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Along with hamburgers and hot dogs, the residents of the Live Free or Die state were served up an interesting tidbit about New Hampshire’s history this Fourth of July by Congressman Frank Guinta. In a patriotic holiday email, the 1st Congressional District Republican emphasized New Hampshire’s role in the Revolutionary War.
"The colonies, with a lot of help from Granite State shipbuilders, who built the first ship that sailed into battle under a new American flag, won the Revolutionary War, created what is now the world's oldest constitutional democracy, and charted a course to freedom and prosperity," he wrote.
There’s a lot to be proud of in there. But we were intrigued by the piece that we’d never heard before: New Hampshire shipbuilders made the ship that debuted a new American flag in battle.
To show our American spirit, PolitiFact N.H. turned to the history books to get to the bottom of this claim.
Detailing the claim
Guinta’s communications director, Brendan Thomas, said it was the USS Raleigh – built at the site of the current-day Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – that first sailed into battle flying a new variant of the American flag.
Thomas noted that the state celebrates this information in its online history of the state seal, which features the Raleigh. Without further explanation, NH.gov says that the Raleigh was "the first to carry the American flag into sea battle."
The ship launched in 1776, at a time when the country had no official flag, and sailed until 1778, after Congress defined the first variant of today’s Stars and Stripes. Thomas couldn’t say exactly which variant it was that the Raleigh premiered, except that it was "not necessarily the Stars and Stripes" and "may have been a Union Jack surrounded by stars and stripes."
That design – a Union Jack in the upper left with the rest filled out by alternating red and white stripes – is considered to be the first American flag, although unofficially, according to Marc Leepson’s 2006 book, Flag: An American Biography. It went by many names, including the Continental Colors and the Grand Union Flag.
The Continental Colors
The Raleigh wasn’t the first to fly the Continental Colors, according to national historical records.
That flag was first flown Dec. 3, 1775, on the USS Alfred by Navy Lieutenant John Paul Jones, according to a history by the Federal Citizen Information Center. Guinta was talking about the first ship that sailed into battle under a new flag, however, not just the flag being hoisted in the harbor, so Jones’s story doesn’t fit the bill.
Still, an armada led by Commodore Esek Hopkins – including the Alfred, Columbus, Cabot and Andrew Doria – marked the first overseas victory for an American flag-flying ship, again before the Raleigh launched, according to Leepson’s book. That armada set sail Jan. 4, 1776, flying the Continental Colors, and captured forts Montagu and Nassau on the eastern end of New Providence in the British-owned Bahamas on March 17, 1776.
The Raleigh first launched two months later on May 21, 1776, according to the U.S. Navy. So before the Raleigh ever took to the sea, the Continental Colors were already successful in a naval battle.
The Stars and Stripes
If the Raleigh didn’t premier the Continental Colors, it could have been the first to go into battle flying an early version of the Stars and Stripes.
The Continental Colors, according to Leepson’s book, remained the colonies’ unofficial flag until June 14, 1777. That’s when the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Act of 1777, setting the stage for the first variant of the Stars and Stripes.
According to Leepson’s book, the first ship flying the Stars and Stripes that was victorious over a foreign force was the USS Providence on Jan. 27, 1778. It captured the British Fort Nassau, seized ammunition and freed more than two dozen American prisoners.
There’s a small window for Guinta’s claim to be true, if the Raleigh had sailed into battle – one that didn’t merit Leepson’s distinction of the first victory – between June of 1777 and the following January.
The Raleigh’s history
The Raleigh did sail across the Atlantic Ocean alongside the Alfred during that time, getting into a few scuffles with British ships along the way, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. But there’s no record of what flags the ships were flying.
The only mention of the Raleigh’s flag was on a subsequent voyage that ended in the ship’s capture on Sept. 27, 1778. A midshipman on the Raleigh "struck the Continental colors" to end a battle in Maine’s Penobscot Bay, meaning he lowered the ship’s flag in an indication of surrender, according to the U.S. Navy’s history. Notably, it was the Continental Colors – not the Stars and Stripes – that the Raleigh was flying before it was taken and adopted into the British fleet. And that’s after the USS Providence’s victory in the Bahamas in January.
PolitiFact N.H. asked U.S. Navy Commander Chris Rentfrow, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, for his take on the claim.
He wrote in an email that he’s not aware of any evidence supporting the USS Raleigh being the first to fly the American flag. He said the honor of first flying the Continental Colors goes to the Alfred.
"Raleigh certainly would have flown this flag (the Continental Colors), as she was a contemporary of Hopkins' Alfred," Rentfrow wrote. "The ‘Stars and Stripes,’ as you probably know, came about in 1777. Did Raleigh fly it? Probably. She was in service until captured by the British in 1778. I'm not aware that she was ‘first’ to fly it. We teach our students that the first foreign acknowledgement of the Stars and Stripes was when John Paul Jones' ship Ranger was saluted by the French in 1778."
Portsmouth shipbuilders were responsible for many prominent early vessels – including the Ranger and the Raleigh – "thanks in large part to the lobbying and persistence of John Langdon," a famed New Hampshire governor and founder, said state archivist Brian Burford. He referenced the writing of New Hampshire maritime historian Richard Winslow, who wrote in 1988 a history of Portsmouth shipbuilding between 1775 and 1815, but was unable to confirm the claim Guinta made.
The French salute of the Stars and Stripes aboard the Ranger, however, may be something of a consolation prize for Granite Staters, because it, too, was built in Portsmouth.
Neither Burford, the state archivist, nor Malia Ebel, a reference librarian and archivist for the New Hampshire Historical Society, could give a certain answer about Guinta’s claim.
Ebel said it’s possible that the Raleigh flew an early variant of the Stars and Stripes, but "there’s sort of a dearth of information about this particular flag at this point."
"He’s not necessarily wrong. We just can’t confirm what he said," Ebel said.
The strongest evidence in support of the claim comes from the entry on the state’s website about the state seal, which offers only a vague, passing reference: "The Raleigh has a checkered career of adversities, while becoming the first to carry the American flag into sea battle."
The website cites as its source a 1981 history written by Leon Anderson, a deceased former Monitor reporter and columnist who became a state legislative historian. Ebel said no more detailed information could be found in the manual that Anderson wrote.
"Even more unfortunately," she said, "it doesn’t have a citation, so we don’t know where it came from."
Guinta said "Granite State shipbuilders . . . built the first ship that sailed into battle under a new American flag."
Although the USS Raleigh sailed fewer than two years before it was captured, its service spanned two versions of the American flag. The Raleigh definitely flew an earlier variant of the American Flag, called the Continental Colors, but it wasn’t the first to do so.
Experts said it likely flew the other variant, an early version of the Stars and Stripes, but there’s no evidence that it was the first to do so in battle.
The gist of Guinta’s claim is true: New Hampshire shipbuilders were critical to the success of the fledgling American Navy. He could have easily pointed to the story of the Portsmouth-built Ranger carrying the first American flag that was ever saluted by a foreign nation.
But there’s scant evidence to support the idea that the Raleigh was the first to sail into battle flying any variant of the American flag.
On balance, we rate the claim Half True.
Leepson, Marc. Flag: An American Biography, Google Books, accessed June 7, 2016
Federal Citizen Information Center, The Grand Union Flag, accessed June 7, 2016
Naval History and Heritage Command, Raleigh I (Frigate), accessed June 7, 2016
Interviews, Brandon Thomas, June 5 and 7
Interview, Malia Ebel, June 7
Interview, Brian Burford, June 7
Interview, Chris Rentfrow, June 5
New Hampshire Almanac, State Seal, accessed July 8, 2016
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