I’ve been on a mission this week: to find the earliest known photographic images of the U.S. flag. My guideline was simple—any image that includes a easily identifiable U.S. flag. I have found many images that almost meet the criteria, and I could extrapolate and assume the flag was indeed the Stars and Stripes, but I wanted an unmistakable flag.
In the meantime, while I continue to work on this project, here is a photograph of the USS Cairo (1862). This is the only known photograph of the USS Cairo, and obviously was her formal portrait.
Note: However, having enlarged the photograph as much as I can, I’m not sure the flag being flown is the standard U.S. flag of 1862. It is not the Navy jack of that time period either, which would be only the blue union. There seems to be some damage to the photograph right on top of the flag which muddles the image. The flag, which seems much larger than what would have been flown when the ship was underway, looks to me like the first Navy Jack—the stripes and rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me.” Which would mean that this is an early photograph of an historic American flag, and I’ll need to adjust my guidelines. Historians and scholars, please write if you have information that will clarify what flag this is.
USS Cairo, a 512-ton “City” class ironclad river gunboat built at Mound City, Illinois, was commissioned in January 1862 as part of the U.S. Army’s Western Gunboat Flotilla. She began war operations in February, taking part in the occupations of Clarksville and Nashville, Tennessee. In April and May 1862, Cairo was involved in the campaign to capture Fort Pillow and was present during the 10 May naval action there. She was also engaged with Confederate warships during the action off Memphis, Tennessee, on 6 June 1862.
Cairo continued her operations on the Mississippi River and its tributaries and was formally transferred to the Navy in October. On 12 December 1862, while engaged in mine clearance activities on the Yazoo River, Mississippi, Cairo was sunk by a Confederate mine (or “torpedo,” as mines were then known). Her wreck was recovered in 1965, but was badly damaged during the salvage efforts. It has subsequently been partially restored and is on exhibit at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Photograph and information from the U.S. Navy’s Naval Historical Center.