The Culpeper Flag was carried by the Culpeper Minutemen from Culpeper County, Virginia. The men were part of Colonel Patrick Henry's 1st Virginia Regiment formed in 1775. The flag was a version of the Gadsden Flag created earlier in the year by South Carolina representative to Congress, Christopher Gadsden, but with Patrick Henry's famous words "Liberty of Death" added on the sides. This is one of the few American Revolution Flags that we can say with certainty was truly carried in the Revolutionary War.
The Culpeper Flag is a white flag with an American rattlesnake in the middle over the words "Don't Tread on Me." The words "The Culpeper Minutemen" are in a banner over the top of the snake and Patrick Henry's famous words "Liberty of Death" are to the sides of the snake.
The Culpeper Flag was first used in 1775 and is a variation of the Gadsden Flag created earlier in the year by Congressman Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. Gadsden served on Congress' Marine Committee when it decided to outfit the USS Alfred and sister ships. Rhode Island captain Esek Hopkins was named the first commodore of the flotilla and the Alfred was his flagship.
Christopher Gadsden felt it was very important for the commodore to have his own naval standard (flag) and he designed the Gadsden Flag and presented it to Hopkins at Philadelphia. For this reason it is sometimes also called the Hopkins Flag. The Gadsden Flag is a yellow flag with the American rattlesnake in the center above the words "Don't Tread on Me." Shortly after presenting the flag to Hopkins, Gadsden presented another Gadsden Flag to the State of South Carolina.
The rattlesnake became a symbol for the colonies before the French and Indian War as the result of an article and a cartoon published by Benjamin Franklin. In 1751, Franklin published a strident article in his Pennsylvania Gazette condemning the British practice of sending convicts to the American colonies. In the article, he suggested that the Americans should "return the favor" by sending a bunch of rattlesnakes back to England to be dispensed in the gardens of the noblemen who sent the convicts.
In 1754, Franklin published the first political cartoon in American history, again using the rattlesnake design. The cartoon was a snake cut into 8 pieces with the name of a different colony on each part. The New England colonies were all included together on one piece. The words "Join or Die," were beneath the snake.
The cartoon was meant to encourage the colonies to support the Albany Plan, a plan he had submitted to a meeting of colonists at Albany, New York to discuss the colonies joint defense during the French and Indian War. Franklin's plan was the first proposal of a union between the colonies, 20 years before the Revolutionary War. He believed the colonies must work together to defeat the threat from the French and their allied Indian tribes or they would be defeated. Thus the snake represented American unity.
Ten years later, the colonies were facing a joint threat from the Stamp Act, an act of Parliament passed to gain better control over the American economy and to help raise funds to pay off the gigantic debt incurred during the French and Indian War. The rattlesnake symbol was raised again as a symbol of American unity against the Stamp Act and was used as an American symbol of disagreement with political authority thereafter. Even today the Gadsden Flag often used by those expressing dissent with political policies.
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The Culpeper Minutemen were formed by an act of the Third Virginia Convention in July, 1775 in response to the growing British threat. The group was made up of men from Orange, Fauquier and Culpeper counties. Patrick Henry was their senior colonel, to whom the lower ranked officers reported. Words from Henry's famous "Give me Liberty or give me death!" speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses were included on the Culpeper Flag. You can read more Patrick Henry quotes here.
The Culpeper Minutemen were first called into duty when John Murray, Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, confiscated the colonists gunpowder at the Virginia capital, Williamsburg. The colonists were alarmed and Patrick Henry immediately sent word to Culpeper County. The Culpeper Minutemen met at the Culpeper Courthouse carrying their Culpeper Flag and marched for Williamsburg.
According to sixteen-year old Philip Slaughter who fought with the Culpeper Minutemen wrote the following:
"The whole regiment appeared according to orders in hunting shirts made of strong brown linen, dyed the color of the leaves of the trees, and on the breast was worked in large white letters the words, "Liberty or Death"! and all that could procure for love or money buck's tails, wore them in their hats. Each man had a leather belt around his shoulders, with a tomahawk and scalping knife."
Due to the bucktails, tomahawks and scalping knives, Slaughter wrote that the people of the countryside and Williamsburg were scared of them:
"Many people hearing that we were from the backwoods, near the Indians, and seeing our dress were as much afraid of us for a few days as if we had been Indians; but finding that we were orderly and attentive in guarding the city, they treated us with great respect. We took great pride in demeaning ourselves as patriots and gentlemen."
Slaughter also reported the flag that the Culpeper Minutemen were carrying, the Culpeper Flag:
"The flag had in the center a rattlesnake coiled in the act to strike. Below it were the words, 'Don't tread on me!' At the sides, 'Liberty or Death!' and at the top, 'The Culpeper Minute Men.'"
This is the definitive proof that the Culpeper Flag was indeed carried by the Culpeper Minutemen. This makes the Culpeper Flag somewhat unique because many of the flags that many people consider to be "historic American flags" cannot definitively be tied directly to the American Revolution, such as the Betsy Ross Flag, the Cowpens Flag or the Bennington Flag.
The Culpeper Minutemen carried their Culpeper Flag into battle at the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775, where Dunsmore and his Tory supporters were crushed by the Virginia patriots. Later the battle shifted to Norfolk which the patriots had occupied. The city was virtually destroyed in a bombardment from Dunmore's Royal Navy ships in the river on New Year's Day, 1776. In spite of the loss of Norfolk, this series of events caused Dunmore to flee to New York and with him the last vestiges of British government forever from Virginia.
The Culpeper Minutemen were dissolved in February, 1776, most of them then joined the Continental Army, many joining Colonel Daniel Morgan's 11th Virginia Continental Regiment. John Marshall, who would later become the 4th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was one of the original Culpeper Minutemen.
In 1860, the Culpeper Minutemen were reformed for the Civil War and were joined with the Confederacy's 13th Infantry, fighting in several battles. The Culpeper Minutemen were reactivated during the Spanish-American War, but were never called to duty and again during World War I, when they were joined with the 116th Infantry.
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Published October 10/22/11