What is the military, legal, sovereign, naval, and practical significance of raising two national flags on the same fighting vessel, as was done in Canada on June 13, 1777, just before Gen. John Burgoyne’s army set off towards Lake Champlain? What is the import, if any, when a warship likely flew both national flags during the bombardment that prefaced the taking of Fort Ticonderoga? As my long suffering spouse cautions, “a gesture of honor hardly changes history”—or does it?
British forces had built a “Floating-Gun Battery” named Radeau Thunderer which plied Lake Champlain in 1776 and 1777, first as a part of General Carleton’s 1776 effort to reclaim control of the lake, and again in 1777 with General Burgoyne’s expedition to isolate New England via his thrust to Albany.
On September 19, 1776, Brunswick Dragoon Company Surgeon Julius F. Wasmus noted in his diary that, during a visit to St. Johns, Quebec, he observed the “Radeau or Floating Battery.” He remarked that “the ships Carleton and Maria, having been named after the Governor General, and his wife, have been built here, and lie ready to sail.” This entry suggests that naming of ships built in Canadian dockyards might not have needed approval or commissioning by the British Admiralty. The governor-general of Canada, General Carleton, and the “Commissioner of the Lakes,” Royal Navy Lt. John Schank may have had such authority, based on what was expedient and useful. There was precedent for this in the French and Indian War. Two British “snows-type warships” were constructed on Lake Ontario by Royal Navy Capt. Joshua Loring, and were named Mohawk and Onondaga in honor of two Iroquois Six-Nations tribes allied to the British during that war. Unquestionably, for this use of honorific titles, no claim can be made that these ships’ names represented any ceding of British sovereignty, or established any putative claim of sovereignty by these Indian tribes.
Capt. George Pausch of the Hessen-Hanau Artillery was detailed to provide artillery crewmen for the Radeau floating gun-battery on September 28, 1776. His observations were un-sparing: the British soldiers, British sailors, and his own troops aboard the Thunderer could only be prevented from coming to blows with each other by Pausch’s constant presence on deck. It is clear that there were many and increasing sources of friction between the British and the Germans from the time of Germans’ arrival in June 1776. It is possible that such discord gave rise to some support for an initiative that could express multi-national force unity, such as allowing the Thunderer to sail with a Brunswick flag.
In the Battle of Valcour Island fought on October 11, 1776 on Lake Champlain, Germans were fighting in direct action or support of British naval combat operations. The Thunderer fired at opposing vessels only from a great distance, and was used primarily as naval-munitions supply-craft for smaller British gunboats.
Did the Thunderer become the Braunschweig in 1777?
In preparation for a new campaign in 1777, work was done throughout the winter to refit and revitalize the British Lake Champlain fleet. A German observer, describing changes to the fleet to facilitate an attack on Forts Ticonderoga and Independence, observed in April that “The Radeau has also been changed completely because we no longer will have anything more to fear from the enemy ships. It now has eighteen cannons of twenty-four pounds up on the top deck which can be elevated at will. As a result they can be used against the batteries.” He also made the significant note, “They have requested the model of a Braunschweiger flag from our Maj.-Gen. Riedesel and sent it to Capt. Schencks so that, it is believed, he can have a flag made for our nation.” Lieut.-Col. Christian Julius Pratorius recorded in his journal on July 6, “This past winter I had to send a sketch of it, [the Leib Fahne of the Prinz Friedrich Regiment] because a frigate “Carl”was supposedly to be adorned with this flag.” Lt. Anton Adolph Du Roi, adjutant of the von Specht Regiment, writing from winter quarters at St. Anne, Quebec about events between May 12 and July 11, 1777, informed his Serene Highness, Duke Carl of Braunschweig-Luneburg, “that at St. Jean, . . . 2 new ships with 20 cannon each have been built for this year’s expedition; one of them will even fly the illustrious Braunschweigflag.” The flag was flying on June 13, when:
Accompanied by Lt.-Gen. Burgoyne, Gen. Carleton set out this morning for Isle-aux-Noix. At his departure he was saluted by the Radeau which lay at anchor there next to the ships Carleton and Lee. The Radeau was magnificently decked out today; from her two masts were flying the English flag and in honor of the nation of Braunschweig the flag of Braunschweig 
Gen. Friedrich Augustus Riedesel wrote, “General Riedesal was asked the loan of a Brunswick flag to serve as a pattern for a new one. By this a compliment was intended, both to the Duke of Brunswick and his troops.” This suggests that the Lieb Fahne of the Prinz Friederich Regiment was sent forth as a pattern. It may not have been copied exactly, but instead may have served to provide a template for the prancing horse emblem that was central to all Brunswick Regimental flags, and the sovereign ensign of the Duchy of Braunschsweig-Luneburg.
The sovereign ensign of Brunswick-Luneburg is solid red, with a central, prancing white horse; it was in use by the Duchy as its national sovereign flag between 1692 and 1807. A Brunswick regimental flag would legally be considered inferior to the British red naval ensign adopted as the national naval flag by Queen Anne for England in 1707. But what if the Brunswick flag raised was the sovereign flag of the Duchy of Brunswick?
Certainly, General Riedesel would know what the Brunswick national standard looked like, and would also likely understand the significance of a Brunswick national flag over mere Brunswick regimental Fahne. General Carleton’s prior German military experience suggests he was aware of a Braunschweig national flag. General Riedesel may have considered it something of a personal coup to be able to mount the National Flag of Braunschweig on a British warship. General Burgoyne, on the other hand, may have had little familiarity or interest in such a minor detail.
The British fleet, now containing the radeau flying the Branschweig flag, assembled at Cumberland Head near today’s Plattsburgh, New York, and moved south, passing Split Rock on June 25 and Crown Point Fort on June 26. By July 2, Burgoyne’s water-born army was within range of Fort Ticonderoga’s guns. The radeau was apparently the last ship in the naval convoy, “being used to carry ammunition and artillery.”
General Riedesel wrote, “On the 3rd , the enemy continued their cannonading; otherwise it was quiet on both sides. The floating battery arrived in the afternoon. A great deal was expected from this ram.” However, “The heavy guns on the radeau or floating battery were removed, the latter not being able to approach the fort on account of its great draught and its general unwieldiness.”
On July 4, Ens. Julius von Hille of the Brunswick Prinz Friedrich Regiment, entered in his journal that “to honor our beloved old Carl [Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick] his raft hoisted another flag next to the English, which was exactly like our regimental flag [Leibfahne], however much larger.” This confirms that the Thunderer was still flying the Braunschweig flag at or near Ticonderoga, confirming the continuous presence of the flag on board since sailing from Isle aux Noix on June 13. It also raises some question as to the Brunswick standard’s design. “Larger size” might be consistent with a national ensign, but “exactly like our regimental flag” seems on first blush to be conclusive.
Although the translation of thirteen-year-old Ensign Hille’s words seems precise, the original German may be less so. It could be that the similarity to his regiment’s standard only pertained to the prancing Hanoverian horse patterned after the Leib Fahne of the Prinz Freidrich Regiment. The flag pattern was solicited from the Germans, but the flag was actually made by the British in the size of a national standard, being more suitable for naval use.
Another reason to suspect that a specific Brunswick regimental flag was not employed is that there were four Brunswick Musketeer regiments on this campaign: The Prinz Friedrich Regiment, Regiments von Riedesel, von Specht, and von Retz. To display the flag of one regiment to the exclusion of the others would have clearly fostered morale problems. And the principal reason for displaying the standard was “to honor the nation of Braunschweig, by the flying of the flag of Braunschweig.” That could only be accomplished by flying the national standard of the Duchy, the Hanoverian prancing horse on red field.
On July 8 von Hille noted that, “From the raft Braunschweig, the large metal cannon, that were still on it were taken off at the bridge near rock-filled waters at the outlet of Lake George.” In the vernacular of the German soldiers the radeau was the Braunschweig, rather than the Thunderer.
What of the military, legal, sovereign, naval, and practical significance of a dual-flagged ship, even assuming the intent of flying two flags was primarily honorific?
A sovereign standard nakedly proclaims sovereignty. It does not limit what the sovereignty is, define it, or in any way circumscribe it. There may be dispute as to what sovereign limitations were intended, but the very flying of a sovereign standard creates the assertion of sovereignty. The flying of a national standard creates a rebuttable presumption.
Captain Schanks and General Riedesel had de facto if not de jure authority to commission or authorize a ship name, and to allow a vessel to carry multiple standards, Schanks as “Commissioner of all dockyards and ports of the northern lakes” to Governor-General Carleton, and General Riedesel as the senior commander of all Braunschweig troops in North America. If General von Riedesel flew the national standard of the Duchy of Braunschweig-Luneburgon the radeau instead of a regimental flag, it would be instantly recognized by his troops, raising morale, and likely would not be seen as a slight to the British.
The positioning of sovereign flags on ships was important. Normally, a British warship would display and fly its red ensign at the stern, from either an ensign staff or gaff-rigged halyard located at the quarterdeck. This location is historically the most honorable, trumping any other location, even where another flag was flown higher on another mast. Von Hille wrote that the Braunschweig flag flew “next to the English flag,” while another writer recorded that the national flags were flying“from her two masts.” Either the two flags were hoisted on two separate masts not on the quarterdeck, or they were flown side by side on separate masts from the quarterdeck stern. Use of the gaff-rigged halyard would have placed one below the other, making the lower one subservient.
The Case for a Braunschweig Radeau in America
The Radeau Braunschweig was a warship, engaged in combat operations on behalf of Britain and the German auxiliaries, and flew a Braunschweig flag. Whether it was the Lieb Fahne of the Prinz Friedrich Regiment or the national sovereign of the Duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg remains an open question, but there are sound reasons why flying a regimental standard would not accomplish the expressed intent, to harmonize relations between the Germans and British allies, and pay honor to German troops, their prince, and his state.
Use of the Braunschweig flag was a planned act occurring with the knowledge of local crown representatives. There can be no question that the Duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg qualified as a sovereign state. The sovereign military standard of Brunswick-Luneburg mounted on the Radeau Thunderer was a flag of a sovereign state. But what about the caution that the whole event was nothing more than honor accorded, without sovereign implication? The Braunschweig flag may have been just a way to tamp down intra-service rivalries between the Brunswickers and British forces on Lake Champlain.
Even if the flag was flown without sovereign implication, it was an example of diplomacy and international relations. The effect of raising dual sovereign flags on one ship might have created a plethora of difficult legal questions, but certainly that was not the intent. Rather, the raising of the Braunschweig flag in whatever form was intended as an honor to the nation-state of Brunswick-Luneburg and its prince. Once that decision was made, the actual location of the two sovereign ensigns would resolve any legal issues of controlling sovereignty, about which there is room for debate given that the radeau was manned by both British and German crewmen. For the Germans who took the most note of this honor, the ship was known as the Braunschweig, flying their national flag.
In October 1778 the American vessels Trumbull and Liberty were at Windmill Point on Lake Champlain, employed in stripping the planking off the radeau Thunderer-Braunschweig, which had foundered on a rock the previous fall. The ship was carrying 150 sick and wounded from the Saratoga Campaign when sunk.
“Journal of the Brunswick Corps in America Under General von Riedesel,” V.C. Hubbs, Editor and Translator, Sources of American Independence: Selected Manuscripts from the Collections of the William L. Clements Library, Howard C. Peckham, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 267.
There may be room for disagreement about the seemingly simple term, “national flag.” The Duchy of Braunschsweig-Luneburg was a landlocked power having no navy, yet as a monarchy, it would have had a sovereign flag. The British Royal Navy used a red naval ensign in the American Colonies. Historian Hoffman Nickerson, however, claims the Royal Standard of George III, consisting of three gold lions, a red lion, and an Irish harp, was present at the June 13, 1777 send-off of the Burgoyne Expedition. Hoffman Nickerson, The Turning Point of the Revolution: Or, Burgoyne in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928, republished Cranbury, NJ: The Scholar’s Bookshelf, 2005), 104-105. Even a German Regimental flag would carry the weight of sovereign honor. Thus, determination of which standard would be paramount among several, would depend on which flag, where displayed ship-board, for how long, and with what intent.
J. F. Wasmus, An Eyewitness Account of the American Revolution and New England Life: The Journal of J.F. Wasmus, German Company Surgeon, 1776-1783, Helga Doblin, trans, Mary C. Lynn, ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990), 30.
Royal Navy Lt. John Schank (c. 1740-1823). Schank took over command of Isle aux Noix and its dockyard where he supervised the construction of the 300-ton HMS Inflexible. Recognizing Schank’s managerial ability, Carleton appointed him “Commissioner of the Lakes,” with supervision over all vessels, yards and docks, though by such appointment he was not subject to Admiralty jurisdiction. He was recognized for his “innovative adaptation of armed vessels to lake service,” and use of provincial shipwrights and artificers. He was the inventor of the center-board for certain vessels. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. VI, (1821-1835), www.biographi.ca.en/bio/schank_john_6E.html, accessed December 8, 2017.
Square rigged sailing vessels with two masts, employed in both navy and merchant service, because of their fast movement, and relative ease of construction. Typically outfitted with five to sixteen guns, they were employed in coastal or lake patrolling duty.
John Knox, The Journal of Captain John Knox: Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760 (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1916), Vol 3: 543. “Sovereignty: is a tricky legal business. For example, in 1990 the Canadian Supreme Court decided a case known as Sioui, in which a Huron First Nation plaintiff alleged violation of his aboriginal rights under a provision of the Canadian Constitution, based on the alleged status of a safe pass issued to the Huron Nation by British Brig. Gen. James Murray on September 5, 1760. This pass was issued just before the final capitulation of Montreal, and the end of French control in Canada. The Canadian court determined that the signed Murray pass was a treaty executed between representatives of the Crown and the sovereign tribe of Huron Indians. By this pass they effected a submission to British control, forsaking their prior French military support, in effect negotiating a peace settlement. The court determined that the negotiated pass was a treaty between sovereigns. See generally, Denis Vaugeois, The Last French and Indian War: An Inquiry into a Safe-Conduct Issued in 1760 that Acquired the Value of a Treaty in 1990, Kathe Roth, trans. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995, translation 2002).
Burgoyne, Pausch’s Journal, 43; Surgeon Wasmus noted on October 12, 1776, a bateau arrived at Point au Fer, from the Valcour Island naval battle, with one Hesse-Hanau artilleryman who was seriously wounded, together with one English officer, and eight British other ranks. Wasmus, An Eyewitness Account, 32.
“Journal of Lieut.-Col. Christian Julius Pratorius,” Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, Vol XV No. 3 (Winter 1991), 65. There is no evidence that the radeau or another frigate was ever named Carl or Karl for the Brunswick Duke, but this reference does suggest that it was intended to honorifically change the name of a ship to a German moniker. This intent would seem to be more compatible with use of a sovereign German flag, than a German regimental Fahne.
“Journal of the Brunswick Corps in America,”267. If taken literally, the quotation established that it was the national standard of Brunswick that was flown, and this quoted in the Brunswick Journal, by Brunswickers who should know. General Riedesel wrote, “The national flags floated from the masts of the first two vessels, while, from the two masts of the Radeauor floating battery—which had later been refitted—the English and Brunswick flags were displayed.”William L. Stone, Memoirs, and Letters and Journals of Major General Riedesel, during his Residence in America (Albany: J. Munsell, 1868), 1: 104.
“Flag of Hanover(1692)-Electorate of Brunswick-Luneburg”, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electorate_of_Brunswick-L%C3%BCneburg#/media/File:Flag_of_Hanover_(1692).svg, accessed December 26, 2017.
Gen. Guy Carleton (1724-1808) had served in the “Army of Observation” composed of German troops designed to protect the Electorate of Hanover and German states from French invasion in the Seven Years’ War. He became aide-de-campto Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick. Paul R. Reynolds, Guy Carleton: A Biography (Toronto: Gage Publishing, Ltd., 1980), 2-3. Based on Carleton’s German and Brunswick service, it seems likely he should have recognized the national Duchy flag when flown.
Gen. John Burgoyne (1722-1792), though having military service in the Seven Years’ War in Portugal, had only limited experience with the Duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg. Not a detail oriented commander, the flying of a flag on a naval raft was likely of little notice or concern.
Julius Friedrich von Hille, The American Revolution, Garrison Life in French Canada and New York: Journal of an Officer in the Prinz Friedrich Regiment 1776-1783, Helga Doblin, trans., Mary C. Lynn, ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), 74. The square-bracketed insertion is by the editors of the von Hille journal, not by the author of this article.