The Old Line State: A Complete History of the Maryland Flag

The Old Line State: A Complete History of the Maryland Flag

Right at first glance, there seems to be something different about the Maryland flag.

A handful of bold colors and intriguing patterns dominate the picture. They form the only heraldic banner among all 50 states. Few people know this design isn’t just some creative artistic choice.

The flag is steeped in historical significance.

We’re talking about sorties of old Colonials families, conflicting loyalties, and post-war reconstruction. Getting to the modern design was a slow and thorny process you see.

So, let’s see how it unraveled over the years.

Colonial Lords and Heirs

We don’t know who the designer of the flag is or the date it first came to life.

But, here are some irrefutable facts.

The flag design harkens back to the coat of arms of the Calvert family. This English noble family was the colonial proprietor of Maryland some 400 years ago.

George Calvert (1580-1632), the first Lord Baltimore, commissioned a coat of arms featuring alternating quadrants we see today. He also adopted their color scheme: yellow-and-black and red-and-white.

The former color combination symbolized his paternal family. The latter one was related to the maternal side. Namely, George’s mother was an heiress to the Crossland line, so he was free to use her coat of arms.

These elements are predominant in the earliest iteration of the flag of Maryland. During the colonial period, we also have records of only yellow-and-black banners being used.

A Perfect Storm at the Horizon

After the Independence, Calvert family colors were abandoned.

What followed was a time when various flags and banners emerged. They all competed for official status, but none managed to attain it.

During the Civil War though, one flag design set itself apart as the most prominent. It was the one highlighting a great seal of the state against a blue backdrop.

We can see such banners hoisted as late as the end of the 1890s.

Still, the key chapter in the flag’s story had started to unravel before that. In 1854, a law proclaimed the need for a new great seal. It also specified the seal would be accompanied by a Calvert family coat of arms.

The seal imagined back then had some flaws and inaccuracies. The General Assembly had to react and inaugurate a new design solution, which corresponded to Calvert’s original idea much better.

In effect, this event marked the reintroduction of the coat of arms on the flag. It again appeared in public events and ceremonies. People called it “Maryland colors” and “Baltimore colors”.

Everything we know points out to wide public acceptance of the colors and symbols.

Come Hell or High Water

There is strong and surprising historical gravitas behind this “open-arms” reception.

Maryland was a Border State that never declared secession. It kept close ties to the Union, but there was a lot of support for the South as well. Opposing factions clashed spears determined to swing the momentum in one direction.

It’s estimated 50,000 joined citizens joined the ranks of the United States Army. A smaller number decided to head over to the Confederacy camp.

People who identified with the Southern cause were quick to embrace red-and-white Crossland arms insignia. Around the time of Lincoln’s election, these “secession colors” popped up on various pieces of clothing.

Confederate soldiers from Maryland proudly wore them on uniforms while marching south. Headquarters flag of the Maryland-born general Bradley T. Johnson had red cross bottony and a white shield.

They were symbols of defiance to the Union and its champion, President Lincoln. He would not take this resistance lightly because Maryland was a pivotal player.

The strategic state stood on the Union’s way to Washington DC.

Thus, he unconstitutionally suspended Habeas Corpus and imprisoned many high-ranking officials of Maryland. The state eventually abolished the slave trade, aligning itself with the North.

Marriage Becomes Official

When the hostilities were over, citizens of Maryland could have a sigh of relief.

By that time, both Calvert coat of arms and red-and-white quadrants were engraved in their collective memory. These were, de facto, symbols associated with the state itself.

This is a very interesting turn of events because the alternating quadrants represented two opposing sides in the War. So, their coupling is emblematic of the nation coming together.

It certainly helped people get behind the top priority— reconciliation. And nowhere was this process more vital than in the deeply-divided Maryland. The flag was a powerful message in times of need.

The only thing that was missing was the official section of the Assembly.

This finally happened in 1904, when the body accepted banner design as an official state flag. It effectively recognized the marriage between the Calvert Family and the state of Maryland.

Flags of Our Forefathers

From that point, the flag would fly over houses, public spaces, ceremonies, and monuments.

The first organization to adopt it officially was the Maryland National Guard. This guard played a major role in many public events and was the largest component in the state military.

And again, it all made perfects sense in terms of symbolism. The Fifth was condemned as a “Rebel Brigade” during the War, yet proved itself capable of serving the newly reunited nation. Therefore, it’s no surprise its adoption of the flag led to a surge in popularity.

In 1945, a gold cross bottony became the official ornament for all staff carrying the state flag. There was no going back to place of former misfortune.

Today, citizens of Maryland look at it recognizing it’s much more than just a hallmark of state sovereignty. It reminds them of the importance of integrity, reconciliation, and togetherness.

We would all do well to keep these lessons close to heart.

Maryland Flag Stands Tall

Thinking about the Maryland flag, most people evoke bold colors and eye-catching patterns

Little they suspect the design echoes a very turbulent history. The main symbols have deep roots in the Colonial era and were forged in the fires of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Alternating quadrants merged on the wave of public support and historical momentum. Ultimately, they set the tone for the reunion of all citizens of the state, regardless of what uniforms they used to wear.

All in all, the flag is an ever-lasting symbol of struggles to preserve the union.

Check out our collections of Maryland state flags and secure your own piece of history.

Jun 26th 2020

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