Washington's battlefield flag on display at Revolutionary War museum

A rare appearance just in time for Flag Day

Steve Tawa
June 14, 2018 - 11:12 am
Collections manager Michelle Moskal, right, and curator Mark Turdo hang the Commander-in-Chief's Standard, Wednesday, June 13, 2018, at an exhibition gallery in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — George Washington's headquarters flag — probably sewn between 1777 and 1783 — is making its first appearance in Philadelphia since the Revolutionary War. 

In a darkened gallery to prevent further deterioration from light exposure at the Museum of the American Revolution, the faded, fragile silk flag — known as the Commander-in-Chief's Standard — is out of the archives for public viewing now through Sunday.

"[It's] perhaps the earliest surviving 13-star American flag," noted Scott Stephenson, museum vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming.

About 50 fifth-graders from Crooked Billet Elementary School in Hatboro got a sneak peak at the unveiling, where Stephenson explained to them how troops communicated back in the day.

"If you were tasked with looking for George Washington on a battlefield or at a big camp, how would you find the general?" he asked. "You would look for his flag."

The rare flag measures about 2-by-3 feet, features 13 white, six-pointed stars, which represent the 13 colonies, on a now extremely faded pale blue field.

Stephenson speculates that there are only about 30 surviving Revolutionary War-era flags left — and they have four of the best.

"Many of them are in fragmentary condition, scattered in collections across the U.S., and some overseas," he said. "There's no other place on planet Earth where you can see four Revolutionary War flags all under one roof."

The original was patriotic blue — just like a replica flag on the next wall over — sewn and then stowed aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998 (dubbed the "space flag"), when legendary astronaut John Glenn returned to space.

"It orbited the Earth 134 times and traveled 3.6 million miles," Stephenson said.

The last time the original flag was on public display was in Valley Forge in the 1990s.  

Like the famous field tent used for Washington's wartime headquarters at Valley Forge — the crown jewel of the collection, which was donated to the Valley Forge Historical Society in 1909 by descendants of Washington's sister — the headquarters flag also eventually came under the ownership of what became the Museum of the American Revolution.

How coveted is this gem? Its design was the inspiration for the museum's logo. Those 13 stars are not only seen on lapel pins and other objects, but etched in stone on the institution's facade at Third and Chestnut streets.

In the museum's main exhibition, visitors can view two other rare, Revolutionary-era flags that are on display. The Monmouth Flag is one of the oldest surviving flags from the American Revolution, dating to about 1775. It still has the British Union in the corner.

The Forster Flag may be one of the earliest American flags to have been altered after the Declaration of Independence. It is clear that the British Union was removed from it and the white fabric has been reworked to create stripes.

Flag Day on June 14 commemorates the resolution by the Continental Congress in 1777 calling for the creation of the U.S. flag.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.