Memorialized best in Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the American flag invokes a rallying cry among those witnessing its fluttering in the wind. Through the words “What so proudly we hailed,” Key instantly described the effect of seeing the American flag waiving over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Renewed by this sight, Key and others forgot the uncertainly of the previous battle.
Throughout history and throughout the world, this scene has been repeated countless times. For John C. Fremont, increasing tensions between his explorers and the Mexican government of California caused such an event in March, 1846.
As anxiety increased between the Mexican and American governments on the eve of the Mexican American War, Fremont found himself deep in California during his Third Expedition. Given the rising tensions between the two countries, on March 5, 1846, General Jose Castro ordered Fremont to leave California and threatened force if the explorer did not comply. 1
Fremont’s response to the order was quick. The explorer later wrote that he “peremptorily refused compliance to an order insulting to my government and myself.” 2
Sensing that his response might spur General Castro to fulfill his threat of violence, Fremont moved his men the next morning to a clearing near Gavilan Peak. Fremont described the location: “It afforded wood, water, and grass; and commanded a view of the surrounding country, including the valley of San Juan and the Salinas plain. In case of exigency it opened a retreat to the San Joaquin.” 3
No time was wasted in preparing the Gavilan Peak encampment for enemy action. Fremont immediately constructed a “strong fort of solid logs” and prepared to meet any force sent by General Castro. 4
While the fort was being constructed, Fremont’s men did not forget the American flag. Instead, “a tall sapling was prepared, and on it, when all was ready, the American flag was raised amidst the cheers of the men. The raising of this flag proved to be a premonitory symptom.” 5 Ultimately, Fremont’s raising of the American flag would “ripple[ ] quickly across California, inspiring hopes among American settlers.” 6
Just as the waiving American flag inspired Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, the Stars and Stripes illustrated hope and perseverance among a group of men ragged from their explorations. It was an inspiring sign of freedom spurring them to a possible defense against an enemy fighting on home turf.