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  • Writer's pictureCactusflower

Celebrating Stars and Stripes: a flag for all seasons

Austin, Texas, August, 1943

The August afternoon sun was blazing hot for most people in Austin on that Monday afternoon in 1943, but not for Paul and Donnie. Sitting on the curb on First Street, the two brothers enthusiastically waved little American flags at the trucks loaded with GIs, who were being driven to the railroad station on Third Street and Congress Avenue. There, the soldiers would board the trains to take them to the ports where cargo ships, troopships, and naval vessels would transport them overseas to fight the battles of World War II.   
The soldiers came from Camp Swift, a huge combat infantry training camp for World War II troops that had sprung up almost overnight near the sleepy town of Bastrop.

For six-year-old Paul and five-year-old Donnie, this mainly was about heroes—the fighters going far away to protect their country, a thought that made them hold their little flags even higher. Miraculously, the little flags (which were purchased by their mama at the five and dime—they were a poor family, and she probably had to find loose purse change even to get them) did not droop in that heavy August heat but stood tall and proud, and the sun gave a brilliant shine to them.

The shine must have caught the soldiers' attention. They saw the boys and waved back at them.

After the soldiers were gone, the boys ran the short block and a half home. Donnie went into the backyard to play catch with his dad. His dad was an older fellow. He had signed up for the draft, but because of his age, he was never called. Later, Donnie would make up for it with an Army career that took him from the snows of Korea to the jungles of Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star.

Paul, on the other hand, spent more time with his mama. He would hang around the kitchen with her as she fixed dinner and liked to talk to her about her garden and the plants she would grow. He never saw military service because of some physical limitations, but he inherited her green thumb and had a booming greenhouse business as an adult.

As his mama began preparing dinner that afternoon, she mostly fixed canned goods. After she emptied the cans, she put them aside. Paul asked her why she was keeping them separate from the garbage.

 “We are going to use these to make bombs and get that Hitler and Tojo,” she said.

Although he was a kid, he knew who Hitler and Tojo were, but he must have looked slightly startled. Mama didn't usually talk that way. She saw his face and stopped what she was doing to talk to him.

“Listen, son, we must all do what we can, even if it is a small part, to help our country.” She paused for a moment. “Paul, our ancestors fought to start this country, and then they fought to save it. That’s how important it is. Don’t ever forget that.” 

Paul became quiet as he listened to his mother. He knew that he had just been told something important. Although he didn't fully understand, he knew why she had found the money to buy her boys the American flags.

Austin, Texas, December 2023

Paul had decided that a happy old age was a contradiction in terms. Here he was, at 86, stuck in a pricey “senior living facility.”  What had been hyped to him as a comfortable life of leisure was just a cover for old age’s cruel reality:  he could barely walk and was lonely.


 His wife had died five years ago, and his children and grandchildren rarely visited. He had no garden to work in, and he had to put his old dog to sleep this year. Most days were a kaleidoscope of people and places long gone—memories of a lifetime spent in Austin.

The family had buried Donnie 15 years ago on a stormy March day at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Donnie was only 69. He had traveled and lived all over the world, only to come home to die. Paul could not understand why God gave him so many more years than Donnie. All he knew was the deep sorrow and loss he felt when taps were played, and the American flag was folded and given to Donnie’s wife, Ginger, who sat immobile in her grief. The wind made folding the flag quite a task for the young service members in that detail, but they did their jobs solemnly.

Paul sighed and picked up the coffee mug Marianne, his sister in Houston, had sent him for Christmas. The mug had a big, vibrant American flag on one side and, on the other, “Proud Descendant of Private John Clough who served in General Washington’s Army at Valley Forge, December 1777-June 1778.”  

Marianne did all the family research. One day, about five years earlier, Paul told her about his conversation with Mama during World War II.  She was flabbergasted. And angry.

"You're telling me that Mother told you, more than fifty years ago, that we had ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War," she said. "And you never bothered to tell me." 

 The conversation invigorated the search for Revolutionary War ancestors and ended with the discovery of Private John Clough and a few others. In the aftermath, Marianne helped him gain membership in the Sons of the American Revolution and begged him to start helping her with family research.


"And you need to start recording your memories," she said. "You know, for the future. And then maybe we can go to Valley Forge one of these days. That would be exciting!”

Paul would love a trip like that, but he was skeptical. He gazed at his cup.

“Private John Clough, I wonder what Valley Forge was like for you; it was ‘no country for old men,’ that’s for sure.”

Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Colonial America, December 28, 1777

The encampment was blanketed in pristine snow when Private John Clough awoke on December 28. It had been snowing for almost 36 hours, and the snow was still coming down. It was chilly in his tent, and his feet hurt—his shoes were shabby and torn, and his feet were still recovering from the long walk to Valley Forge. But this was nothing compared to the snow and bone-chilling cold of his home in New Hampshire. Besides, he was only 17 years old. Some of the others, the older ones, were having a more challenging time. Everyone had been busy before the snow came, cutting trees and hauling lumber for the cabins that would house the men at Valley Forge. There wasn’t enough food, blankets, or shoes. There was plenty of disease.   

But John knew that God was looking after him, just as God had cared for his great-great-grandfather, John Clough, during the long voyage from England to the colonies in 1635. That ancestor founded the town of Salisbury, Massachusetts, as he fled religious persecution. Sometimes, the Lord did move in mysterious ways—John’s parents had both died at an early age in an epidemic in 1772, but he knew it was God’s will and out of his hands. The Lord helped him secure a place in the Continental Army, where John was a messenger for Colonel Scammell, his Regiment Commander. Some called him "errand boy," which angered him; his duties were much more critical.

Poor's Brigade; New Hampshrie; Valley Forge.
Poor's Brigade Historical Marker is located near the housing for all the New Hampshire regiments, including Revolutionary War Private John Clough's.


Just last night, he was given a message to deliver to General Washington's tent (to the aide-de-camp) first thing this morning. He was eager for the task, so he grabbed a warm drink and bundled up to head that way.

Most soldiers were still in their tents, so John had much of the outdoors to himself as he headed to General Washington's Headquarters. It was slow going, but the snow was powdery, and he could brush it out of the way. Washington and his immediate staff had a house, the Potts House, to live and work out of during this encampment. Yet the General stayed and worked in his tent until his troops were settled in their housing. That struck John as someone who cared about his people and would care about a country.

As John crossed the encampment area, the snowfall finally stopped, and patches of the sky cleared. When he reached General Washington's tent, the sun broke through and illuminated a flag standing guard—it was Washington's Headquarters Flag.

The flag design was subtle yet bold, simple yet strong. The blue silk and linen flag was not quite a square with 13 white six-pointed stars, representing the 13 states, arranged in a three-two-three-two-three pattern. The stars were composed of three intersecting lines, with the ends slightly tapered. John could not know it, but this was the first use of the star pattern on an American flag. A reproduction of this flag would be carried into space by American astronaut John Glenn more than 220 years later.

General Washington's Flag
General Washington's Flag

John was pleased with this flag. It touched something in his heart. Although the American flag would evolve and change even in his lifetime, up until Washington’s flag, those that were supposed to represent him still carried the "Union Jack," the connection with England. He was glad to see the Union Jack gone—he had no ties to England; his tie was cut in 1635—and he was happy to see the 13 stars added. The stars were his constellation, his world.

John delivered Colonel Scammell's message and returned to the other side of the encampment. He would spend six more months at Valley Forge. By the time he left, the French would announce their support for the American cause, a Prussian Army officer named von Steuben would shape the American troops into an Army, and a General and his flag would make a motley assortment of people into Americans.

Mound City Hospital, Mound City, Illinois, November 1862

Private John Clough wasn’t thinking about an earlier Private John Clough in an earlier war in another century, although he knew about him. He didn't really think about much at all. This John Clough would remember a different life between intervals of unconsciousness. In that life, he was a poet, a musician, and a farmer, happy and content, though not wealthy. He had a lovely and charming wife and four amazing children, with one more child coming.

Union Soldier, Civil War.  John Clough
Private John Clough, Union Soldier, US Civil War.

This John Clough was a large man, 6 feet 3 inches tall, with black eyes and dark hair. The Sisters from St. Mary's Convent at Notre Dame in Indiana, who provided nursing support at the hospital, often commented on his striking appearance to one another. His younger brother Daniel had followed him to Illinois from Wisconsin for business opportunities; John had followed Daniel into the Union Army out of a sense of family and country. Each generation of his family had served when needed:  his grandfather in the fight for independence, his father Moses in the War of 1812 (that war is what moved the family to Wisconsin from Maine—a land grant of 160 acres for service in the war). The entire family kept apprised of what was happening in the country and knew that the Union was at risk of breaking into pieces.

Now, a stupid mistake would cost John his life. His regiment was deployed to Kentucky when John, always helpful, volunteered to assist the short-staffed kitchen prepare breakfast. But someone had left an unexploded artillery shell by the firewood, and flames from the fire jumped to the ground and exploded the shell. He was thrown far by the explosion, his left leg crushed and broken. Medics evacuated him to the hospital, where doctors amputated the leg to save his life. But he could see in Daniel’s face when he visited that things were not going well.

Mound City Hospital, Mound City Illioiiis. Where John Clough died at the age of 39.

John's bed location allowed him to look out the window while awake and see a good part of the American flag that topped the hospital. When he saw the flag, he thought of President Lincoln and smiled.

As they seceded from the Union, the Confederates had expected Lincoln to redesign the flag, which had 34 stars representing all 34 states. On his last day in the U.S. Senate, Jefferson Davis even said that the Stars and Stripes would "no longer be the common flag of the country" and should be "folded up and laid away…kept as a sacred memento of the past…"  But Lincoln had no intention of removing stars from the flag. He believed in the power of the flag and the Union. He added stars to the flag during his presidency.

Private John Clough would never know how the flag, or the war, would turn out. He died from his wounds on November 10, 1862. The Sisters from St. Mary's said that his face was turned towards the window as though he was looking at the flag when he died. He was buried in Mound City National Cemetery, adjacent to the hospital.

He was 39 years old.

Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, October 2024

The fall foliage was stunning. Paul and Marianne had finally made the trip to Valley Forge to see where their Revolutionary War ancestor, Private John Clough, had wintered with General Washington's Army. Texas's natural beauty was no match for the splendor of autumn on the East Coast.

"This is quite a tour, even for an old guy like me," Paul remarked as Marianne pulled out of the National Memorial Arch parking area. The Arch, built in the early 20th century to mark the road where the Continental Army marched into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777, is one of eight places where the American flag is flown 24/7 by public law or presidential proclamation.

Marianne agreed. "We couldn't ask for more. Except there is more. I have a surprise for you."  She was all smiles.

"The next historical marker is about a thousand feet down the road. It marks the spot where Poor's Brigade—all the New Hampshire Regiments, including John Clough's—were housed during the encampment. If we weren't so old, we could walk there!"

The map showing the proximity to Poor's Brigade housing to Capt Lewis' training areas,.

But there was no need to walk. They had arrived in about a minute. They got out of the car, standing for a moment where their 4th great grandfather, at the age of 17, had persevered during the winter at Valley Forge and gone on to fight at the Battle of Monmouth and General Sullivan's Expedition. As they turned to face the Arch with its huge flag, towering over the landscape of Valley Forge, the closing words of the Star-Spangled Banner played in their heads and never seemed more apt.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto - “In God is our trust,”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“Sis, this is what Mama always knew,” Paul said. “The love of this flag, and all it embodies, is our nation’s talisman, protecting us and our liberty through the years. Long may it wave."

National Memorial Arch; American Flag; Valley Forge; US Flag.
The inscription on the Arch is from a letter that General Washington wrote while at Valley Forge to Revolutionary War Patriot George Clinton: "Naked and starving as they are, We cannot enough admire the incomparable Patience and Fidelity of the Soldiery." –George Washington


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