By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
While many have called the American flag “Old Glory,” few know how that nickname began. Fewer still know about the fight that continues today – 184 years later – over a the original flag that was first called “Old Glory.”
The drama of the flag began back in August 1831 when a young sea captain named William Driver was enjoying his birthday and a promotion as the shipmaster of the brig Charles Doggett, based at Salem, Mass. Family and friends presented Driver with a large American flag with 24 stars. When he unfurled it for the first time, he exclaimed “Old Glory!” so the legend goes.
That cruise with Charles Doggett was memorable as the brig rescued the mutineers of the Bounty. For the next several years, as Driver sailed, his “Old Glory” waved from the mast.
In 1837, following the death of his first wife, Driver and his three young children moved to Nashville, Tenn., where his brothers lived. A young widower, Driver married again. The family grew to nine children.
No longer flying his Old Glory from the mast of a ship, Driver raised the flag each morning at his home.
As grumblings of secession grew in the southern states, Driver continued to fly his beloved flag. When Tennessee seceded from the Union June 8, 1861, Confederates in Nashville demanded Driver’s Old Glory. The former Northerner, however, remained loyal to the Union, and despite repeated attempts, refused to give up Old Glory and had it sewn into a coverlet to hide it.
That didn’t solve all of Driver’s problems. His home was also split between the Northern and Southern-born. One of his sons joined the Confederate Army and was killed.
Nashville was the first Confederate city to fall to the Union forces on Feb. 25, 1862. After a small American ensign was raised to replace the Confederate flag over the capital, Union sympathizers remembered Driver’s large American flag. After freeing the flag from its covert coverlet, the 60-year-old Driver climbed to the top of the capital tower to replace the small ensign with his Old Glory.
Over the years following the Civil War, Driver’s Old Glory underwent repairs and the addition of 10 stars. Driver himself sewed a small anchor in the lower right corner as nod to his naval seafaring days.
According to a 2013 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Driver allegedly gave his Old Glory flag to his Southern-born daughter Mary Ann, although a Northern-born niece claims he gave her one. It could be that Driver had more than one flag he used while a sea captain, but according to the 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article, it appears his daughter’s Old Glory has a stronger claim to the title considering the wear on the flag is consistent with having been flown at sea.
The other flag, smaller and with little wear from the environment, may have been used as a ceremonial flag. Both are now part of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.
Driver died in 1886 and was buried at Nashville City Cemetery. His monument, which he designed himself as a broken tree truck with an anchor, features the inscription: “His Ship, His Country, and his flag, Old Glory.”
So, today used as a colloquialism to refer to all American flags, “Old Glory” was once the name of one sailor’s beloved ensign.