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  • The Bedford Flag

    Mrs. Lawrence C. Mansur

    Published Date : October/November 1986
     Immediately on entering the Public Library in Bedford, Massachusetts, the visitor notices a banner suspended from the high ceiling of the library’s main room, its ornate design dramatized by the brilliance of crimson, silver and gold.  This colorful banner is a modern accurate reproduction of the original which rests securely in a nearby library vault.  This banner is the Bedford Flag, the flag of the Bedford Minutemen and the standard carried by them as they, alongside minutemen and militia of neighboring towns, met and repelled British forces from the Old North Bridge at Concord, Mass., on the now memorable day of April 19, 1775.  It is felt by most sources to have been the only flag used by the colonists at that altercation and to be the oldest American flag still in existence.  In 1836 it was made famous in the often quoted first stanza of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,”

    “By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

    Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

    Here once the embattled farmers stood,

    And fired the shot heard round the world.”

    The Bedford Flag is 73 cm. in length and 69 cm. in width, its background material of damask silk with an overall floral pattern of two shades of crimson. The painted design displays, on hoist side, clouds of silver, shaded with dark grey; from these clouds extends a right arm clad in armor (in silver with dark blue and black shading), holding a dagger or short sword (a silver blade, and gold hilt and pommel).  Extending across the top, fly side, and bottom is a three-banded gold ribbon, also shaded, and bearing the inscription VINCE AUT MORIRE (Conquer or Die).  At the top and bottom, respectively, are one and two shaded silver balls, either parts of clouds, or cannon balls.  The entire field is surrounded by a border of silver, and a silver-bordered 10 cm. wide vertical stripe (which no doubt encased the staff) is at the hoist side. The reverse side of the flag is basically the same as the obverse, except that the sword is held in the left arm and passes in front of, rather than behind the ribbon, and the motto begins at the bottom instead of at the top.  A silver fringe, apparent on the reproduction but lost to the original, borders the entire flag.

    The exact origin of the Bedford Flag is somewhat clouded, but it is strongly believed from most quarters that it was a product of the 17th century because (a) flag designs prior to 1684 were customarily painted rather than embroidered, (b) a manuscript preserved at a British Museum quoted costs for construction of a flag for New England in the period of 1660-1685 strikingly similar to the Bedford Flag, and (c) designs of several cavalry unit flags of 1653-1660 were closely parallel to that of the Bedford Flag.

    As to its earlier use, less can be determined.   Previous supposition held the flag to be the standard of the Three County Troop, a Massachusetts colonial militia of Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex Counties active during the Indian wars, but more recent opinion suggests the Bedford Flag to have been the standard of a private cavalry command, or a replacement for the original Three County Troop Flag, possibly worn out or lost.  Whatever its origins, the flag appeared in Bedford, Massachusetts, sometime during or after 1687 and remained for several generations in the possession of the Page family, who, officially and traditionally, passed along the title of Cornet - the fifth ranking commissioned officer of a cavalry troop and carrier of the troop flag.  It was this flag which was taken from the Page homestead by one of the Bedford Minutemen, Nathaniel Page 3rd, during the hurried gathering of Bedford men, young and old, on the morning of April 19, 1775.  It was this flag which served as the standard of the Bedford Minutemen in the first successful, organized military resistance to British force in Colonial America.  It is this flag, given to the Town of Bedford in 1885 by Nathaniel Page’s grandson Cyrus, which rests safely in the vault of the Bedford Public Library, a reminder of its role in the birth of the United States of America.

    Submitted by Mrs. Lawrence C. Mansur

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