The American flag with a red stripe is known as the Serapis flag. It was an early version of the American flag flown by the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. The design featured 13 alternating red and white stripes with the British Union Jack in the canton. The flag’s name comes from the Revolutionary War naval battle when John Paul Jones flew it from the captured HMS Serapis.
Origin of the Serapis Flag
In the early years of the American Revolution, the Continental Navy did not have an official flag. Many ships flew a simple red and white striped flag known as the Grand Union flag. However, this flag was easily confused with a British ensign at a distance. So the Continental Congress gave commanders discretion to fly whatever ensigns they wished until an official flag was adopted.
In September 1779, Captain John Paul Jones was commander of the USS Bonhomme Richard. He was patrolling British waters hoping to capture merchant ships. On September 23, 1779, Jones encountered the HMS Serapis and a fierce battle ensued. Unfortunately, Jones’ ship was severely damaged and outgunned. As the Bonhomme Richard began sinking, the commander of the Serapis called on Jones to surrender. Jones famously replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
During the battle, the Serapis flag was flown from the mainmast of the Bonhomme Richard. It featured 13 alternating red and white stripes with the British Union Jack in the upper left. Although the design was intended to confuse the British crew about which ship they were firing on, it became a symbol of Jones’ perseverance against a superior foe. After a brutal 3 hour battle, the Serapis finally surrendered and Jones took command of the ship.
Meaning Behind the Serapis Flag
The Serapis flag design was more than just a ruse of war. The red and white stripes were drawn from the Grand Union flag and represented the 13 American colonies. The Union Jack symbolized America’s roots as British colonies. Together, the elements acknowledged America’s split from Britain while recognizing its shared heritage.
For John Paul Jones and many other colonists, the flag epitomized their underdog struggle for independence. Although outnumbered and outgunned, the rebellious colonies eventually prevailed through sheer determination. The Serapis flag came to symbolize the fighting spirit and resolve of the Continental Navy.
Later Versions of the Flag
After the Revolutionary War, the basic design of the Serapis flag was adopted as the official flag of the United States. However, the British Union Jack was replaced by a field of blue with white stars representing each state. Over the decades, more stars were added as additional states joined the union.
The Serapis flag continued to appear in various forms even after establishment of the Stars and Stripes. During the War of 1812, some Navy ships flew red-striped flags with 15 stars and 15 stripes. These “Star-Spangled Banners” were reminders of America’s origin as 13 rebellious colonies.
In the 1860s, Confederate naval jack flags reprised the Serapis design with red and white stripes and the Confederate battle flag in the canton. These flags highlighted the South’s roots in Revolutionary War tradition and resistance to central authority.
Rediscovery of the Serapis Flag
Although the Serapis flag played a pivotal role in American naval history, knowledge of its specific design was lost over time. No contemporary drawings of Jones’ flag were known to exist. Eyewitness accounts described only a red-striped flag flying from the Bonhomme Richard.
The first drawings identifying the Serapis flag design appeared in the early 1800s, decades after the Revolutionary War. These images showed a red-striped flag with a Union Jack, but historians were unsure if they were accurate. The flag’s exact design was a matter of speculation for over a century.
The mystery was finally resolved in the early 1900s. A collection of John Paul Jones’ letters was discovered which contained sketched designs for the Serapis flag. These drawings by Jones himself documented the flag’s appearance during the famous naval battle.
Use of the Serapis Flag Today
Thanks to Jones’ recovered letters, the Serapis flag design is now well-established as an important colonial era symbol. The flag is widely flown by naval history enthusiasts and civilian sailing vessels. It remains a popular symbol of America’s underdog naval victory during the Revolution.
The USS Bonhomme Richard, named after Jones’ ship, was commissioned as an amphibious assault vessel in 1971. The ship’s crest incorporated a drawing of the Serapis flag to honor its historic namesake. When the latest USS Bonhomme Richard was launched in 2012, it also received a Serapis flag crest.
In the U.S. Navy, the Serapis flag is treated as an early version of the national flag deserving full military honors. Each September 23rd, the date of Jones’ famous victory, Navy ships fly the Serapis flag to commemorate the battle.
The Serapis flag’s red and white stripes and Union Jack canton make it visually striking and historically unique. While it was originally an expedient battle flag, it came to embody the essence of Revolutionary naval warfare. The Serapis flag remains a prominent early symbol of America’s struggle for freedom.
|Time Period||Flag Design|
|1775-1777||Grand Union Flag (Red & White Stripes and Union Jack)|
|1779||Serapis Flag (Red & White Stripes and Union Jack)|
|1777-1795||First U.S. Flags (Red & White Stripes and Blue Canton w/ Stars)|
|1812-1818||Star-Spangled Banner (Red & White Stripes and Blue Canton w/ 15 Stars & Stripes)|
|1861-1865||Confederate Naval Jack (Red & White Stripes and Confederate Battle Flag)|