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Salem's Historic 'Old Glory' Mystery

Here's the rest of the story about Old Glory Captain William Driver and the flag that's considered America's second most important flag of record.

On the corner of Essex and North Street there is a small park dedicated to the memory of Captain William Driver and his naming of the United States Flag, “Old Glory".

That monument was paid for by donations of the school children of Salem who were moved to do so by a series of talks by Captain Nichols espousing love and respect for the flag. It was 1968 - and a time when traditional patriotic expressions were shredding under the weight of the Vietnam conflict. His talks touched a note with many and resulted in the small park commemorating this sea captain for so naming the flag.

William Driver was born in Salem on March 17, 1803. After attending the Hacker School he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, but hated the work and prevailed upon his mother to allow him to go to sea as his forefathers had.

At 14 he signed on as a sailor boy on the ship “China” for a 16 month voyage to Leghorn. For the next several years he shipped out of Salem to such places as Calcutta, Gibraltar, the Caribbean, and European ports going from sailor to mate and eventually trading officer.

As a trading officer on a voyage to the Fiji islands he distinguished himself by befriending the natives, learning their language and procuring large quantities of biche-de-mer or sea cucumbers to sell in other ports. He stayed in Fiji, trading for over four years.

Returning to Salem, he was named master of the brig, “Charles Doggert,” once again bound for Fiji on his seventh and most noted voyage.

Why 'Old Glory'?

It was before this voyage that his mother and some women of Salem gave him a flag for his ship in 1831. As the nine and a half by seventeen foot banner unfurled in the wind,  Driver reportedly said he would call the flag, “Old Glory”.

From then on he referred to it by that name. While he always referred to the flag as “Old Glory”, it probably would have remained in obscurity if not for the course of his life.

This trading voyage became notable by an act of charity.  When the "Charles Doggert" arrived in Tahiti he was asked by 65 descendants of the mutineers of the ship "Bounty" to return them to their home on Pitcairn Island.

They had left voluntarily for civilization only to realize they missed life on the remote Pitcairn island. Responding to pleas of the descendents, as well as Queen Pomare of Tahiti, Driver agreed to transport them the 1400 miles home, risking his insurance if anything should happen on this unscheduled trip. 

Making room on his ship, he transported the grateful people home after an 18 day voyage. They, in turn, wrote him a letter of gratitude that was later presented to the Essex Institute by Driver’s niece.

After a long, exciting and sometimes dangerous, maritime career, Driver retired from the sea when his wife became ill in 1837. She soon passed away and Driver and his three children moved to Nashville, Tenn., where his brother lived and had a store.  Driver married again and had four more children.

Throughout his days in Nashville, Driver remained a staunch supporter of the Union. On patriotic occasions, including his birthday, Driver would display his flag that he proudly would refer to as Old Glory. As secession loomed and tempers sharpened at the prospect of war, Driver still displayed “Old Glory,” and was referred to derisively as ‘Old Glory Driver’.

Sensing the local mood as war approached, Driver used his sailor’s sewing skills to hide his flag inside his bed comforter from confederates that included several family members. On a number of occasions, confederate supporters and officials came to his house to demand the flag that they intended to burn. While he allowed them to search, they never found it.

Nashville was the first Southern city to fall to Union forces on Feb. 22, 1862. When the Ohio 6th entered the capitol and replaced the confederate flag with their small regimental flag, Driver went to the regiment’s captain and told him of “Old Glory”.

With a troop escort, Driver retrieved the flag, and returned to the Capitol where he personally raised the flag over the dome of the capitol. He stood guard that night and watched the flag become tattered by the strong winds. The next day he returned with another hidden flag from home, and substituted  “Old Glory” for the newer flag.

When dispatches were sent north about the fall of Nashville, this episode of the hidden flag and the old sea captain was prominently reported and the “Old Glory” nickname took hold. When the 6th Ohio regiment, now called the “Old Glory” Regiment moved on, Driver gave them the second flag to use in subsequent cities. That flag was eventually lost when eaten by starving mules transporting supplies.

Throughout the war, Driver acted as Provost for Nashville, working actively in the hospitals. He remained a Unionist even though his son died fighting for the Confederacy. He was also an active supporter of the black population, with whom he had several friends. He died in 1886. Congress has designated his grave as one of the few places where the flag may be flown 24 hours.

The Mystery

That, however is not the end of the story. Here a mystery begins to unfold. According to some news reports, the original flag was given to his daughter Mary Jane who eventually moved to Nevada.

In 1922 she reportedly presented the flag to President Warren G. Harding, who in turn gave it to the Smithsonian Museum. The Smithsonian, in describing the flag, states that it was re-made in 1862, adding ten stars and an anchor symbolizing Driver’s years at sea. Their description of the flag does not correspond to what we know about the original. The Smithsonian flag is also much smaller than the flag described in the reports from Nashville in 1862.

The account of Mary Jane being given the original was disputed by her cousin, Harriet Ruth Cooke, who reported that her uncle, Captain  Driver, gave her the original flag which she in turn donated along with the letter from the Pitcairn islanders to the Essex Institute in Salem, (Peabody Essex Museum) in May, 1886.

She felt it was fitting that the flag return to its home. She documented this in detail in her genealogical memoir of the Driver family in 1889. Most stories about Old Glory don’t speak of the dispute. They rather state the original is at the Smithsonian.

In reviewing Essex Institute documents, the gift of the original tattered “Old Glory” along with a banner stating “Old Glory,” was confirmed by Robert Rantoul, President of the Essex Institute in a 1900 letter which he wrote to Charles Miller, member of the Executive Committee of the American Flag Association for use of the National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, which met at Chicago in 1900.

The Smithsonian flag that is no longer displayed because of its delicacy, apparently is not the original flag but a later re-made one that belonged to Driver.

It seems apparent that Essex Institute, now the Peabody Essex Museum, had the original “Old Glory” flag. Not having seen  “Old Glory” mentioned on the Peabody Essex Museum site I’ve been in touch with the curators and will share any information that I receive from them when they complete their review of my request for information on what many consider the second most important flag in American history.

The most important is considered to be Francis Scott Keyes’ Fort Sumter flag that inspired the “Star Spangled Banner”, the national anthem.

Don Nadeau March 29, 2013 at 02:08 PM
Wonderful! I do so hope PEM is able to confirm it has it, and a public showing can be arranged, perhaps along with one of our annual Birthplace of the National Guard parade (muster). This year's is next weekend, April 6.
Michelle March 29, 2013 at 03:32 PM
Wonderful story! Thank you so much for taking the time to educate us about Salem's unique and fascinating history. I truly would love to see 'Old Glory' at the PEM.
Suzie q March 29, 2013 at 05:16 PM
Thank you Thank you....I concur with Mich...Salem has a rich and wonderful history and It is great to see it kept alive!
William Legault March 30, 2013 at 12:59 PM
Nice work again Jerome.

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