On 15 December 1880, Commanding General William Tecumseh Sherman approved a design for a flag of the Headquarters of the United States Army. Before Congress settled on the Stars and Stripes in 1777, Lieutenant General George Washington had a headquarters flag of thirteen six-pointed white stars, but no stripes, on a field of Continental blue. It appears in a painting of the Battle of Trenton done by Charles Willson Peale in 1779, and in one of the Battle of Princeton by James Peale and William Mercer done between 1779 and 1786. The stars, however, are arranged differently in the two paintings.
In the Civil War, Major General George B. McClellan and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant simply employed large, national flags to locate their headquarters in the field or in camp. Grant’s was described by his son as “the ordinary bunting United States flag in size that is known as the field flag.”
In the late nineteenth century there was a division of authority in the Army between the Commanding General, who controlled the troops, and the Secretary of War who, through the Bureau Chiefs, headed administration. The Secretary of War got his own flag in 1897 and the Army Chief of Staff-whose position replaced that of Commanding General in 1903-was authorized his own flag in 1917. The headquarters flag of the United States Army fell into disuse.
Toda the design is much different and is more soldily rooted in the idea of a Professional Army. An all encompassing fighting force, that is the mainstay of all major battles.
The date “MDCCLXXVIII” and the designation “War Office” are indicative of the origin of the seal. The date (1778) refers to the year of its adoption. The term “War Office” used during the Revolution, and for many years afterward, was associated with the Headquarters of the Army.
The central element, the Roman cuirass, is a symbol of strength and defense. The sword, esponton (a type of half-pike formerly used by subordinate officers), musket, bayonet, cannon, cannon balls, mortar, and mortar bombs are representative of Army implements. The drum and drumsticks are symbols of public notification of the Army’s purpose and intent to serve the nation and its people. The Phrygian cap (often called the Cap of Liberty) supported on the point of an unsheathed sword and the motto, “This We’ll Defend,” on a scroll held by the rattlesnake is a symbol depicted on some American colonial flags and signifies the Army’s constant readiness to defend and preserve the United States.