Flag Day in perspective

FLAG Day, observed tomorrow, was born in sectional controversy: It was the late spring of 1861; the Southern states had seceded from the Union; Sumter, a federal fort in South Carolina, had witnessed the first engagement of the war; and Northern states rushed to send troops to the nation's capital. In one such effort, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania soldiers were attacked by rioters in Baltimore, which was thought to be Union country. The Baltimore incident was the work of a small group. It was quickly denounced by the city's leaders. But the stories of the heroism that the Union troops illustrated in Baltimore multiplied within days, including one about a Massachusetts soldier whose last words were ``The Stars and Stripes.''

What was worse, from a symbolic point of view, was the fact that the Confederacy had voted to accept a new flag that bore little resemblance to the Stars and Stripes that had flown over the United States since 1777. In an age when the values and traditions of Americans seemed to be falling apart, symbols of the nation's past glory, such as the flag, became important.

So it was against this background that the first Flag Day was celebrated in 1861 on June 14 -- the date that the Continental Congress had adopted the Stars and Stripes. After the Civil War, the commemorative day faded from the national scene. The real catalyst for a permanent observance was, first of all, the fact that the flag was being used for all types of displays, including its reproduction on commercial items. Second, World War I aroused America's search for political symbols, leading President Woodrow Wilson to issue a Flag Day proclamation in the middle of the war. The American Legion afterward moved in the direction of a flag code as well as a national observance.

But it wasn't until World War II that Congress finally adopted the flag code as law. And Flag Day did not get congressional approval until 1949 -- again during American anguish with a new type of imbroglio called the cold war.

Flag Day is a national observance in 1986, but its history, from its origins 125 years ago, tells us that patriotic symbols receive their richly deserved attention when they are needed most -- in times of crisis. From this perspective, traditional low-key observance is testimony to the fact that the nation has been blessed with so much peace.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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