Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Update of 22 December 2005 Draft Letter for RADM to SECNAV

Naval Historical Center
Washington Navy Yard, Building
Washington, District of Columbia

4 January 2006

The Honorable Donald C. Winter
Secretary of the Navy FAX (PAO): 703-697-1242
1000 Navy Pentagon
Washington, District of Columbia 20350-1000

Dear Secretary England:

Recently it was brought to my attention that SECNAV Instruction 10520.6 that you signed on 31 May 2002, based on the prior instruction in the same series of 1 August 1975 when J. William Middendorf served as Secretary of the Navy renewed a well meaning error in our Navy history, the myth of the Rattlesnake flag.

I have been informed that based on recently received scholarship on this issue, Ambassador Middendorf notes the error, and agrees that the error should be corrected.

Previous Naval Historians have attempted to correct this error. Admiral Preble tried in 1880 to correct the error. According to flag expert Dave Martucci of NAVA, Admiral Preble in his 1872 book talked about the Rattlesnake flag, but by the 1880 edition Preble was insisting the publisher remove all his prior writings on the Rattlesnake flag, which the Admiral by then knew to be in error. The publisher did so, but left a flag illustration in the book, largely defeating the Admiral’s efforts to correct his earlier error, so the Snake flag myth passed into the lore of Navy history. The Admiral’s correspondence on this can be found at the Antiquarian Society of Worchester, Massachusetts. Naval Historian Samuel Eliot Morison was correct when he made this comment: “The mezzotint portrait of Esek Hopkins published in England… is a work of imagination by someone who never saw Hopkins or his ships…”

It was recently learned that the original instruction was not staffed through the Naval Historical Center, at least not the Early History Branch, and in fact, the website of our organization discounts the prevalent opinions that the Rattlesnake flag as now depicted ever flew on a Continental Navy ship. Scholars agree the Rattlesnake flag is not proper.

The first Navy ship commissioned was the Hannah commissioned on 2 September 1775 by Commander in Chief of all Continental forces, George Washington. His aide, Colonel Joseph Reed, wrote of the flag to be flown on the Continental ships commissioned. The design of the flag was a white field with a pine tree, or an Evergreen Tree, and the motto “Appeal To Heaven” inscribed below. The Liberty Tree where the Sons of Liberty met in Boston was chopped down in August 1775, so the “Evergreen Tree of Liberty” has much symbolism. There are many historical accounts of this flag flown on our Navy ships. And beyond the facts of history, in a modern world which is a better symbol for America, a Snake on its belly, or a Tree of Liberty?

So I ask that you sign a new SECNAV Instruction that establishes the “Washington Cruisers Flag” or the “Evergreen Tree of Liberty Flag” as the First Navy Flag that is flown as the Navy Jack Flag during the Global War for Liberty over Terrorism. A sample is attached.

Very Respectfully,

Paul Tobin, RADM, USN (ret.)

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