Each New Year's Day the city of Somerville commemorates a little known, but important moment of the American Revolution- one that took place on Prospect Hill on January 1, 1776.
New Year's Day in 1776 marked a new beginning for the soldiers fighting the nascent American Revolutionary War. They were no longer just a militia. This was their first official day of service as members of the new Continental Army, led by General George Washington. To mark the occasion and to lift the soldier’s sprits in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record, Washington raised a new American flag over the highest point in the land, Prospect Hill, located today in Somerville.
238 years to the day, it was raised again.
A curious mix of the past and present gathered at Somerville City Hall this New Year's morning to parade the one mile to Prospect Hill for the annual flag raising ceremony.
There were a few dozen historical reenactors, musket-wielding men in tri-cornered hats, woolen capes, and spats. Matthew Mees was decked out in a black frock. He served as the colonial regiment’s chaplain.
"I like the time travel aspect," he said. "There are times when you can be in the field, even in the city like this, when you’re in kit, in the outfits, you see the world more in how your dressed and it’s very exciting."
Connecticut resident Dave Loda was the only man on horseback. Fitting, as he was portraying General George Washington. He said it was an "honor" to play the role.
Somerville mayor Joe Curtatone has been participating in this annual event for more than two decades.
"It’s special and it’s really grown. There we only 10 of us showing up at this ceremony about 20 years ago, in frigid temperatures," he said. "We’d be out here just pausing, remembering, reflecting back on history and the city’s role. It means a lot to us for a city that values the historic meaning of who we are, where we’ve come form and our place in history."
Attending for the first time was Major General Scott Rice, current head of Massachusetts' National Guard. He was there officially as Governor Deval Patrick's representative, but unofficially he was carrying out something of a family tradition.
"I'm a direct decedent of Elijah Rice, who answered the call for the battle of Lexington/Concord and he was actually here back in 1776 when they raised the flag on Prospect Hill," Rice said.
The American flag that Washington flew in 1776 is something we today call the Grand Union flag. It had the familiar 13 red and white stripes, but there were no white stars over a blue field in the canton. Instead, there was a small version of the British flag.
Recent scholarship has called into question the veracity of this tradition, suggesting that it wasn't the first flag of the United Colonies, but simply a British flag that Washington raised that day over Prospect Hill.
But the city of Somerville had an ace in the hole. Byron DeLear of the North American Vexillological Association. DeLear unveiled his newest research on this auspicious occasion.
"My main purpose of this paper was to reaffirm the conventional history that indeed a striped union flag, a.k.a. the Grand Union, was flown by Washington to commemorate the army’s new establishment here. And I’m happy to say after three or four years of research the story is very solid," he told the crowd.
Beyond his exhaustive scholarship, DeLear said the notion that Washington would raise a British flag on that revolutionary New Year’s Day simply doesn’t pass the smell test.
"Washington had spent six months tirelessly reforming what could be called a ragtag provincial assemblage of soldiers - New England militia - into the first Continental army. And what we know about Washington is that he would not do something as as hoc or haphazard as raising the enemy's flag - as it were - to commemorate this new army," he said.
Furthermore, DeLear uncovered another important first as he dug into the history of the 1776 New Year’s Day Prospect Hill flag raising.
"The first documentary evidence of the phrase United States of America was written following the prospect hill flag raising ceremony. And it was written by Washington’s aide-de-camp in Longfellow house, which was Washington’s Cambridge headquarters."
And so, buoyed by the new research, and some free coffee and hot cider, the hundred-plus city officials, history buffs, reenactors, and regular Somervillains, huddled in the cold to listen to speakers, sing revolutionary songs and await the moment of truth --- the hoisting of an enormous Grand Union Flag atop the Prospect Hill monument.
"I try to make it here every year. It's a great time to come together as a community and celebrate how we all got started," said Somerville resident Ken Niblet. "We have an incredibly history on this hill."
A history that – on this New Year's Day – was brought back to life.