The ensign of the United States refers to the flag of the United States when worn as an ensign (a type of maritime flag identifying nationality, usually flown from the stern of a ship or boat). International maritime law—see International Treaty on Law of the Sea, articles 91 and 92—provides that vessels have a national character and thus should display a flag (ensign) that corresponds to this national character, especially when in international or foreign waters. Vessels that are formally documented under the federal vessel documentation act, vessels owned by government bodies in the United States, and vessels in the US armed forces unquestionably have US national character, and thus properly hoist a U.S. ensign to show their national character. Vessels that are numbered by the states and small, non-registered craft owned by American citizens may also hoist a U.S. ensign to show their national character.
Some other flags are often used as “civilian” or “yacht” ensigns in place of the national flag by smaller vessels when operating within US waters; this practice arises from longstanding historical use and custom. All vessels of U.S. national character should display the national ensign when operating in international and non-US waters.
The Grand Union Flag was the de facto first U.S. naval ensign. It was first raised aboard Continental Navy Commodore Esek Hopkins' flagship Alfred on the Delaware River on December 3, 1775; John Paul Jones, then the ship's senior lieutenant, personally claimed this honor.
The current "Stars and Stripes" design was first adopted when the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777: "Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." Subsequent flag acts have revised the design as new states joined the union.
Denmark and the Netherlands were the first countries to salute the Grand Union flag, when gun salutes by American ships were returned by officials in the West Indies in late 1776: on Danish St. Croix in October, and on Dutch St. Eustatius in November. (Though later, the better documented St. Eustatius incident involving the USS Andrew Doria is traditionally regarded as the "first salute".) France was the first country to salute the Stars and Stripes, when a fleet off the French mainland returned a gun salute by Captain John Paul Jones commanding USS Ranger on February 14, 1778.
In the 19th century the ensigns were quite large; the biggest ensign in 1870 measured 19 by 36 feet (5.8 by 11.0 m). By the early 20th century, as warships took on distinctive forms and could no longer be easily mistaken for merchantmen at a distance, ensigns began to shrink and today are a fraction of their earlier size — the largest ensign for daily use on ships is now 5 by 9.5 feet (1.5 by 2.9 m).
During the 19th century, for its smaller-sized ensigns, the U.S. Navy used a 13-star flag which became known as "boat flag" due to its predominate use on boats (i.e., launches, gigs and tenders). The reason for the lesser number of stars was so that the stars in a smaller size flag would have greater visibility at a distance. Because they flew smaller-sized ensigns, the US Navy's first submarines and destroyers in the early 20th century also used the 13-star ensigns. In 1912, President Taft formally recognized the Navy's longstanding use of the 13-star ensign in Executive Order 1637, and precise dimensions were defined. This lasted just four more years however, as President Wilson acting through Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels discontinued the practice in 1916 with Executive Order 2390, after which all ensigns were supposed to have the full complement of stars. However, some of the flags remained in the supply system until the 1950s.
Coast Guard Ensign and the Customs Ensign
The United States Coast Guard flies a unique ensign to show that it has the authority to stop, board, examine, and seize vessels. The U.S. Customs Service flies a very similar flag, but it lacks the badge in the fly. These flags have their origins in a flag that was created in 1799 that was, at that time, intended to be used as an ensign and was in fact so used (i.e., a full standing flag of national character). Today, however, these two flags are called "ensigns" but they are flown in conjunction with, and subordinate to, the US national ensign on vessels. These two present-day flags had their origins in a flag that designed by Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott for use by the Revenue Cutter Service in August 1799. On August 1, 1799, Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, issued an order announcing that in pursuance of authority from the President, the distinguishing ensign and pennant for the Cutter Service would consist of, "16 perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white, the union of the ensign to be the arms of the United States in a dark blue on a white field." From 1799 onwards, this flag was used as the national ensign in Revenue Cutters and at the same time, was also flown over Customs Houses ashore. In June 1910, however, President William H. Taft ordered that the plain ensign continue to be flown over Customs Houses ashore, and ordered that the Revenue Cutter Service add their department's emblem to the fly of the ensign in order to distinguish between the differing two branches. The order said: "By virtue of the authority vested in me under the provisions of Sec. 2764 of the revised Statutes, I hereby prescribe that the distinguishing flag now used by vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service be marked by the distinctive emblem of that service, in blue and white, placed on a line with the lower edge of the union, and over the center of the seventh vertical red stripe from the mast of said flag, the emblem to cover a horizontal space of three stripes. This change to be made as soon as practicable." From 1910 onwards, the U.S. Customs Service has continued to use the plain version of the ensign, while the Revenue Cutter Service (which became the Coast Guard) used the defaced version (version with the badge). The U.S. Coast Guard inherited the "badged" version of the ensign when the Coast Guard came into being in 1915, and in 1927 the cutter badge was updated to use the Coast Guard's own emblem. The Coast Guard badge was slightly modified in 1966. The Coast Guard continues to use the "badged" or "defaced" version of the ensign, although it is now flown by Coast Guard ships and facilities in conjunction with the US national ensign, and not as a stand-alone ensign. The design of both flags' (Customs and Coast Guard) cantons (i.e., the eagle and stars) was altered in 1951 to make them conform to "the arms of the United States," as was specified in Wolcott's original design statement in 1799.
Striped merchant ensign
Information about early U.S. civil ensigns is scant, but there is evidence that at the time of the American Revolution some U.S. merchant ships flew a horizontally striped flag of 13 alternating red and white stripes. These flags with vertical stripes are similar to ones flown by the Sons of Liberty  (Such ensigns may also have served as early U.S. naval jacks in conjunction with the Grand Union Flag used as a naval ensign.) In the early years of the United States, ensigns were not yet standardized, leading to number of known variations, such as the Serapis ensign used by John Paul Jones.
A special flag, looking like the national flag and ensign but with a fouled anchor in a circle of stars in the canton, was created by Act of Congress in August 1848 as a flag to be used by licensed U.S. yachts. Yachts eligible for the license were 20 tons and over. The 1848 act used the word 'signal' to describe the flag that a licensed yacht would use to declare herself exempt from customs duties; use of the flag was required by all licensed yachts under the 1848 act ("All such licensed yachts shall use a signal of the form, size, and colors prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy."). Treasury Decision No. 2727 (March 24, 1876) issued by the Treasury Department confirmed that the flag was to be used as an ensign ("Licensed yachts are required by law to use the American ensign prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy."), and the use as an ensign was reiterated in Treasury Decision 9426 of June 11, 1889 (referring to the "yacht ensign"). Both formally licensed and unlicensed American yachts started flying this flag as the ensign, and eventually the U.S. Navy confirmed that it recognized this practice for all American yachts; however, the national flag is the only ensign allowable for an American in international or foreign waters. In 1939, the Secretary of the Navy approved the ruling of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy "...that a ship of the Navy should return a dip made by a yacht flying the yacht ensign and that the yacht ensign may properly be made the object of a hand salute to be rendered on boarding or leaving a yacht."
The existence of the Yacht Ensign in United States statute (46 U.S.C. section 109) was repealed by the Vessel Documentation Act of 1980 (Public Law 96–594), which removed several legal provisions pertaining to the by-then obsolete category of "licensed yachts." Nevertheless, owing to its long usage by all U.S. yachts, as well as the fact that the privilege extended to licensed yachts had been extended to all American pleasure craft, the yacht ensign is still widely flown by U.S. yachts and pleasure boats in U.S. waters today, continuing a tradition that dates back to 1848. The states of Arkansas, Maryland, and Washington have each adopted flag protocols which provide that the U.S. ensign "and the U.S. Yacht Ensign, with a canton of 13 stars, are interchangeable on all types of recreational vessels while in national waters." Similarly, the United States Power Squadrons' guide to flags and flag etiquette, prepared in consultation with the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, New York Yacht Club, and others, provides that the Yacht Ensign may be flown on recreational boats of all types and sizes instead of the national ensign in domestic waters.
The United States Power Squadrons (or USPS) is a non-profit educational organization, founded in 1914, whose mission is to improve maritime safety and enjoyability through classes in seamanship, navigation, and other related subjects. The USPS comprises approximately 45,000 members organized into 450 squadrons across the United States and in some US territories. It is America's largest non-profit boating organization and has been honored by three US presidents for its civil contributions. In 1914, it adopted its own flag, which was then patented in 1916. This flag may be worn as a signal flag on the signal hoist, typically in the starboard rigging. Despite its name and the original intent of its designers, it was never recognized by the US government or navy as a national ensign; however, some smaller boats will wear this flag in place of a national ensign, usually because they lack a mast and do not operate outside home waters.
State Maritime Flags
In April 1776, the Massachusetts Navy adopted, as its flag, a white field charged with a green pine tree and the motto "An Appeal to Heaven." In 1971 the motto was removed, and the flag was designated "the naval and maritime flag of the Commonwealth".
Maine also has a separate ensign, which is rarely seen. It features symbols from the current flag and the older one, with a white field and green pine tree. The green pine tree has the seaman's anchor, and the words "MAINE" and "DIRIGO" around it. Dirigo (Latin "I direct" or "I lead") is the state motto of Maine.
Massachusetts and Maine are the only two states with their own maritime flags. These flags are not "ensigns" in the true sense of the word because they are not flags of national character, and are not used as such; instead, they are special versions of the state flag for use afloat. The state laws that create them do not use the term "ensign" to describe them, but use the term "flag". The Massachusetts law describes the flag as “The naval and maritime flag of the commonwealth,” Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 2, § 3, while Maine’s state law says: “The flag to be known as the merchant and marine flag of the State shall be of white, at the top of which in blue letters shall be the motto “Dirigo”; beneath the motto shall be the representation of a pine tree in green color” Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 1, § 207. Although these flags are intended for use afloat, they are not ensigns and should not be called such.
- Flags of the U.S. states#Current state ensigns
- National Colors, by Joseph McMillan; from Sea Flags. Retrieved February 27, 2006.
- Leepson, Marc. (2005). Flag: An American Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 16.
- "Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, 8:464". http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=lljc&fileName=008/lljc008.db&recNum=90.
- See Flag of the United States for details.
- Naval History & Heritage Command (April 10, 2001). "Frequently Asked Questions: Commissioning Pennant". http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq106-1.htm.
- Navy Dept, United States (January 2, 1917). "General Order #257: Discontinuance of Thirteen Star Boat Flags and Design of President's Flag". General orders of Navy Department, series of 1913. http://books.google.com/books?id=zYEtAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA11-PA41.
- Naval History & Heritage Command. "Flag Sizes". http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq129-1.htm.
- The U.S. Navy's First Jack, dated July 28, 2003 by the Naval Historical Center. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
- Yachting Flags, by Joseph McMillan; from Sea Flags. Retrieved February 27, 2006.
- Yacht Ensign (U.S.) at Flags of the World . Retrieved February 26, 2006.
- Protocol For The Arkansas State Flag from Arkansas Secretary of State website. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
- Protocol for Maryland's Flag from Maryland Secretary of State website. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
- Use of the U.S. Ensign and Washington State Flag on Recreational Boats" from Washington Secretary of State website. Retrieved March 5, 2007.
- Power Squadron Flags (U.S.) at Flags of the World . Retrieved February 26, 2006.
- M.G.L. - Chapter 2, Section 3
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