By Naval History and Heritage Command
Today marks the 238th anniversary when on Dec. 3, 1775, Lt. John Paul Jones, having just received his first commission from the Continental Congress, hoisted the Grand Union Flag in Philadelphia Harbor aboard Alfred. It was the first time the American flag was raised over an American naval vessel and marked the beginning of a number of traditions related to the raising of the flag the Navy observes to this day.
“No ship of the Navy shall dip the national ensign unless in return for such compliment.” (US NavyRegulations, Chapter 12, section 1263)
The Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions states that historically, lowering any flag meant submission. This is why no U.S. Navy warship dips its colors first, because warships from any nation commonly do not dip their colors but maintain an “alert” status, unless the traditional salute is rendered first commonly from a small craft, yacht or merchant vessel.
Instead, honor is accorded to passing ships with passing honors. Passing honors are ordered by ships and boats when vessels pass or are passed close aboard (600 yards). Such honors are exchanged between ships of the U.S. Navy, between ships of the Navy and the Coast Guard, and between U.S. and most foreign navy ships passing close aboard. “Attention” is sounded, and the hand salute is rendered by all persons in view on deck.
“Each person in the naval service, upon coming on board a ship of the Navy, shall salute the national ensign.” (US Navy Regulations, Chapter 12, section 1207)
The flag is displayed on every ship at the place of honor, close to the stern, which is the most visible place of honor on a ship. Every Sailor salutes the flag first before coming aboard then salutes the officer. When going ashore, Sailors salute the flag last after saluting the officer. Once the flag is within six paces of a Sailor, the salute is held until six paces after. According to the book Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions, the salute dates back to the days when it was customary for knights to lift their visors as a gesture of respect to one who held higher rank.
The book says, “Today, the personal salute is a significant military gesture. It is the act of military and naval men looking into the eyes of another companion in arms, and by a proper gesture of the hand, paying due respect to the uniform of another defender of the Republic,”
“The ceremonial hoisting and lowering of the national ensign at 0800 and sunset at a naval command ashore or aboard a ship of the Navy not underway shall be known as morning and evening colors, respectively.” (US Navy Regulations, Chapter 12, section 1206)
At 8 a.m. every morning, ships and Navy installations play the national anthem and raise the colors. Cars stop at the gates as they are entering, departing or parking. People stop walking and stand at attention. Everyone stops talking. Calls are ended. Cell phones are silenced. At dusk the same respect is repeated. It is a tradition taken from America’s British ancestry to show allegiance to the flag.
As the Naval Telecommunications Procedure states, the flag “represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing” and is “universally representative of the principles of justice, liberty, and democracy enjoyed by the people of the United States.”
So the next time you stop for morning or evening colors, cross a ship’s quarterdeck or render passing honors, remember the father of our Navy and this moment in history that is acted on daily by globally deployed naval forces.
Factoids: Did you know?
1. John Paul Jones left a very successful and lucrative career on slave ships because he found the cruelty of slavery disturbing and wanted no part of it. He left Scotland and came to the colonies writing that he came to, “…hoist the flag of Freedom.” The Continental Congress approved of his actions and quickly granted him a commission.
John Paul Jones later wrote in 1779, “It is this day four years since I had the honor to receive my first Commission as the Senior of the first Lieutenants in the Navy. . . I hoisted with my own hands the Flag of Freedom the first time that it was displayed on bard the Alfred on the Delaware.”
2. Our stripes were there, but not yet our stars. At just 13 colonies, the novice nation had one idea in mind: Independence. Yet in designing that first flag, it harkened back to the colonists’ British roots. The Continental Congress put white stripes over the giant red square and still kept the British Union Jack. The stripes were the first insignia to tell the world the United States was now an independent authority.
3. George Washington was thought to have raised the Grand Union Flag a year later on New Year’s Day in 1776 on Prospect Hill, near Cambridge, Mass. In the letters to the Continental Congress, the Continental Navy Committee noted “the largest Ship will carry at her Mizen Peak a Jack with the Union flag, and striped red and white in the field.”
4. The Grand Union Flag was called other names: Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign.
5. As the nation grew, so did the flag to 15 stars and a cumbersome 15 stripes. Congress then granted the Navy an additional honor in 1818: Design a flag that would grow in proportion but not be unwieldy. It is still the standard: 13 stripes that never change in number with a constellation of stars representing each state.
Naval Customs, Traditions, & Etiquette
Naval Telecommunications Procedure