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The story of this flag is a fascinating example of how family lore, though not always precisely accurate, often has roots in actual history; and that the actual history is often times just as exciting as that in family lore.  The flag was acquired with solid documentation from one of the last surviving family members of its original owner, Chief Engineer Jesse Gay, U.S. Navy.  The written history accompanying the flag claims that it was the battle flag of the USS Kearsarge, one of the Civil War's most storied battleships, and that Jesse Gay served as the ship's captain.

Investigation into the flag reveals that although the flag is not tied to the USS Kearsarge, it is actually an extremely rare battle flag from the USS Mississippi.  The Mississippi was one of the most famous battleships of the Mexican War. She served as the flagship of Commodore Matthew Perry both during the Mexican War (1846-1848) and his famous expedition to Japan (1852-1855), and Chief Engineer Gay served as Commodore Perry's chief engineer on the USS Mississippi during these historic times.  The two men spent years at sea together, with Gay responsible for the overall maintenance and performance of Perry's beloved flagship. Gay served on the USS Mississippi for most of his career, from at least 1846 to the end of the Japan expedition in 1855, and this commissioning pennant and flag would have been flown from 1848-1850 during his time aboard the ship. The history of this flag, the USS Mississippi, Commodore Perry, and Chief Engineer Gay are marvelously intertwined and captured in the timeline below. 
 


1839   Commodore Matthew Perry personally supervises the construction of the USS Mississippi, a side-paddle steamer that would later become his flagship.  

1841   The USS Mississippi is commissioned.  

1845   The USS Mississippi joins the West Indian Squadron and serves as Commodore Perry's flagship during operations to stem piracy in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.  

1846   The outbreak of the Mexican War sees the USS Mississippi participating in a series of expeditions against Mexico.  

1847 January 1 The USS Mississippi returns to port in Virginia for repairs.  
  February 20 Engineer Jesse Gay of the USS Mississippi is promoted to First Assistant Engineer.  
  March 9-29 The USS Mississippi participates in the Siege of Veracruz.  
  June 16 The USS Mississippi participates in the Second Battle of Tabasco and Commodore Perry captures Villanermosa  
  October 13 The Aztec Club of 1847, which becomes the Military Society of Mexican War Veterans, is established in Mexico City.  Matthew Perry, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, George McClellan, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, P.T. Beauregard and Franklin Pierce are among its notable members.  

1848 February 2 The Mexican War ends.  Commodore Perry returns to shore duty, while Jesse Gay remains on duty with the USS Mississippi.  
  May 29 The 30 star flag becomes official with the entry of Wisconsin.  We have 30 States for a period of 2 years and 103 days, and 30 Stars is the official star count from July 4, 1848 to July 4, 1851.  The 30 star flag in the Rare Flags Collection would have been flown on the ship at this time.
  October 31 First Assistant Engineer Jesse Gay is promoted to Chief Engineer.
1849   The USS Mississippi cruises the Mediterranean Sea under the 30 star flag.

1850 September 9 The 31 star flag becomes official with the entry of California.  The new 31 star flag replaces our 30 star flag, and it is possible that Jesse Gay, who had been serving on the ship through distinguished service in the Mexican War and Mediterranean Sea deployments, received the 30 star flag and 6 Star Commissioning Pennant as a memento at this time.  It's also possible that the flag was simply retired, and later given to Jesse Gay by Commodore Perry himself at the end of the Japan voyage.  The closeness of their relationship is apparent in later fraternal associations between the two men in later years. They served at sea and in combat together for many years, and Gay was responsible for the mechanical functioning of the flagship whose construction Perry personally supervised.  In either case, whether in Jesse Gay's personal possession during the Japan voyage or gifted to him after, the flag would have remained on the ship in its flag locker as a secondary or spare flag during the upcoming Voyage to Japan.

The USS Mississippi's 31 star flag flown by Perry during the Voyage to Japan, which replaces our flag, is one of the most famous American Flags in existence.  Now in the collection of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Commodore Perry's 31 Star Flag was present during the Japanese surrender to General Douglas MacArthur aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

 

1851 November 8 Chief Engineer Jesse Gay writes an important letter, written at sea from the USS Mississippi, detailing technical efficiencies in design that can be learned from the USS Mississippi to improve future ships.  

1852 November 24 Commodore Perry returns from shore duty to prepare for his voyage to Japan. The USS Mississippi clears Hampton Roads, Virginia and once again serves as Commodore Perry's flagship. Prior to departing Chief Engineer Gay writes to Norris Brothers of Philadelphia, asking for a reduced scale model of a locomotive and cars as one of the gifts to for the Emperor of Japan.1

During the Japanese Voyage, both this 30 star and the famous 31 star flag, along with other ensigns from the flag locker of the USS Mississippi, would have been flown as part of the customary practice of festooning a ship with all of its colors during its arrival in foreign ports.

 

1853 May 4 The USS Mississippi reaches Shanghai, China  
  July 8 The USS Mississippi reaches Tokyo Bay, Japan  

1854 March 30 Chief Engineer Jesse Gay is mentioned in Wilhelm Heine's memoirs of the Japan voyage, With Perry to Japan: A Memoir.

"Meanwhile our engineers [Chief Engineer Jesse Gay in charge, aided by his first assistant, Robert Danby, both of the Mississippi] and mechanics worked and worked to unpack and assemble our gifts to the emperor. The astonishment of the Japanese increased with the opening of each crate. Indeed, these American gifts to Japan were so beautiful they would have caused amazement and produced applause in any country in the world.

The Japanese marveled most at the railroad. Locomotive, tender, and passenger cars (built by Norris [Brothers, locomotive works] in Philadelphia, all of course at reduced scale), paneling in two varieties of rosewood, metalwork of superior craftsmanship these features amounted to the most attractive example [of a railroad] that I had ever seen. The rails were laid in a circle about a mile in circumference."2

 

1855 April 23 The USS Mississippi returns to New York City  
    At a meeting at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City, officers of the Mexican War form The Montezuma Society to renew ties between Mexican War veterans, advancing the idea of the original Aztec Club which was failing to meet the needs of its members due to a weak constitution.  The elected officers of the The Montezuma Society include Commodore Matthew Perry as President, and Chief Engineer Jesse Gay as Treasurer.3  

1856 December 9 Chief Engineery Jesse Gay descends in the Nautilus Submarine Company's Nautilus Submarine in New York Harbor, and reports on the experience to Captain A. Bigelow, Commander of the New York Navy Yard.4  

1858 March 4 Commodore Perry dies.  

1859 October 22 Chief Engineer Jesse Gay resigns.  Later indications are that it is under duress for his political sympathies in favor of the Union.  

1861 March 8 A New York Times article regarding President Lincoln's decision to appoint a new Chief Engineer of the Navy mentions Jesse Gay as a potential appointee.

"The pressure for the removal of Mr. ARCHBOLD, Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy, will soon be made. Among the parties who will be urged for the place is JESSE GAY, who was formerly senior engineer, and it is said was persecuted by Secretary TOUCEY on account of his political sympathies, until he was compelled to resign. It is stated that he was even ordered to a first assistant's position, as engineer of a gun-boat, while the sloop-of-war Hartford, after he had superintended the construction and setting up of her machinery, was sent to sea with a junior engineer in charge." 5

A New York Times article of October 9, 1864, mentions a test sail of the Fusiyama, a steam corvette built in New York City under contract for the Imperial Navy of Japan. The engines of the ship were built under the supervision of "the late Chief Engineer Jesse Gay, of the United States Navy".  Another article from the New York Times, dated September 5, 1865, describes the delivery of the Fusiyama.  "The engines, which are a beautiful specimen of workmanship, were built by JAMES MURPHY & CO, under the superintendence of JESSE GAY, late Chief Engineer of the United States Navy, but now Superintending Engineer of the Imperial Navy of Japan."6

 

Both the flag and the pennant are made of hand sewn wool bunting with cotton stars.  The presence of six stars on a Navy Commissioning Pennant is very rare, but not unheard of.  It's apparent from the size of the flag, which also has 5 rows of 6 stars each, and their common history, that the flag and pennant are intended to be flown together.  The grommets of the flag and pennant are very similar, although the blue wool of the commissioning pennant is much more dense than the canton of the flag.  A reason could be that the commissioning pennant, which is thinner and lighter than the flag, would be more susceptible to complete tears under heavy winds.  The use of metal grommets on a flag of this age is also very rare.  An early patent for a metal grommet dates to 1848 (Patent #5779 to E. H. Penfield).  The use of metal grommets on this flag and pennant are the earliest usage that I've encountered.  Period 30 Star flags made of pieced-and-sewn construction are also extremely rare in and of themselves, and I know of just five or six other examples in existence.  The flag and pennant are an extraordinary witnesses to American naval history and are remarkable survivors from the pre-Civil War period. 

1 The Growth of Technical Cooperation with Governments Abroad, 1849-1853, Richard O. Cummings, The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May, 1949), pp. 199-212
2 Wilhelm Heine, With Perry to Japan: A Memoir
3 Aztec Club Website, History of its Founding Webpage
4 Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine, Vol. 49, pp. 209-210
5 New York Times,
March 8, 1861
6 New York Times, September 5, 1865


 

Learn more about rare star counts. Star Count:  30 Stars (Flag) and 6 Stars (Pennant)

Dates:  1848-1850

War Era:  None

Statehood:  Wisconsin

Construction:  Wool Bunting with Cotton Stars

Catalog Number:  IAS-00298

   
   

Next:
"PRESERVE THE UNION!"
33 Stars, Civil War, 1859-1861


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