State flags

John Fine displays the first unofficial state flag, modeled after the Confederacy’s ‘Stars and Bars.’

Those who know Rhea County Clerk and Master John Fine know of his appreciation for and deep understanding of history. It’s a hobby he said he developed as a young child, and his interest in the subject has only grown over the years.

With family residing in the southeast Tennessee area for several generations, Fine said he first began exploring the history of the State of Tennessee, — and history in general — as a child when his parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias in 1969.

“I just really developed a love of reading from that and that just stayed with me,” Fine said.

As a child, Fine said his parents were on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, and he said that led to politics and political history being discussed openly and frequently in his home. Fine’s appreciation for history would eventually lead him to begin collecting symbols of the history of the State of Tennessee. He eventually was able to collect every version of the Tennessee state flag.

“There’s s lot of history wrapped up in all the flags,” Fine said.

Tennessee did not have a state flag prior to 1861 — the eve of the Civil War — and Fine said that it would be U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to invade Southern states that would spur the state to consider creating a state flag.

In a legislative session in 1861, the state Senate proposed a new flag for the state. Fine said that Tennessee legislators at the time did not feel comfortable flying the Union flag, and since Tennessee had yet to secede, legislators also did not feel it would be appropriate to fly the Confederate flag.

Fine said the first proposed state flag was, however, modeled after the first Confederate flag — known as the “Stars and Bars” — with three stripes alternating red, white and red and with the state seal in blue field in the upper left corner of the flag.

“That flag was actually not adopted,” Fine said. “But it did fly over the capitol as an unofficial state flag.”

Though not officially adopted by the state, once Tennessee did secede, he said that several Tennessee regiments in the Confederate army carried flags that were modeled after that design.

The Confederacy would go on to lose the Civil War, and after the war’s end, Fine said that legislators put the consideration of a state flag on the back burner. However, the state’s military department, Fine said, would propose a new state flag in 1886 that featured the state seal encircled by a gold wreath on a field of Navy blue.

“It never really caught on and was never really adopted,” Fine said. “It was a ceremonial flag more than anything.”

Tennessee would go another decade before the state legislature finally adopted an official state flag, but it is not the state flag Tennesseans fly today.

As part of the 100-year anniversary of becoming a state, Fine said that in 1896, legislators began considering an official state flag. While 1896 marked the centennial celebration, the state legislature did not official adopt the new flag until 1897.

The new, official flag was a diagonal tricolor flag of red, blue and white. On the blue field, Fine said, was written the state nickname “The Volunteer State,” and on the white field was the number “16,” as Tennessee was the 16th state to join the Union.

“It just really wasn’t a popular flag,” Fine said. “You didn’t have people flying it like you see today.”

The flag that many Tennesseans now fly today was eventually adopted in 1905, Fine said, after a military captain from upper East Tennessee won a design competition held by the legislature. Captain Le Roy Reeves designed the familiar flag that features three stars on a blue disc on a field of red.

“All of the Southern states’ flags seem to have certain qualities, those being the red, white and blue color scheme or St. Andrew’s cross,” Fine said, adding that St. Andrews cross is recognizable as an “X,” like those seen on the flags of Florida, Alabama, Scotland and the Confederate battle flag.

“That flag, the one we have today, became very popular,” Fine said. “Tennesseans love their flag. I traveled a bit, and I’ve noticed that more Tennesseans fly their state flag than residents of other states.”

Fine has an extensive collection of flags at his home in north Dayton, and not only historical Tennessee flags either. He has also amassed a collection of historical United States flags, as well as flags of the countries that once had claim or explored Tennessee — Spain, France and the United Kingdom.

However, Fine said that one flag holds a special place, and he places a special value on that flag. It’s the flag that flew over the entire country since 1865, was carried by troops in the Spanish-American War and was planted on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II — the Stars and Stripes.

“When I see that flag, when I see the photo of them raising it on Iwo Jima, it really stirs something in me,” Fine said. “It’s something special.”