'Don't Tread On Me' flags set sail on all Navy ships

Navy Secretary Gordon Englandís recent directive authorized all Navy ships to fly it in place of the Union Jack at the front of each vessel, to show the Navyís solidarity with the war on terrorism.


First Navy Jack

The following excellent history is excerpted from UNDERSEA WARFARE, the magazine of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force.

A Brief History of the U.S. Navy Jack

by CDR Michel T. Poirier

In the fall of 1775, as the first ships of the Continental Navy readied in the Delaware River, Commodore Esek Hopkins issued a set of fleet signals. Among these signals was an instruction directing his vessels to fly a striped Jack and Ensign at their proper places. The custom of the jack-type flag had originated with the Royal Navy in the 15th century or earlier; such was the likely source of Hopkins' inspiration. This first U.S. Navy Jack has traditionally been shown as consisting of 13 horizontal alternating red and white stripes with a superimposed rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me." The rattlesnake had long been a symbol of resistance to British repressive acts in Colonial America; its display on the new jack of the fledging Continental Navy fit naturally with the fervor of the times.

According to Dr. Whitney Smith of the Flag Research Center, the traditional design of the First Navy Jack has never been accurately determined. Historians inferred the design from Hopkins's message and a color plate depicting a slightly different "Don't Tread Upon Me" flag used as a Navy Ensign in Admiral George Henry Preble's 1880 book, History of the Flag of the United States. Historians' widely copied Preble's rare color plate, thus providing the probable source of the traditional design of the First Navy Jack.

The first U.S. Navy use of the Union Jack (a flag replicating the canton i.e. white stars on a blue field of the U.S. Flag) probably occurred soon after the adoption of the First Stars and Stripes Law on June 14, 1777. The First Stars and Stripes Law stated that the Flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternating red and white and that the union be 13 white stars in a blue field representing a new constellation. Although the date of introduction of the Union Jack is not precisely known, a 1785 engraving of the frigate USS Philadelphia clearly depicts the Union Jack flying from her jackstaff.

As the number of states increased, the Union Jack was altered to conform to the canton of the national flag. General orders were issued from time to time by the Navy Department when a change in the number of stars was necessary.

Navy Regulations, first promulgated in 1865, prescribed the use of the jack. It is displayed daily from the jackstaff of all U.S. naval vessels in commission, from 8 a.m. to sunset while the ship is at anchor. Additionally it is flown to indicate a court martial is in progress, and as the President's and Secretary of the Navy's personal flag.

There have been two instances were the traditional First Navy Jack has been used in lieu of the Union Jack. In 1975, the Secretary of the Navy directed that the First Navy Jack be flown in lieu of the Union Jack during the United States Bicentennial Year as a colorful and historic reminder of the nation's and the Navy's origin. In 1980, the Secretary of the Navy specified that the ship with the longest total period of active service display the First Navy Jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive service, at which time the flag shall be passed to the next ship in line with appropriate honors. Since 1998, the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) has proudly flown the First Navy Jack.

On June 3, 1999, the Secretary of the Navy authorized submarines and submarine tenders to fly a special Submarine Centennial Jack throughout the year 2000 in honor of the U. S. Submarine Force's Centennial. This marks the first occasion since 1775 that a specific class of ships has been so honored.

 

The Birth of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps

By 1775, the snake symbol wasn't just being printed in newspapers. It was appearing all over the colonies ... on uniform buttons ... on paper money ... and of course, on banners and flags.

The snake symbol morphed quite a bit during its rapid, widespread adoption. It wasn't cut up into pieces anymore. And it was usually shown as an American timber rattlesnake, not a generic serpent.

We don't know for certain where, when, or by whom the familiar coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning "Don't Tread on Me."

We do know when it first entered the history books.

In the fall of 1775, the British were occupying Boston and the young Continental Army was holed up in Cambridge, woefully short on arms and ammunition. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington's troops had been so low on gunpowder that they were ordered "not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes."

In October, a merchant ship called The Black Prince returned to Philadelphia from a voyage to England. On board were private letters to the Second Continental Congress that informed them that the British government was sending two ships to America loaded with arms and gunpowder for the British troops.

Congress decided that General Washington needed those arms more than General Howe. A plan was hatched to capture the British cargo ships. They authorized the creation of a Continental Navy, starting with four ships. The frigate that carried the information from England, the Black Prince, was one of the four. It was purchased, converted to a man-of-war, and renamed the Alfred.

To accompany the Navy on their first mission, Congress also authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines. The Alfred and its sailors and marines went on to achieve some of the most notable victories of the American Revolution. But that's not the story we're interested in here.

What's particularly interesting for us is that some of the Marines that enlisted that month in Philadelphia were carrying drums painted yellow, emblazoned with a fierce rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, and sporting the motto "Don't Tread on Me."

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