by Kathy Warnes
William Driver was born on March 17, 1803, in Salem, Massachusetts, but his rolling gait became a familiar sight on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee where he died in 1886. He lived a life filled with adventure and he deeply loved the Union, enough to defy the members of his family who equally loved the Confederacy. The flag that he called “Old Glory” has been the center of both controversy and unity.
William Driver Goes to Sea
One Sunday in 1817, fourteen-year-old William Driver was supposed to be on his way to Sunday School in his home town of Salem, Massachusetts. Instead, he went down to the harbor. By sheer determination and persuasion, he talked himself into the position of cabin boy and was on the high seas by nightfall. Eight years later, Bill sailed back into Salem harbor as captain of his own ship, The Seawood.
Captain Driver Acquires “Old Glory”
In 1827, Bill married Martha Silsbee Babbage and they eventually had three children.A version of the story of how Captain Driver acquired his flag goes that the women of Salem including his mother, sewed him a flag with 24 stars . As he was about to sail out of Salem, Massachusetts, harbor, the sailors aboard his ship, the whaler Charles Doggett, hoisted the flag to the mast head of his ship. “There goes Old Glory,” Captain Driver exclaimed and from that moment on “Old Glory” accompanied him on all of his voyages.
Captain Driver made his longest voyage in 1831-1832, when he sailed the Charles Doggett to the South Pacific. During a port of call at Tahiti, he met some of the descendants of the H.M.S. Bounty crew. They had moved to Tahiti from Pitcairn Island where the mutineers who had taken control of the Bounty had marooned them. They wanted to leave Tahiti, so they asked Captain Bill Driver to give them passage back to Pitcairn Island. During the return passed, Captain Driver slept on the deck of the Charles Doggett so the women and children could sleep in the bunks below. Altogether, “Old Glory” and Captain Driver sailed twice around the world and once around the continent of Australia.
Captain Driver, His Children, and “Old Glory” Move to Tennessee
In 1837, Captain Driver’s wife Martha died and he quit the sea to take care of his children. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where several of his brothers lived, taking his belongings, his three children and “Old Glory” with him. In 1838, Captain Driver married Sarah Jane Parks in Nashville and eventually they had eight children.
On every patriotic occasion in town, Bill Driver proudly flew Old Glory from his front porch. By 1860, Captain Driver felt that “Old Glory” looked as frayed as he felt on some days. The versions of the story differ as to what he did to revitalize “Old Glory.” One version of the story says that he replaced the original with another flag. Another version says that he had his wife Sarah Jane and his daughter Mary Jane take the flag apart, cut off the raveled and frayed seams, replace the old stars and add new ones to make a total of 34 – the correct number for 1860.
Captain Driver Remains a Loyal Union Man
When Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, Captain Driver remained a loyal Yankee, even though his sons joined the “Boys in Gray.” When Union flags in town were mysteriously torn and burned, Captain Driver decided to protect “Old Glory” and the flag disappeared from his front porch. Confederate troops in Nashville searched the Captain’s house for “Old Glory” several times, but never found it.
Finally, when Brigadier General Nelson’s wing of the Union troops marched victoriously into Nashville on February 25, 1862, Captain Driver marched alongside them. He hurried into his house and emerged carrying an old quilt. There, between its folds, nestled “Old Glory”. Escorted by Union soldiers Captain Driver marched to the Tennessee Capitol building with “Old Glory” in his arms. He climbed to the dome and triumphantly hoisted his flag to the top.
The New York Times story reports that same night a heavy wind came up and Captain Driver took down the original flag the next morning and sent up a new flag in its place. He gave this second flag to the Sixth Ohio Regiment when it left Nashville for home. The soldiers put the flag in the rear of a baggage wagon where a mule discovered it and ate it!
Despite Differences, “Old Glory” Is the Symbol of All Americans
Captain Bill Driver died in 1886, and he is buried in City Cemetery in Nashville under a marker that he designed himself- a ship’s anchor leaning against a vine covered tree. Captain Driver’s family disputed who owned the original “Old Glory”. Family records indicate that Captain Diver’s daughter, Mary Jane Roland and her cousin Harriet Ruth Waters Cooke bitterly disputed who possessed the original “Old Glory.” The New York Times version of the story says that Harriet Ruth Waters Cooke, a cousin of the family, had the flag and she in turn presented it to the Essex Institute at Salem, Massachusetts.
Other versions of the story say that Captain Bill Driver gave “Old Glory” to his daughter Mrs. Mary Jane Roland in 1873. He handed “Old Glory” to his daughter Mary Jane and said, “Cherish it as I have cherished it for it has been my friend and protector around the world.” In turn, Mary Jane gave “Old Glory” to President Warren G. Harding in 1922. President Harding presented it to the Smithsonian Institution and it remains there today.
Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee. William Driver Papers. 1803-1886.
Alan Bostick. March 19, 2006. “See the flag that few around the world.” The Tennmessean, Life section, p. 5.
So Proudly We Hail: the History of the United States Flag”, by Rear Admiral William Rea Furlong and Commodore Byron McCandless, with the editorial assistance of Harold D. Langley, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. PP. 204-205.
“Old Glory: The True Story”, by Mary J. Driver Roland, daughter of Captain William Driver. Printed for the author, 1918.
“The Driver Family Descendants of Robert and Phebe Driver” (Harriet Ruth (Waters) Cooke, pub. 1889: