The Flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky

by John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  The Kentucky National Guard has played a major role in the development of the State’s flag.

In the early history of the Commonwealth, flags representing various countries flew across the land that would eventually become Kentucky.  Spanish and French explorers to the region carried their countries flag.  France once a held ownership over a portion of the state until the French and Indian War, when the land was ceded to Great Britain.  The British flag flew over the area until the Revolutionary War. During the war the flag of the thirteen stars and stripes flew over the forts and towns in the bluegrass.  During the period leading up statehood, the flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia, flew over Kentucky County, at the time a part of Virginia. 

In 1792, when Kentucky became the 15th State in the Union, the state adopted the national

flag as the unofficial state flag, the fifteen stars and fifteen stripes on the flag signified its new statehood status.  With westward expansion, came the addition of stars and modification of the flag, Kentucky would retain it for the next few decades.    

In a letter dated November 13, 1851, to Governor Lazarus W. Powell, William F. Gaines, who had served as the Color Sergeant of the Second Kentucky Foot Volunteers at the Battle of Buena Vista, Mexico, made the following comments concerning the Kentucky’s involvement in future conflicts and the banner the Kentuckians would carry:

May Kentucky’s sons in all future trials, whether in repelling the invasion of foreign foes, or struggling with more dangerous enemies—ever be found, gathering with enthusiasm under the standard of their beloved Kentucky, with the inscription upon its broad folds, United we stand, Divided we fall, and battling for their country—their whole country—The Union, one and inseparable.

During the Civil War, Confederate and Union flags flew over the Commonwealth.  Following the war the Stars and Stripes was once again Kentucky’s unofficial state flag.  In 1880, Joseph P. Nuckols, the Adjutant General, appointed a Special Committee to consider and report on a design for a flag to be utilized by the State Guard:

HEADQUARTERS KENTUCKY STATE GUARD

General Orders.                                                        Frankfort, May 24th, 1880.

No. 4.

  1. Captain John H. Leathers, Co. C, Louisville Legion; Capt. George K. Speed, Co. A, Louisville Legion; and Capt. M. H. Crump, Bowling Green Guards, K. S. G., are hereby appointed a Board of Officers, and Special Committee who are directed to consider and report a design for a Service flag for use and adoption by the Kentucky State Guard.
  2. Said Board, on a Majority thereof, will convene at the Armory in Louisville, at its earliest convenience, and report the result of its deliberations to this office.

By Command of Governor Blackburn.

                                                                                    J. P. Nuckols,

                                                                                                Adjutant General.

HEADQUARTERS KENTUCKY STATE GUARD

General Orders.                                                        Frankfort, June 15th, 1880.

No. 5.

  1. Captain John H. Leathers, Company C, Louisville Legion; Captain Geo. K. Speed, Company A, Louisville Legion; and Captain M. H. Crump, Bowling Green Guards, K. S. G.; who were by General Order No. 4, A.G.O. current Series, appointed a Board of Officers, and Special Committee to report a design for a service flag for adoption and use by the Kentucky State Guard, having reported and recommended the design hereinafter set forth, the same is approved and adopted, and will be used on all occasions of active duty, ceremony, parade, review, inspection, court-martial, campaigns encampments &c., except  when otherwise specially directed, or permitted.

STATE GUARD FLAG.

Blue Silk, with the Arms of the State of Kentucky embroidered in silk, on the centre, surmounted by an Eagle, proper, wings distended, holding in his beak a scroll inscribed with the legend, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” and in his talons, dexter and sinister, respectively, an olive branch, and bundle of arrows.  Underneath the arms, in gold embroidery, or gilt, the Regimental, or Battalion number with letters, “K. S. G.’, and the name of Battalion where there is other designation.  Fringe of gold or yellow silk.  Cords and tassels, blue and white silk intermixed.  Unattached Companies will carry the State Guard flag, with Company name, and letters, K. S. G. underneath the arms.  The Battalions, or regimental flag will be six feet and the Staff, by Six feet—Six inches fly.  The Pike or Staff including spear and finial, will be nine feet six inches in length.

  • Each Regiment and Battalion of the State Guard, and of the Reserve Militia, when called into active service by the Governor, shall have two flags—the State Guard Color as herein before prescribed, and the National Color, of Stars and Stripes, which latter may be either of silk or bunting, with red cord and tassels.
  • The Board of Officers of the Kentucky State Guard, convened by virtue of General Orders No. 4, current Series, of which Captains John H. Leathers is President, is hereby dissolved.

By Command of Luke P. Blackburn,

                                                         Governor and Commander-in-Chief.

                                                                     J. P. Nuckols,

                                                                                 Adjutant General.

In his 1880, Report of the Adjutant and Inspector General, to the Governor Blackburn, General Nuckols reported on the new State Flag:

The State Flag.

It is a singular fact that the State had never, prior to your administration, adopted, by legislative action or Executive authority, this important emblem of sovereignty.  Most of the older States, perhaps all of them, have their separate State colors, generally a blue field, with the arms of the State in the centre.  A board of officers, consisting of Captain John H. Leathers and Captain George K. Speed, Louisville Legion, and Captain M. H. Crump, Bowling Green Guards, was convened by general order to consider and report a flag designed for use of the State Guard.  Their report was adopted, with some modifications, and by general order a State flag has been prescribed for the State Guard and the Reserve Militia when called into service.  Each Battalion will be entitled to the State flag and National colors.  The flag thus adopted is a blue field, with arms of the State embroidered in the centre, surmounted by an eagle.

I trust your Excellency may find it convenient and agreeable, at no very distant day, to order for each battalion and detached company in the State Guard a State flag, to be furnished and paid for out of the Military Fund, as I can conceive of no more appropriate or useful application of said fund.

During a farewell ceremony at Camp Collier located at Lexington, Kentucky, on May 25, 1898, the Second Regiment, Kentucky Volunteers were presented with a Kentucky State flag, The “State Flag” was described as follows:

It is made of heavy dark blue silk with the coat-of-arms of Kentucky painted on both sides.  Above this is a wide scroll of white with the motto of the D.A.R., “Home and Country,” upon it, the letters touched with red.  Beneath the seal is the motto of the State and below this another and larger scroll with the inscription, “Second Regiment Infantry, U. S. V.”

In the Flag Issue of the October 1917, edition of National Geographic Magazine, the following information and description is given for Kentucky’s State flag: 

315.  Kentucky—So far as a careful search of the records of the State reveal, Kentucky has never by legislative action adopted an official flag.  In 1880, however, a Board was convened by general order, under the Adjutant General, to consider and report a flag design for the use of the State Guard.  Its report was adopted with some modification, and by general order a State flag was prescribed for the guard and reserve militia when called into service.  This consists of a blue field with the arms of the State embroidered in the center.  On the escutcheon appear two men apparently shaking hands.  The escutcheon is surmounted by an eagle bearing in its beak a streamer carrying the legend, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”  It is said that the original intention of the seal was to represent two friends in hunter’s garb, their right hands clasped, their left resting on each other’s shoulders, their feet on the verge of a precipice, which gave significance to the legend.  But the engravers for the State have uniformly dressed the figures more to suit their ideals, with varying heraldic effect.  The escutcheon is supported by four United States flags, a drum, and a cannon.

On March 26, 1918 the Kentucky Legislature passed an act authorizing and creating an official state flag, 126 years after statehood and the adoption of the state seal which appears on the flag.  The State flag Act was drawn up by Mrs. Sam Shackleford, of Frankfort, and introduced in the House of Representatives on February 19, 1918 by Dr. J. E. Lilly, of Union County.  The flag was designated to be of navy blue silk or bunting, with the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky encircled by a wreath of goldenrod, embroidered, printed or stamped on the center thereof.  Dimensions could vary.

Chapter 40.

AN ACT to provide for a State Flag for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and to prescribe the design thereof.

Whereas, The Commonwealth of Kentucky has no official State Flag and whereas it is desirable that such flag be provided for and adopted by law; now therefore

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky:

One.  That the official State Flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky shall be of navy blue silk or bunting, with the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky encircled by a wreath of golden-rod, embroidered, printed or stamped on the center thereof.  The dimensions of the flag may vary.

Two.  This act shall take effect from and after its passage.

                                                                        Approved March 26, 1918.

The first official state flag was made in early 1920, and used on March 30 at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, when the colors of the 84th Division were turned over to Governor Edwin P. Morrow by Major General Charles P. Summerall through Robert Worth Bingham.  The flag had been hastily constructed, and not very artistic in design.  Mrs. W. B. Hoke of Louisville was chairman of the committee to have the flag made, and Mrs. James B. Camp furnished the design.  The Bryan Pleating Company of Louisville manufactured it.

Following the ceremony in 1920, Mr. Credo Harris of Louisville was sent the flag by Kentucky’s Adjutant General James M. DeWeese to have something done to make it better in a few details.  Mr. Harris called in the leading artists of Louisville and they met in the studio of Charles Sneed Williams.  In a letter dated March 2, 1921, Mr. Harris wrote:

“The men thereupon took pencils, paper, and with an ear harking to the legislative bill I read them in regard to a state flag, began their work of remodeling.  These results were passed around, discussing and criticizing, until finally we all agreed upon a combination of three drawings that really promised a beautiful result.  One of the men was delighted to make the complete drawing in colors, and this I was to send to General DeWeese, or the Governor, for approval.  This was somewhere about the last of May, and the thing isn’t finished yet.”

Nothing ever resulted in this attempt to make a better design, and the original flag was placed in the custody of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society.

During the administration of Governor Flem D. Sampson, Adjutant General William H. Jones, Jr. communicated with the Kentucky Historical Society for information on the State flag.  At that time, Mrs. Jouett Taylor Cannon, secretary of the society, had Mrs. Jessie Cox, an art teacher in the Frankfort schools, draw a design from the wording of the State flag Act.  This drawing is now in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society, and from it three flags were made in Philadelphia.  One was placed in the Historical Society; one in the Adjutant General’s office.  The third was loaned for some occasion in Chicago, and was never returned.  The flag at the Historical Society was borrowed by State officials for the Hoover inauguration, and was carried in the inaugural parade.  The flag was somewhat damaged by rain, but was returned to the society, where it remains.

In 1961, Major Taylor L. Davidson, while serving on the staff of Major General Arthur Y. Lloyd, The Adjutant General of Kentucky, took it upon himself to do something about the Commonwealth’s official colors.  He, with the blessing of Governor Bert Combs and General Lloyd, consulted with the Kentucky Historical Society and traced every history of early designs for the flag.  Mr. Harold Collins, artist with the Kentucky Department of Public Information, was asked to produce three designs in color.  The best features of the three designs were selected and concurrence was obtained from the Governor.  A final color original was purchased from a Louisville artist upon the request of Major Davidson.  After much consultation, the colors and design were accepted and Major Davidson drafted a new bill; describing the flag in detail.  The Kentucky General Assembly enacted this bill into law during its 1962 session, and Section 2.030 Kentucky Revised Statutes, became the legal authority for the State flag.  A line drawing of the flag was submitted with the bill and was printed in the statute, being the first and only illustration to grace the pages of Kentucky’s statutes.

Chapter 114

(S. B. 267)

AN ACT relating to the official flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky:

Section 1.  Section 2.030 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes is amended to read as follows:

The official state flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky shall be of navy blue silk, nylon, wool or cotton bunting, or some other suitable material, with the Seal of the Commonwealth encircled by a wreath, the lower half of which shall be goldenrod in bloom and the upper half the words “Commonwealth of Kentucky”, embroidered, printed, painted, or stamped on the center thereof.  The dimensions of the flag may vary [.], but the length shall be one and nine-tenths times the width and the diameter of the seal and encirclement shall be approximately two-thirds the width of the flag.

Section 2.  The approved official drawings of the state flag shall be permanently retained in the files of the office of the Secretary of State.  All state flags for official use of the Commonwealth shall conform as to color and design with these official drawings.

Section 3.  The flying of the state flag at all state buildings and installations including public school buildings, National Guard Armories, state parks and other such buildings is considered proper and encouraged.

                                                                        Approved March 19, 1962.

Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the

Commonwealth of Kentucky

During the 1930’s the Kentucky Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy composed a pledge of allegiance to the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, it was never adopted by the State as the pledge for the State flag:

“To the flag blue and gold of Kentucky State, We pledge our allegiance, and now consecrate Our efforts in making this truth known to all – “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

On March 29, 2000, the Kentucky General Assembly approved a pledge of allegiance to the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  The pledge was composed by a fifth grade class from Pulaski County Elementary School:

KRS 2.035 Pledge of allegiance to state flag.

The following shall be the official pledge of allegiance to the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky:

 “I pledge allegiance to the Kentucky flag, and to the Sovereign State for which it stands, one Commonwealth, blessed with diversity, natural wealth, beauty, and grace from on High.”

The Seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky

            The official seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky was adopted on December 20, 1792, six months after statehood.  The seal is a simple rendition of two men, one in buckskin, and the other in more formal dress.  The two men are facing each other and clasping hands.  The outer ring of the seal is adorned with the words, “COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY”, and within the inner circle the motto, “UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL.”

            The official act of the Kentucky General Assembly stated: 

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that the Governor be empowered and is hereby required to provide at the public charge a seal for this Commonwealth; and procure the same to be engraved with the following device, viz.: ‘Two friends embracing, with the name of the state over their heads and around about the following motto: United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

            Thus was born the basic emblem that would later adorn the official flag of the Commonwealth.  A precise history of the heraldic meaning of the emblem is not available.  Over the past two centuries various versions have pictured both men dressed in buckskin, or both in formal dress, men with and without hats, men with beards, men with wigs, and hand clasps that have ranged from a simple handshake to full embrace.  As to the motto, that matter is somewhat more distinct.  It seems as though Governor Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor, and a veteran of the American Revolution, had a fondness for a ballad written in 1768 by a Maryland patriot, John Dickinson, entitled, LIBERTY SONG, which included these four stirring lines:

Then join hand in hand,

Brave Americans all,

By uniting we stand,

By dividing we fall.

KRS 2.020 State seal.

The seal of the Commonwealth shall have upon it the device, two (2) friends embracing each other, with the words, “Commonwealth of Kentucky” over their heads and around them the words, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

KRS 2.030 State flag.

  • The official state flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky shall be of navy blue silk, nylon, wool or cotton bunting, or some other suitable material, with the seal of the Commonwealth encircled by a wreath, the lower half of which shall be goldenrod in bloom and the upper half the words “Commonwealth of Kentucky,” embroidered, printed, painted, or stamped on the center thereof. The dimensions of the flag may vary, but the length shall be one and nine-tenths (1 9/10) times the width and the diameter of the seal and encirclement shall be approximately two-thirds (2/3) the width of the flag.
  • The approved official drawings of the state flag shall be permanently retained in the files of the office of the Secretary of State. All state flags for official use of the Commonwealth shall conform as to color and design with these official drawings.
  • The emblem at the head of a flagstaff used to display the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky shall be the Kentucky cardinal in an alert but restful pose, cast in bronze, brass, or other suitable material.
  • The flying of the state flag at all state buildings and installations including public school buildings, National Guard armories, state parks, and other such buildings is considered proper and is encouraged.
  • No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. With the exception of the flag of the United States of America, the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky should not be dipped to any person or thing. The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise. The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
  • All official flags of the Commonwealth of Kentucky purchased by a public institution shall be manufactured in the United States.

Effective: June 25, 2009

History:   Amended 2009 Ky. Acts ch. 4, sec. 1, effective June 25, 2009. – Amended 2002 Ky. Acts ch. 196, sec. 1, effective July 15, 2002. — Amended 1962 Ky. Acts ch. 114, secs. 1, 2, 3, and 4, effective June 14, 1962. — Recodified 1942 Ky. Acts ch. 208, sec. 1, effective October 1, 1942, from Ky. Stat. sec. 4618m.

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