It’s a flag that’s been wrapped up with a hefty dose of legend and mythology.
In August 1777, British General John Burgoyne and his forces were intent on reaching a supply cache located at Bennington, Vermont. The folks living in what was then the New Hampshire Land Grants had sent out calls for help ahead of that advance, and the colony tasked General John Stark with raising a militia to meet them.
Stark assembled 1,500 men and marched to Bennington, where he met Captain Seth Warner and members of the Green Mountain Boys and other fighters from the surrounding areas of what is now New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. On August 16th, the two sides fought at Walloomsac in New York, with the American forces ultimately prevailing.
It was during that battle that Stark flew a personal flag, a green flag with a blue canton featuring thirteen white stars. We don’t know what the entire flag looked like: after the war, pieces of it had been cut up and handed out as souvenirs. The Bennington Museum holds what remains: blue field and stars (with a little green silk along the edges) along with a couple of fragments. One of those fragments has a part of a design that was likely featured on the green part, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
It’s not known whether or not the Green Mountain Boys adopted the flag (or indeed, any flag) in the years that followed. Experts at the Bennington Museum note that it was unlikely that the group used the flag, and that it had never been an official flag for the budding republic.
In a 2020 column at VT Digger, historian Mark Bushnell wrote “few flags, if any, would have flown over Vermont during the 14 years between 1777 and 1791… flags were expensive items, almost exclusively reserved for military purposes.”
There’s no indication that Vermont Republic ever had an official flag. Writing in The Vermonter in the 1920s, G.G. Benedict noted in no uncertain terms: if there was such a flag, no record or description of it is extant.
No act establishing such a flag appears on the early statue books. The records of the time have been searched in vain for any references to such a flag. The state authorized its first official flag in 1804. It featured seventeen stripes and stars, with VERMONT inscribed along the top stripe.
In 1837, the state opted for a replacement: this new one had thirteen stripes and a single star, in which was the Vermont Coat of Arms. The state eventually decided that that was too close in appearance to the U.S. flag, and authorized a new one in 1923, the present blue flag with the coat of arms, versions of which had been used for military purposes in the Civil War.
So how did the Green Mountain Boys flag become such a notable banner in Vermont’s collective imagination? There are plenty of gaps in the history from August 1777 to the present day. But there are some touchstones along the way.
The next example is at the Bennington Museum, which has a reproduction of the Stark Flag that was used during the Battle of Bennington Day Pageant in 1927. It’s faded, but it looks like the modern day version that we’re most familiar with: a green field with a blue canton with 13 stars.
Another example comes from the 1970s that we hold in our collection: the familiar flag, emblazoned with the words “Green Mountain Boys / 1776-1976.”
A search through newspaper records yields a little more information: a reference in the July 8th 1965 edition of the United Opinion of Bradford, to a “Green Mountain Boys Regimental flag” flown during a parade, and another on October 25th, 1972 in the Burlington Free Press, a reference to the 158th Fighter Interceptor Group of the Vermont Air National Guard using the colors.
According to the Rutland Herald, a group of Boy Scouts recreated Ethan Allen’s escapades at Fort Ticonderoga in May 1975, and in September of that year, a color guard of cadets from Norwich University presented Governor Thomas P. Salmon with both the Bennington Battle and Green Mountain Boys flags at a ceremony held during the Vermont Hotel Motel Restaurant Association fall gathering. There’s a scattering of other references to the flag in the years that follow, mostly reports noting its use during parades and ceremonies.
The years leading up to the country’s bicentennial celebrations brought with them a good dose of nostalgia for the era, and it seems that while there’s little evidence that the current blue-and-green flag was ever used, that collective memory willed it into existence, a symbol that Vermonters could attach their state patriotism to.
The flag appears to have gained wider use in 2004 as members of the Vermont Army National Guard began to deploy overseas: Major General Martha Rainville, then the adjutant general of the unit, presented the flag to deploying members and others. Flags dotted downtown Bennington thanks to an anonymous donor, and groups that advocated for Vermont’s independence from the United States also made their way into the minds of Vermonters.
The modern flag might not have been used by the original Green Mountain Boys, but it’s certainly a symbol of how we remember them, and a reminder of some of the state’s more formative events.
You can see the Green Mountain Boys Flag in person at the Vermont History Museum, 109 State Street (the Pavilion Building next to the State House) in Montpelier, VT.