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Use of the U.S. flag in mourning

Last modified: 2018-02-22 by rick wyatt
Keywords: half-mast | united states |
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Half-staffing days

Discovering the statutory basis of half-staffing the U.S. flag for Peace Officers Memorial Day, I browsed through the U.S. Code and was surprised to discover that Congress has enacted in the past several years not just this one but three calls for half-staffing: Peace Officers Memorial Day (2nd Monday in May), Korean War Armistice Day (June 27), and Pearl Harbor Day (December 7). The Korean War event lapses after 2003, the 50th anniversary of the armistice.

I'm going to touch a nerve here as I did last December by observing that for many decades the U.S. half-staffed the flag on a regular basis only once a year, on Memorial Day, in memory of all who died in the nation's wars, originally for the hundreds of thousands who died in the Civil War. And that for only a half-day each year.
Joe McMillan, 19 May 2000

Earliest(?) use of half-staff

I don't know if it was necessarily the first time it was flown at half-mast, but a Navy Department general order of 20 December 1799, issued on the occasion of the death of George Washington, directed that "the Vessels of the Navy, in our own as in foreign ports be put in mourning for one week, by wearing their Colours half-mast high, and that the officers of the Navy, and of the Marines, wear crape on the left arm below the elbow for six months." I would imagine the War Department issued a similar order and probably other departments for their buildings as well.
Joe McMillan, 10 October 2001

A history of half-staffing for mourning the deaths of U.S. presidents

I have collected announcements of mourning for early US presidents. They provide an interesting historical perspective against which to view modern practice:

George Washington - "the Vessels of the Navy, in our own as in the foreign ports be put in mourning for one week, by wearing their Colours half-mast high" (Navy Department General Order, 20 Dec 1799)

Thomas Jefferson - 21 minute guns at noon on the day after receipt of the order; half-mast for one week (Navy Dept GO, 7 July 1826)

John Adams - "the same honors as for Thomas Jefferson" (Navy Dept GO, 10 July 1826)

James Monroe - 21 minute guns at noon, half mast for one week (Navy Dept GO, 7 July 1831)

James Madison - 21 minute guns at noon, half mast for one week (Navy Dept GO, 30 June 1836)

Andrew Jackson - 21 minute guns at noon, half mast for one week; Army posts half mast from sunrise to sunset, fire 13 guns at daybreak and one gun every half hour throughout day, then general salute at close of day (Navy Dept GO, 16 June 1845, forwarding in its entirety a general order from the President)

James K. Polk - 30 minute guns at noon, half mast for one week (Navy Dept GO, 19 June 1849)

Zachary Taylor [died in office] - funeral honors at military posts as per regulations; Navy to fire 30 minute guns beginning at noon and "wear flags at half-mast" - no mention of duration of half-masting (Navy Dept GO 11 July 1850)

Abraham Lincoln [killed in office] - half mast on day following receipt of order, fire gun every half hour sunrise to sunset (Navy Dept GO 51, 15 April 1865)

Franklin Pierce - 21 minute guns at noon and flags at half-mast from sunrise to sunset on day following receipt of order (Navy Dept GO, 9 Oct 1869)

So Washington got a week, Lincoln a day and modern Presidents get a month.

Joe McMillan, 18 January 2005

Half Staff Instructions

From United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 10:

"The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff. The flag shall be flown at half-staff thirty days from the death of the President or a former President; ten days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress."

There is no text in the US Flag Code that explain about what happens in cases where two events that call for half-staffing the flag on what to do. A Presidential Proclamation would be needed to resolve that.
Joe McMillan, 2 January 2005

Navy Directive

The Navy's directive on flags states:

When authorized by the President, the national flag shall be draped in mourning in the following manner: A black streamer, the length of which should be approximately one and a half times the fly dimension of the flag to be draped, is tied at its center around the ferule just below the battle-ax [Note: the prescribed finial for the national flag in the Navy. JM] leaving two 6 inch loops or bows near the knot. The width of the streamer should be proportional to the size of the flag to be draped, up to a maximum of 12 inches. The loose ends of the streamer are allowed to fall free.

and, in the case of funerals:

912.c. In the event the deceased was a flag officer, a unit commander, or the commanding officer of a ship, his personal flag, command pennant or the ship's commission pennant shall be draped in mourning and displayed at half-mast from a staff in the bow of the boat carrying the body. The manner of draping these flags or pennants in mourning shall be the same as that prescribed for draping the national ensign in mourning.

So one streamer in the Navy, about 99 inches long on a 52 x 66 inch flag, and two streamers in the Marines, about 84 inches long.
Joe McMillan, 8 October 2001

Early use of Union Jack as burial flag

I found an interesting article in an old 1912 volume of Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute. It is by Captain W. F.
Halsey--later renowned as Fleet Admiral Bull Halsey--and is entitled "Our National Flag." There are several items of interest in it, one of which is that:

"From all information obtainable it becomes patent that the United States Navy is the only military service that denies to its personnel the honor of being covered by the national flag when buried. The naval regulations are mandatory on this subject and state that the coffin of any officer or enlisted man of whatever rank shall be covered by the union jack."

Halsey attributes this practice to an early error from blindly following British practice. In the Royal Navy, the Union Jack covers the casket at a naval or military funeral. However, as Halsey notes, the UJ is the national flag of Great Britain, while "the so-called union jack of the United States has no legal existence, no statute authorizes its use and manufacture or describes its use or details. It is a signal flag pure and simple, and though mistaken usage has apparently established the precedent for such flag, neither sentiment nor sentimentality can in any way support the contention that it is a national flag."

Halsey obviously argues for use of the ensign rather than the jack for covering caskets. I would have to dig back through the old Navy regulations, but I believe this change was made shortly after this article was published.

Source: W. F. Halsey, "Our National Flag," Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, Vol. 38, No. 3 (September 1912), pp. 879-884.
Joe McMillan, 29 November 2001

The 1900 edition of Regulations for the Government of the Navy of the United States states:
"Art. 193. ... Whatever the grade or rate, the coffin shall be covered with the union jack, and in the case of an officer the chapeau or cap, epaulets, and the side arms of the deceased placed thereon."
Joe McMillan, 3 December 2001

U.S. Marine Corps Flag Manual


a. Flags carried by troops will not be half-staffed, nor will any such flag be placed in mourning unless ordered by the Secretary of the Navy. When so ordered, two streamers of black crepe 7 feet long and about 12 inches wide will be attached to the staff below the ornament of the national and organizational color and standard.
Joe McMillan, 10 October 2001

Half-staffing for non-U.S. citizens

The indexes to Presidential proclamations and executive orders since 1936 reveal the following cases:

  • Winston Churchill, 1965
  • Anwar Sadat, 1981
  • American and French military personnel killed in Beirut bombings, 1983
  • Yitzhak Rabin, 1995
  • Victims of East Africa embassy bombings, 1998
  • Victims of Terrorist Attacks, 2001
  • Astronauts on Space Shuttle Columbia, 2003
  • Victims of Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004/05
  • Nelson Mandela, 2013
  • Shimon Peres, 2016
contributed by several people

Several cases honor both US and non-US dead, as (obviously) does the Beirut 1983 case. In both East Africa and the tsunami, the number of non-Americans killed was far greater than the number of Americans. In the case of the Columbia, there was one Israeli astronaut in an otherwise American crew.
Joe McMillan, 11 January 2005

I can confirm that the US government did half-mast/half-staff the S&S upon the death of General Lafayette. A Navy Department circular of 21 June 1834 directed that "in conformity with the accompanying general order from the President... cause 24 guns to be fired in quick succession at daybreak, and one gun every half hour until sunset... flags of the several stations will be during the day at half mast." Officers were directed to wear crepe mourning bands for six months.

Unfortunately, at the time I didn't pay attention to the period of half-masting for Lafayette, but as I noted the period for the other half-mastings, I assume it was only for a single day. Also, as the circular affected only "the several stations," this may have applied only in the Washington, DC, area.

I believe the 24 guns represented the number of states in the Union at that time.
Joe McMillan, 18 January 2005

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