On this day in 1776, the newly established Continental Navy was at sea on its first operation, an expedition to the Bahamas to capture some badly needed munitions. The flagship of the little fleet
flew a new ensign presented by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina: a yellow banner emblazoned with a coiled rattlesnake and the legend “Don’t Tread on Me.”
The rattlesnake was a favorite emblem during the Revolutionary War. In December 1775, Benjamin Franklin published an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal under the pseudonym “An American Guesser” in which he ruminated on the symbol.
“I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me,’ ” Franklin wrote. He noted that the rattlesnake’s “eye excelled in brightness that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders. She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.”
Today the rattlesnake image remains popular with many military units. U.S. Navy ships currently fly a Navy Jack with a rattlesnake and the Don’t Tread on Me slogan as a symbol of vigilance during the war on terrorism.