…What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,

In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:

‘Tis the star spangled banner: O long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

— excerpt from “The Star Spangled Banner,” lyrics by Francis Scott Key

Interestingly, the common nickname for the flag of the United States of America did not come from that second verse of Francis Scott Key’s famous poem, even though you might assume that’s the source. Actually, “Old Glory” was a name given to the flag by William Driver, an early nineteenth century American sea captain.  Specifically, the title refers to the flag he owned, which has become one the U.S.’s most treasured artifacts.

“Old Glory” was made and presented in the 1820’s to the young captain by his mother and some young ladies from his home-town of Salem, Massachusetts. The flag is big — measuring about ten feet by seventeen feet — and was intended to be flown from the mast of a ship. Originally, the flag had twenty-four stars with a small anchor sown into the blue corner as a symbol of its nautical purpose. William Driver first hailed the flag as “Old Glory” as he left harbor for a trip around the world in 1831-1832 — a trip which climaxed with the rescue of the mutineers of the famous H.M.S. Bounty.

The captain quit the sea in 1837 and moved on to Nashville, Tennessee. He flew the flag on all patriotic occasions using a rope strung across the street. “Old Glory” soon became known to all the local citizens. In 1861, it was modified to show 34 stars. Tennessee seceded in 1861 when the Civil War broke out; and fearing the local Confederate government might try to destroy the flag, Driver had it sewn inside a comforter by some neighbor girls. The flag survived, and Driver flew it again when Union forces retook Nashville the next year. The 6th Ohio Infantry was present to cheer and salute and be inspired to take “Old Glory” as their motto.

All these events were widely reported, and soon “Old Glory” became nationally famous. The flag remained for a time as a treasured keepsake in the Driver family. Eventually, the flag was given to the Smithsonian. Captain Driver’s grave is in the old Nashville City cemetery, which is one of three places authorized by act of Congress to allow the flag of the United States of America to be flown twenty-four hours per day.

As you celebrate this Fourth of July, take a few brief moments to appreciate the flags waving about your own neighborhood. And as you do, you might want to reflect on the words of Lee Greenwood’s beloved song:

And I’m proud to be an American,

Where at least I know I’m free.

And I won’t forget the men who died,

Who gave that right to me.

And I’d gladly stand up

Next to you and defend her still today.

‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,

God bless the USA.


By John G. Cathcart


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