The origins of the Coast Guard standard are very
obscure. It may have evolved from an early jack. At least one contemporary
painting supports this theory. In an 1840 painting, the Revenue cutter Alexander
Hamilton flies a flag very similar to today’s Coast Guard standard as
a jack. This flag, like the union jack, which is the upper corner of the
An illustration in 1917 shows the Coast Guard standard
as a white flag with a blue eagle and 13 stars in a semi-circle surrounding
it. At a later date, the words, "United States Coast Guard-- Semper
Paratus" were added.
After 1950, the semi-circle of stars was changed to
the circle containing 13 stars. The Coast Guard standard is used during
parades and ceremonies and is adorned by our 34 battle streamers. We
are unique to the other services for we have two official flags, the Coast
Guard standard and the Coast Guard ensign.
The initial job of the first revenue cutters was to
guarantee that the maritime public was not evading taxes. Import taxes were
the lifeblood of the new nation. Smuggling had become a patriotic duty
during the revolution. If the new nation under the Constitution were to
survive, this activity needed to be stopped.
Working within a limited budget, cutters needed some
symbol of authority. Neither officers nor men had uniforms. How could a
revenue cutter come alongside a merchant ship during an age of pirates and
privateers and order it to heave to?
The solution was to create an ensign unique to the
revenue cutter to fly in place of the national flag while in American
waters. Nine years after the establishment of the Revenue Cutter
Service, Congress, in the Act of March 2, 1799 provided that cutters and
boats employed in the service of the revenue should be distinguished from
other vessels by a unique ensign and pennant.
On August 1, 1799, Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver
Wolcott, issued an order announcing that in pursuance of authority from the
President, the distinguishing ensign and pennant would consist of, "16
perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white, the union of the ensign to
be the arms of the
The ensign was poignant with historical detail,
inasmuch as in the canton of the flag, there are 13 stars, 13 leaves to the
olive branch, 13 arrows and 13 bars to the shield. All corresponded to the
number of states constituting the union at the time the nation was
established. The 16 vertical stripes in the body are symbolic of the number
of States composing the
This ensign soon became very familiar in American
waters and served as the sign of authority for the Revenue Cutter Service
until the early 20th century. The ensign was intended to be flown
only on revenue cutters and boats connected with the Customs Service. Over
the years it was found flying atop custom houses as well. President William
Howard Taft, however, issued an Executive Order June 7, 1910, adding an
emblem to the ensign flown by the Revenue cutters to distinguish it from the
ensign flown from the custom houses, which read: "By virtue of the
authority vested in me under the provisions of Sec. 2764 of the revised
Statutes, I hereby prescribe that the distinguishing flag now used by
vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service be marked by the distinctive emblem of
that service, in blue and white, placed on a line with the lower edge of the
union, and over the center of the seventh vertical red stripe from the mast
of said flag, the emblem to cover a horizontal space of three stripes. This
change to be made as soon as practicable."
At about this time, cutters began flying the
When the service adopted the name Coast Guard, the
Revenue Cutter Service’s ensign became the distinctive flag on all Coast
Guard cutters as it had been for the revenue cutters.
The colors used in the Coast Guard ensign today, as in
the Revenue Cutter Service, are all symbolic. The color red stands for our
youth and sacrifice of blood for liberty’s sake. The color blue not only
stands for justice, but also for our covenant against oppression. The white
symbolizes our desire for light and purity.
As it was intended in 1799, the ensign is displayed as
a mark of authority for boardings, examinations and seizures of vessels for
the purpose of enforcing the laws of the
The jack and
During its early years, the Revenue Cutter
Service flew the canton (the upper corner of the flag nearest the staff) of
the Revenue Cutter ensign as its jack. This practice persisted at least into
the 1830s. Prior to the U.S. Civil War, the Revenue Cutter Service adopted
as its new jack the canton of the United States Flag (the Union Jack) and
this continues to this day.
Now, the jack is flown from the jackstaff only while
at anchor. During the early years of the Service it was frequently flown on
special occasions either at the jackstaff or atop the main mast while
underway as well as when at anchor.
The Coast Guard commission pennant was created at the
same time as the ensign in 1799. The original commission pennant bore
the same style American eagle as the ensign, 16 vertical red and white
stripes, and a white-over-red vertical tail.
Prior to the U.S. Civil War, the Revenue Cutter
Service adopted a commission pennant which had thirteen blue stars on a
white field, thirteen vertical red and white stripes, and a red swallowed
Sometime after the Civil War, the Service adopted the
same commission pennant as the U.S. Navy. This pennant has thirteen white
stars on a blue field, thirteen vertical red and white stripes, and a red
swallowed tail. The pennant is flown from the top of the main mast.
By 1930, however, the Service had again changed its commission pennant. This pennant, with an inboard section that is a blue field with white stars, thirteen vertical red and white stripes, and a red swallowed tail, is the same one currently in use. The interesting thing about this change in practice is that there was apparently no regulation that ordered the Service to change from that commission pennant which was also used by the U.S. Navy.