on recreational boats of all types and sizes instead of the national ensign in domestic waters.

USPS ensign

Ensign of the United States Power Squadrons.svg
The United States Power Squadrons ensign, as a signal, indicates membership of the organization.

The United States Power Squadrons (or USPS) is a non-profit educational organization, founded in 1914, whose mission is to improve maritime safety and enjoyability through classes in seamanship, navigation, and other related subjects. The USPS comprises approximately 45,000 members organized into 450 squadrons across the United States and in some US territories. It is America's largest non-profit boating organization and has been honored by three US presidents for its civil contributions. It has its own flag to identify the organization; this flag may be worn as a signal flag (ie. on the signal hoist, typically in the starboard rigging). Despite its name it has no standing as a national ensign; however, some boaters incorrectly wear this flag in place of their national ensign.[15]

See also


  1. ^ National Colors, by Joseph McMillan; from Sea Flags. Retrieved February 27, 2006.
  2. ^ Leepson, Marc. (2005). Flag: An American Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 16.
  3. ^ Federal Citizen Information Center: The History of the Stars and Stripes. Accessed 7 June 2008.
  4. ^ See Flag of the United States for details.
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b Naval History & Heritage Command (April 10, 2001). "Frequently Asked Questions: Commissioning Pennant".  
  7. ^ "General Order #257: Discontinuance of Thirteen Star Boat Flags and Design of President's Flag", General orders of Navy Department, series of 1913, January 2, 1917,  
  8. ^ Naval History & Heritage Command. "Flag Sizes".  
  9. ^ The U.S. Navy's First Jack, dated July 28, 2003 by the Naval Historical Center. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
  10. ^ Yachting Flags, by Joseph McMillan; from Sea Flags. Retrieved February 27, 2006.
  11. ^ Yacht Ensign (U.S.) at Flags of the World . Retrieved February 26, 2006.
  12. ^ Protocol For The Arkansas State Flag from Arkansas Secretary of State website. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
  13. ^ Protocol for Maryland's Flag from Maryland Secretary of State website. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
  14. ^ Use of the U.S. Ensign and Washington State Flag on Recreational Boats" from Washington Secretary of State website. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
  15. ^ Power Squadron Flags (U.S.) at Flags of the World . Retrieved February 26, 2006.


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