Have you ever taken notice of the flags of our other forty nine states? No? Little wonder, since more than half are dull as dirt, consisting of a state seal or symbol amidst a plain blue background and are indistinguishable from one another at a distance. Among the rest, none are so instantly recognizable as the one which has flown over our State House in Annapolis for the last 118 years and which has become both an official and cultural icon for just about all that is Maryland. It adorns every form of clothing from neckties, baseball caps and bathing suits to T-shirts, socks and flip-flops. Its bold, eye-catching colors are ubiquitous on beer cozies, hand towels and welcome mats. It frames our license plates, tops off the helmets of U. Maryland football players, appears as shoulder patches on Ravens jerseys and appears on the front page of the League of Women Voters guide.
So, how did this mash-up of alternating, intriguing patterns, the only heraldic banner among all 50 states and one of only four to omit the color blue, come to be accepted as our standard? As you’ll see, it was not just some committee-driven, creative artistic choice but, rather, the consequence of a long historical path carved by the influence of the English Crown, by old colonial families, and by civil war and reconstruction. Today’s flag is the result of a slow and thorny, nearly 400-year process spanning both England and the Americas. And it preserves a message of reconciliation that should serve as a lesson and guide in these prickly, polarized times. Here’s how it happened.
Having been disappointed by the miserable Canadian maritime weather conditions in his first attempt at establishing a refuge for English and Irish Catholics in the Newfoundland colony of Avalon, George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, a native of Kiplin, North Yorkshire, England and a converted Catholic, in 1625 petitioned King Charles I for land in the American colonies to the south. Several options were explored before settling on Maryland’s approximate current boundaries.
However, George died in 1632 before completing the job which then fell to his son, Cecilius, 2nd Baron Baltimore. In addition to assuming the charter for the new colony, Celsius also inherited his father’s coat of arms, the center of which was similar to today’s flag pattern. It juxtaposed the black and gold field of the Calvert family arms with those of Alicia Crossland, George’s mother. Crossland family arms were the red and white “cross-bottony”, a mild pun on the family name.
Use of the four-quadrant flag diminished during Maryland’s colonial period, supplanted by flags bearing just the Calvert black and gold. By independence, those too were abandoned and, for many years, the state was represented by a series of banners, the most popular being the state seal on a blue background. That changed in 1854 when the state officially reintroduced the Calvert coat of arms as the state seal, prompting the reappearance of the popular but unsanctioned black and gold “Maryland Colors” at public events.
Here’s where the story takes a nasty little turn. Probably because the gold and black colors were so strongly identified with Maryland at the outset of the civil war, confederate sympathizers in the state adopted the red and white of the Crosslands as their battle standard; it was known as the Crossland flag, was worn as patches on military uniforms and was ubiquitous on civilian clothing as a way of showing resistance to Mr. Lincoln, though not without risk of federal prosecution. By war’s end, bearers of both symbols, representing opposing sides in the tragic conflict were returning to peacetime occupations where reunification depended on reintegration of confederate soldiers into a state that had remained with the Union.
Reconciliation in post-war Maryland was slow and tortuous but from the process arose a new symbol. A banner with alternating Calvert and Crossland colors, similar to the state seal, began to appear at civic functions, signaling the dawning of a new peace and the end of ruinous, divisive passions. Just as opposing “fighting colors” were united in one symbol, so too could Marylanders of both sides now work together for the same purpose and values.
The first “official” appearance of the new flag was in October, 1880 at the celebration of Baltimore’s sesquicentennial. Eight years later it was carried by National Guard troops at the dedication of the Maryland monument at Gettysburg. Just a year later, in October, 1889, Maryland’s elite Fifth Regiment , once branded the “Rebel Brigade”, but now manned by both Union and Confederate veterans, adopted the flag in its current form as their battle standard, greatly popularizing its use throughout the state and leading eventually to its official acceptance by the General Assembly in 1904.
From this four-century saga, it’s apparent that our flag is much more than simply a hallmark of state sovereignty or just a symbol to hang limply in dusty court houses and in municipal offices. And it’s much more than a flashy tote bag or football helmet. It is not the winner’s victory banner. Rather, it’s a powerful reminder of peace and reconciliation, proof that conflict-honed passions can be tamed and that folks of very different persuasions can work side-by-side. We would all be well advised in these very sharply polarized times to reflect on the lessons symbolized by this flag.
William Barron is a retired aircraft propulsion systems engineer now living in Worton.