The American Flag: Why We Don't Let It Touch The Ground

By Danita Knickerbocker

It was early September 1814, when young American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was sent aboard a British flagship, anchored just offshore of Baltimore Harbor and not far from Fort McHenry. He was sent to negotiate the return/trade of hundreds of POWs who had been captured by the British Military over the prior years of war, now known as the War of 1812. After a week of tough negotiations with Britain, on September 13, 1814, they agreed the prisoners could be traded on a one-for-one basis. Key was so excited, he went below deck to give the news to all the American prisoners. He told the men “Tonight you will be lifted from your chains and you will be set free.” When Key reached the deck again, he spoke with the admiral to arrange the transferring of the prisoners back to shore. The admiral told Key he would honor his agreement, but that it wouldn’t matter because Britain now had their entire naval fleet along the bay and they had given the colonies an ultimatum. If the colonies would not lower the flag, flying above the rampart of Fort McHenry, Britain would lay down fire (cannon blasts from the ships) on the fort until it was removed from the face of the earth.

Proud of his ultimatum, the British admiral told Key that he did not care if the American prisoners were set free, because the war was over anyway. There was no way the American people were going to allow Fort McHenry, which housed thousands of men, women and children, a fort that was predominantly not a military fort, to be demolished for a simple flag. A demoralized Francis Scott Key went below deck to tell the prisoners of Britain’s plan. Upon hearing the news, the men asked “How many ships?” and Key answered with “Hundreds.” Key told them he would go above deck and shout down to the them as he watched the destruction that was about to take place. As twilight fell, the British war fleet began to unleash shell after shell on Fort McHenry. There were so many ships that there was no audible break in the continued shelling. Francis noticed the dark sky become lit with radiant light from all the destruction. From below deck, all he could hear from the men were their shouts of “Tell us where the flag is! Is the flag still flying over the rampart? Tell us!”

Three hours into the shelling, every time the bombs would explode in the fort, Francis Scott Key could see the tattered flag in the illuminated red glare of the bombs. The admiral was confused. How could that flag still be standing? He asked Key, “Don’t your people understand this is an impossible situation?” Key quoted to the admiral what George Washington had said years prior, “The thing that sets the American Christian apart from all other people in the world, is he will die on his feet, before he’ll live on his knees.” The admiral changed tactics and instructed all guns to change their position. All guns would now focus solely on the rampart to forcefully take the flag down. The British reconnaissance team had reported that the flag had been hit directly again and again and again and it was still upright. The admiral could not understand.

After three more hours of the merciless, targeted shelling on the rampart holding the flag, there was barely any flag left to be standing, but there it remained. And for three hours, all that Francis Scott Key could hear from below deck, were the prayers of the men. The prayer of “God keep that flag flying where we last saw it.” Sunrise came and with little visibility through all the haze, Key could make out the flag. It was in complete shreds. The flagpole itself was at an angle, but the flag was still at the top. Key went ashore to witness the remains of the night prior and when he reached the flag, he saw that it had taken many direct hits and had fallen many times throughout the night, but when it had fallen, the men, the fathers and sons, who knew what it meant for that flag to be on the ground, although knowing that all the British guns were trained on it, walked over to that flag and held it up. And when they died and the flag fell again, their bodies were removed and others took their place. Francis Scott Key said, “What held that flag at such an unusual angle, were patriots’ bodies.”

The young American lawyer wrote:

“O say, can you see, by the dawn early light?
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming.
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight.
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star spangled banner yet fly and wave?
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Over 100 years later, this poem became our nation’s anthem. In times of war, we do not let the flag touch the ground because it is a symbol of surrender and the night of September 13, 1814, is why, in times of peace, we do not let Old Glory touch the ground.

Joseph Knickerbocker is an award winning artist in Utah. He is the second oldest of eleven children. He is a wonderful father to three beautiful children and a foster-father to many foster children. He is a devoted and loving husband to his wife Vanessa, who just happens to be the reason he started making these beautiful flags to begin with. Vanessa says:

“Shortly after we were married I was watching an episode of Extreme Home Makeover. The home they were redoing was for a Veteran and they made a beautiful wood flag for his wall. The man carving the flag had almost cut his hand off while making the flag (he did receive severe injury to his hand). I asked Joseph to come in and see the flag as I wanted one similar for our home. Joseph only saw a short snippet of the flag on the screen and then made the first of his beautiful flags.”

Joseph started carving when he was 6 years old. His parents paid for him to attend a carving class in Salt Lake City, Utah when he was 10 year old and he has been doing all forms of art for over 30 years. His family and friends often remark on his ability to do and create anything he puts his mind to, with little to no instruction.

When I approached Joseph to ask him if he would be willing to create the flag for our raffle at the Utah Republican Convention on May 1st, he was ecstatic. I inquired about his creation process for each flag and what it means to him. His process takes 10-20 hours, depending on the size of the flag. He starts by gluing slats of wood together one at a time, ensuring the strength and durability of the hold. He then makes the dimension true to the original American Flag and then starts hand carving. Each wave, each wrinkle, each sign of wear and tear is all done by hand and with great precision and focus. After he is finished carving, he then paints on the canton with 50 stars and the field of 13 red stripes, all dimensions staying true to the original American Flag.

Once the flag has been painted and from that moment on, he treats each wooden flag as any patriot does the American Flag. He does not let it touch the ground. When I asked if he could add our Truth Matters logo (TM with the Sword of Truth through it) on the bottom right corner of the flag, he told me of his concerns with defiling the flag and how he could not bring himself to do that to Old Glory. I completely understood and told him I didn’t realize what I was asking, when I asked initially. I have known Joseph since the night I entered this earth and my eyes started to get hazy as I realized how deep his love for our great nation and our beloved flag runs. He is a true patriot and he is using the talents God gave him, to bring that love and patriotism to so many around him.