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NEWS | Jan. 22, 2021

Kentucky's River Raisin Battle Flag: A forgotten relic from the War of 1812

By John Trowbridge Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

The American Flag and our Regimental Colors hold deep meaning for us that have served and those that are currently serving in the Armed Forces of the United States. These emblems take on almost-religious relevance as a profound relationship develops with those who have served our Nation. It is not merely a banner representing the country, but a symbol of all that we hold dear—things that a service member can perceive and appreciate with perfect clarity:


If you talk to U.S. Military members about their feelings towards these flags, they may share with you their opinion or a remarkable story. You should expect an initial silence, once asked, as the individual takes a moment to reflect on some significant event or time in their military career where they were personally affected by their sight, or perhaps while gathering thoughts to share their meaning of the flags.

For many, the Regimental Colors we served under holds a deeper reverence, whether serving during peace or at war. We build a deep sense of pride, honor, reverence, and remembrance, which affects us every time we see the Colors fly.

Our Regimental Colors and its streamers tell our history. Looking upon those streamers brings pride of ownership and commitment to carry out our traditions and honors that were earned by those who served and sacrificed before us.

Reading through old newspaper accounts of the Kentucky Militia during the War of 1812, Mexican War, and the Civil War, you find many accounts of formal flag presentations by local communities to their hometown militia company before a departure from home and going off to war. At these ceremonies, community leaders and ministers gave speeches, followed by a company commander who accepted the flag on behalf of the company. They then thanked and honored the ladies of the community for their hard work of designing and fabricating the banner which would represent the Soldiers and their hometown. In most cases, the Captain would always make the last comment that they would not bring any shame to the flag, and they would return the flag in honor and glory of their actions.

One can only assume that the pride and honor we feel today also swelled in the hearts of these Soldiers more than 200 years ago.

While researching the Battles of Frenchtown and River Raisin, and the subsequent massacre of Kentucky Troops that followed, I came across information concerning a flag that Kentucky Troops carried into battle those fateful days, Jan. 18-22, 1813.

Legend has it that Gen. Henry Proctor, commander of the British and Indian forces, took the flag from Kentucky Troops following the American defeat and surrender at Frenchtown, on Jan. 22, 1813.

Following the War, the flag remained in British hands and was taken back to England as a war trophy for display at the Royal Hospital Chelsea sometime in the 1820s.

There it remained in relative obscurity until it was brought to the attention of Kentucky authorities by Major Sir John Evelyn Leslie Wrench, KCMG, at a meeting of the English-Speaking Union held in Louisville, Ky., in early 1919.

In May 1919, an attempt was made by then-Governor James D. Black, to have the forgotten Kentucky relic of the War of 1812 returned to the Commonwealth.

The following articles appeared in The Louisville Times and Courier-Journal newspapers from 1919 to 1920. They tell the story of this failed effort and the sad ending of a Kentucky war relic from 1812.

Governor James D. Black, acting under a request from Louisville, has asked John Buchanan, of Louisville, to be a commissioner for the State of Kentucky to recover the flag taken by the British from the Kentucky Volunteer Regiment at the Battle of River Raisin in Michigan in the War of 1812. Buchanan, who has accepted the responsibility, is the only male lineal descendant of Colonel William Whitley.

The tattered emblem which bears part of the State's motto: "United We Stand * * *" is hanging in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, London, according to Major Sir Evelyn Wrench, president of the English-Speaking Union, who commented on the discovery to The Louisville Times. The newspaper persuaded Governor Black to seek its return.

As the story is told by Kentucky historians, the flag was taken from the volunteers who started to aid a garrison under siege by British and Indian forces under Proctor, a Britisher who had much influence with the Indians of the Northwest.

Near the River Raisin, Proctor ambushed the Kentuckians, who surrendered to superior numbers after a short skirmish. Proctor took the flag and made off with it, leaving the volunteers in charge of the Indians. The redskins, inflamed by liquor, massacred all but a few.

Gov. Black to Seek Return of Kentucky Flag Captured at Detroit.
The Time Special Service.
Frankfort, Ky., May 21, 1919—Gov. Black intends to take up at once the suggestion of The Louisville Times, the matter of securing the return of the Kentucky flag captured either at the Battle of the Thames or at the fall of Detroit and recently brought to light in England. "That is one of the first things that I shall go into," the Governor said this morning. "Of course, I am utterly ignorant as to the proper method of procedure; but I feel sure our Senators and Representatives in Congress will assist. If it is necessary to interest Washington, and I shall lose no time in ascertaining the course to pursue."

CHAPTER 49. (Statute from Kentucky's General Assembly 1920)
An Act authorizing the Governor to appoint a commissioner to go to England and accept and receive from the British Government the battle flag of the Kentucky troops captured by the British forces in the battle of the River Raisin, and to bring and deliver same to the Governor of this Commonwealth, and making an appropriation therefore.
Whereas, at the battle of the River Raisin, in the War of 1812, the battle flag of the Kentucky troops engaged in that action was captured by the British forces; and, whereas, the British Government has expressed a willingness and desire to return this battle flag to the State of Kentucky, to be kept in its historical archives; now, therefore,
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky:
That the Governor is authorized to appoint a commissioner to go to England to accept and receive from the British Government the battle flag of the Kentucky troops, captured by the British forces in the battle of River Raisin, and to bring and deliver same to the Governor of this Commonwealth.
That there is hereby appropriated for the payment of the necessary expenses of said commissioner, out of the funds not otherwise appropriated, the sum of three thousand dollars, and the said amount, or such part as may be necessary, shall be paid by warrant of the Auditor drawn upon the State Treasurer, when said account for expenses shall have been approved by the Governor.
Approved March 22, 1920.


Banner in London Believed to Have Been Lost at River Raisin.

Torn almost in half and its ragged remnant fast falling to bits, the battle flag supposed to have been carried by the Kentucky volunteers who surrendered at the battle of the River Raisin and afterward were massacred by the Indians at Frenchtown in the War of 1812 lies in its case in the chapel of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, London, where it has been kept, along with other captured flags, since the day the last British soldiers to leave this country after their final defeat and expulsion took it with them.

The Kentuckians' battle standard is the one which Maj. Sir Evelyn Wrench, one of the founders of the English-speaking Union, recently discovered hanging in the chapel along with other captured American flags. It is the same whose return will be asked by Gov. James D. Black, his attention has been called to its presence there by The Times.

No one seems to have recollected that a Kentucky flag ever was captured by the British in the War of 1812, at least not officially. However, R. C. Ballard Thruston, president of the Kentucky Society, Sons of the American Revolution, himself an expert on all American flags and their history, found among his collection of photographs of the American battle flags at Chelsea one of an unidentified trophy upon which was emblazoned part of the State's motto, "United We Stand."

Most of Command Lost.

This flag, the one believed to have been discovered by Sir Evelyn, is believed by Mr. Thruston and other flag experts to have been taken by the British when the plucky Kentucky volunteers under Gen. J. M. Winchester, who marched to the relief of the inhabitants of Frenchtown were forced to surrender by a superior force under Proctor, the British commander. The surrender, as, of course, every schoolchild knows—especially since the celebration of the Perry Centennial, and the 100 years of peace—was made on condition that the hostile Indians be held in check, but the ruthless Proctor, moving away with his forces, left the prisoners and wounded and the inhabitants of Frenchtown to the mercy of the Indians, who crazed with liquor, massacred them all except a few who were taken to Detroit and dragged from house to house and offered for sale as slaves.

The battle flag of the Kentucky Volunteers was taken away by Proctor, who, incidentally, was responsible for the massacre of the Raisin because he offered a bounty for every scalp.

The flag at Chelsea, which Sir Evelyn writes of, is not, as he says, a Kentucky regimental flag, but the standard of the Kentucky volunteers. No Kentucky regimental flag ever was captured in the War of 1812.
Mr. Thurston has in his extensive collection photographs, drawings, and minute descriptions by several trained observers of all captured American battle flags.

The Kentucky volunteer flag, the return of which Gov. Black has expressed a willingness to ask, is shown in the accompanying sketch, which is a copy of the photograph and a colored drawing in Mr. Thruston's possession.

Description of Flag.

The description of the flag furnished by McQuire, the photographer; Capt. Ford, who was custodian of the flags some years ago, and Gherardi Davis, a New York flag expert, shows that in its torn condition it is 54 by 45 inches in size. The field is a brownish-gray in color, probably originally white. There is a spearhead, but no tassels. In the center is a brown eagle, holding in the dexter claw a pole surmounted by a red Liberty cap. In its beak, the eagle holds a scroll ribbon on which is inscribed "United We Stand" in black letters. The ribbon is gold in color, merging into brownish red at the right end. About the ribbon are eleven five-pointed, golden color stars. At this time there were eighteen states, and it is probable that the other stars are on the portion torn off. On the eagle's breast is a shield with gold outlines and five vertical red stripes on a grayish buff background. The top portion of the shield Capt. Ford describes it as having a white ground and the lower blue. This was not noticeable to Mr. McQuire, the photographer. In the sinister claw are held three arrows.

Senators J. C. W. Beckham and A. O. Stanley of Kentucky, have arranged a meeting with Secretary of State Colby for John Buchanan, of Louisville, who is going to England to recover and restore to the State the old Kentucky flag lost in the battle of the Raisin River during the War of 1812 with England. Mr. Buchanan will confer with Secretary of State Colby regarding the negotiations concerning the return of the old battle flag.
Mr. Buchanan was appointed to obtain the flag and return it to Kentucky by Senator Stanley when he was Governor of Kentucky, but the appropriation to cover the expenses was not made by the Legislature until its recent session.

Flag of Kentucky Troops Captured at River Raisin Will Not Be Returned by British.

Washington, July 12 — The Kentucky Legislature recently made an appropriation to send an agent to London to obtain the battle flag captured from Kentucky troops at the River Raisin. John Buchanan, of Louisville, was entrusted with the task.

The State Department declined to issue a passport to him until it could be learned whether or not British authorities would give up the flag.
Today Senator J. C. W. Beckham's office received a letter from the Acting Secretary of State, giving the substance of a cablegram received from the Ambassador at London. The Ambassador says that he had been advised by the British Foreign Office that the Commissioners of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, who have the flag in custody, "find themselves to be unable to accede to the request to return the flag."

Additionally, the following appeared in the July 13, 1920, edition of The Courier-Journal:

Mr. Davis informed the department that he would get an official statement and forward it with a full report.

Officials here are of the opinion that there may be some misunderstanding, which, when explained, may result in a reversal of the stand taken by the British officials.

However, if the detailed report of the Ambassador shows that the British refuse absolutely to return the flag, it is probable that no further action will be taken, officials here said.

In the meantime, the State Department will hold up passports of John Buchanan, Louisville, delegated by Kentucky on the mission abroad, after the Legislature had made an appropriation for the purpose.

Point to Trophies Held by U. S. to Justify Holding Kentucky Banner.
Official Report Made

Washington, July 26.—Definite information that the Kentucky battle flag captured by the British in 1812 and now held at Chelsea, England, will not be released by its present holders, was received by the State Department here today in an official report of Ambassador Davis.

The report confirms an unofficial cable sent to the department by Ambassador Davis several weeks ago.

In his report, a copy of which was given the office of Senator Beckham, Mr. Davis said:

"I have the honor to report that the proposed return to the State of Kentucky of a battle flag captured by the British troops in 1812, and now at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, has been discussed informally with the foreign office.

"I now learn that the commissioners of the Royal Hospital to whom the matter was referred have given careful consideration to the suggestion, but regret that they are unable, under the terms upon which the flag was placed in their custody to accede to the request for its return, as it was deposited at the Royal Hospital with other trophies, there to remain as memorials of the valor and discipline of His Majesty's land forces.

"I am further informed by the foreign office that the war office states that there are in the possession of the United States Government similar trophies among which may be mentioned the King's Colour of the Seventh Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) and another King's Colour of a regiment, the name of which is not given. Both these flags are now at West Point, but the army council has never contemplated requesting the United States Government to return these memorials to the valor of their troops.

"The foreign office, therefore, regrets that there should have been any misunderstanding over the matter.

"Informally the view has been expressed to me that public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic would probably be in favor of the retention of these historical trophies by their present possessors."

In August 2004, in communications with Jon Nuttall, head of administration, Royal Hospital Chelsea, I learned that the Kentucky flag, along with many other captured trophies of the British Empire, were lodged at the Royal Hospital in the 1830s. In 1841, an officer by the name of Captain Ford, living at the hospital, made drawings and catalogued many of these flags. Luckily, one of these was the Kentucky flag. The flag is listed in Captain Ford's "The Flag Book," as No. 44 and displayed on the capital of the pilaster between the 4th and 5th windows in the Chapel. Additional research shows that the captured flags were transferred to Chelsea Hospital in 1835, by order of King George IV. The flags were initially located in Whitehall Court, The Indian House, and St. Paul's Cathedral before their consolidation at the hospital.

Researching the papers of Gov. Black, there are no documents related to the attempt to have the flag returned to the Commonwealth. Likewise, no information is available as to the response from officials in Britain as to the request for the return of the flag. However, legend tells us that the official response was that they would return the flag once the United States returned all captured British flags.

According to Jon Nutall, since the attempt in 1919 to have the flag returned to Kentucky, the flag rotted away and no longer exists due to lack of conservation. Today, we only have Captain Ford's watercolor drawing of the remnants of the Kentucky River Raisin battle flag, currently Kentucky's oldest known battle flag.

Today, two replicas were created to represent this Kentucky battle flag. One hangs in the Frankfort City Museum. Reenactors of the War of 1812 carry a second flag. They fly it proudly with the 2nd Kentucky Militia at encampments and battle reenactments held in what was the Old Northwest Territory and Upper Canada.

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