Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Flag Day tribute to Hetty McEwen

On this day, Americans celebrate a patriotic holiday, Flag Day. The history of Flag Day goes back to June 14, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress passed the nation’s first flag law, which resolved: “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. Congress later established National Flag Day in 1949.

Popular lore credits Betsy Ross with creating the first American flag in 1776, but scholars have found little direct historical evidence to support this story. In 1870, Ross’s grandson, William Canby, told her story publicly for the first time, relying upon family oral accounts to stitch together the legend of the Betsy Ross flag. In the years since, Canby’s version of events surrounding the creation of the American flag endured, coloring our nation’s history in hues of red, white, and blue for generations.

Throughout our nation’s history, Tennesseans have honored the flag, even in times of discord. During the Civil War, Nashville native Hetty McEwen fearlessly stood her ground in support of the flag. An opponent of secession, McEwen rebelliously flew an American flag from the roof of her Nashville home for all to see during Confederate rule of Tennessee. Family lore asserts that McEwen stitched together her own American flag, in much the same way as legend asserts that Betsy Ross sewed her flag.

Portrait of Hetty McEwen, published in The Nashville Banner.
Robert H. McEwen Papers.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

McEwan continued flying her flag despite threats and harassment from Confederate soldiers. In one recorded instance, her husband, Colonel Robert McEwen, received an anonymous letter threatening assassination unless he removed the “Stars and Stripes” from view. Confederate loyalists threatened to torch to his home, burning it and his family’s flag if he failed to remove it.

In a letter penned to Union General George H. Thomas on August 14, 1865, Hetty McEwen wrote: “Sir, I accept the flag of my country, as you intended it, as a compliment to myself but feel wholy (sic) unworthy of this distinction. As a woman I aspire to nothing greater than a fearful performance of my duty in the station in which God has placed me. Therefore please accept the thanks of a Patriot. Yours Respectfully, Mrs. Hetty McEwen”

Hetty McEwen's letter to Gen. George H. Thomas, August 14, 1865.
Robert H. McEwen Papers.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

Included in the collection of the Library & Archives’ Robert H. McEwen Papers, 1833-1915 are several newspaper clippings documenting Hetty McEwen’s story. In the years following the war, these records tell us that Hetty McEwen became a respected and honored figure for her refusal to back down. Her defiance also instilled pride in her descendants and admirers. A poem written by Lucy Hamilton Hooper, later published in The Nashville American, provides proof of the pride that Hetty McEwen’s cause inspired. The poem reads, in part:

O, Hetty McEwen! Hetty McEwen!
What were the angry rebels doing
That autumn day, in Nashville town?
They looked aloft with oath and frown,
And saw the Stars and Stripes wave high
Against the blue of the sunny sky;

Deep was the oath, and dark the frown.
And loud the shout of “Tear it down,”
For over Nashville far and wide,
Rebel banners the breeze defied,
Staining heaven with crimson bars;

She heard the hoarse and angry cry—
The blood of ’76 rose high.
Out flashed her eye, her cheek grew warm.
Up rose her aged, stately form;

From her window with steadfast brow,
She looked upon the crowd below.
Eyes all aflame with angry fire
Flashed on her with defiant ire,
And once more rose the angry call:
“Tear down that flag or the house shall fall!”

Never a single inch quailed she,
Her answer rang out firm and free:
“Under the roof where that flag now flies
Now my son on his death bed lies:
Born where that banner floated high,
‘Neath its folds he shall surely die.
Not for threats nor yet for suing
Shall it fall,” said Hetty McEwen.

"Hetty M'Ewen and Her Flag," published in the August 8, 1908 edition of the Nashville Banner.
Robert H. McEwen Papers.
Tennessee State Library & Archives

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

No comments:

Post a Comment