Old Glory: The Story Behind The American Flag’s Well-Known Nickname

american flag hanging against a white sided house

The American flag has a few nicknames—some call it “the Stars and Stripes,” after its distinguished appearance, or “the Star-Spangled Banner” as an ode to the national anthem. None of these monikers, however, carry the same mix of defiance and reverence as the title originally bestowed upon Captain William Driver’s 17- by 10-foot banner, which he flew at his Nashville home during the height of the Civil War: “Old Glory.” 

This nickname is now used to refer to American flags no matter where they wave, and the story of Captain Driver’s stalwart bravery is an incredible representation of patriotism and loyalty that inspires awe even today. 

A Symbol of Patriotism on the Roaring Seas

The original banner that we now know as “Old Glory” was sewn in Salem, Massachusetts in 1824. It was crafted by Captain William Driver’s mother and a handful of female admirers in honor of Driver’s appointment as a master mariner and commander of his own ship, the Charles Dogget. Driver was just 21 years old at the time of his appointment. 

The flag crowned his ship while he sailed the South Pacific as an American merchant seaman, and it served as both a symbol of his freedom and independence and a piece of home he was proud to serve under. In regards to the flag, Captain Driver wrote, “It has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?” 

Family Fabrics Torn During the Civil War

In 1837, when Captain Driver was just 34 years old, his first wife, Martha Silsbee Babbage, died of throat cancer, leaving their three young children without a mother. In order to be with his children, Captain Driver retired from his seafaring life and settled in Nashville, TN, bringing “Old Glory” with him. He soon remarried, and he and his second wife, Sarah Jane Parks, had six more children together. 

Driver would fly the massive flag on every holiday, hanging it from a rope secured to his attic window and a locust tree across the street. However, as tensions rose between the North and South and secession neared, the flag became a source of contention both within the community and Driver’s own home. Driver’s family was torn at the seams, and two of his sons enlisted in the Confederate army—one would never make it home. 

After the secession of Tennessee in 1861, local Confederates tried several times to seize the flag, only to be rebuffed by Captain Driver, who was still a strong and determined man, despite being nearly 60 years old. He was, however, convinced of the flag’s danger, so unbeknownst to the Confederates, he enlisted several loyalist women to help him hide his prized banner, and “Old Glory” mysteriously disappeared.        

Secrets in a Calico Quilt

Nashville became the first Southern capital to fall to the Union army, in February of 1862. When Captain Driver saw the capitol building’s Confederate flag replaced with the Star-Spangled Banner and the colors of the Sixth Ohio regiment, he made his way to speak with the Union commander, General William “Bull” Nelson. 

Driver, a broad but graying gentleman, whose gait still held the tell-tale signs of a youth spent at sea, carried a calico quilt over his arm. Once he confirmed that General Nelson was indeed the Union commander in charge, he began to cut the quilt apart, revealing the treasure within: “Old Glory” had been hidden inside. 

General Nelson’s aide, Horace Fisher, recalled, “the bedquilt was safely delivered of a large American flag, which he handed to Gen. Nelson, saying, ‘This is the flag I hope to see hoisted on that flagstaff in place of the [damned] Confederate flag set there by that [damned] rebel governor, Isham G. Harris. I have had hard work to save it; my house has been searched for it more than once.’ He spoke triumphantly, with tears in his eyes.” 

General Nelson did indeed hang the flag from the statehouse flagstaff, where it was met with cheers from the Union Soldiers, many of whom were part of the Sixth Ohio. This led the regiment to take “Old Glory” as its motto for the remainder of the Civil War. 

A Contested Legacy

The history of “Old Glory” becomes much more murky from that point on—some historians claim Driver replaced the flag with a newer, stronger one that same night, when a storm threatened to rip his precious banner apart. Some say he gave it to the Sixth Ohio when the regiment left the city, while others say it was stored away in his home until the second battle for Nashville in 1864. 

While Capt Driver served as a provost marshal of Nashville during the remainder of the Civil War, a large flag, reported to be “Old Glory,” hung from the window of his home as a symbol of patriotic defiance. One of his daughters, Mary Jane Roland, stated that Driver gave her the flag as a gift in 1873, over a decade before his death, stating, “This is my old ship flag Old Glory.I love it as a mother loves her child; take it and cherish it as I have always cherished it; for it has been my steadfast friend and protector in all parts of the world—savage, heathen and civilized.”

Roland’s story, however, was contested by Drivers’ niece, Harriet Ruth Waters Cooke, after his death in 1886. She stated that she inherited the flag from Drivers and presented it to the Essex Institute in Salem (now the Peabody Essex Museum), along with family memorabilia. 

Roland denied this claim and wrote a book titled Old Glory, the True Story in response; she eventually presented her flag to President Warren G. Harding in 1922, who turned it over to the Smithsonian Museum. Cooke’s flag also made its way to the Smithsonian that same year. The two flags remain at the museum to this day, and although Roland’s flag is widely considered to be the authentic “Old Glory,” both flags hold historic significance.  

Either way, Captain William Driver’s patriotism and dedication to his country led to one of the most iconic nicknames for the American flag, and it’s his legacy we honor when we stop and admire “Old Glory” blowing in the wind, no matter where she flies.    

Browse Gettysburg Flag Works’ Selection of American Flags

While we don’t have the original “Old Glory,” Gettysburg Flag Works proudly carries a large selection of American flags. If you’re interested in unique patriotic decor, consider our Framed Betsy Ross Flag. In the spirit of Captain Driver, consider outfitting your sea- or lake-faring vessel with our Premium Sewn American Boat Flag. You could also showcase your patriotism by hanging our Battle-Tough Nylon American Flag outside your home. Browse Gettysburg Flag Works’ full selection of American Flags online or give us a call at 1-888-697-3524 to place an order.    

The Smithsonian Magazine: How the Flag Came to be Called Old Glory

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