Why Do We Fly The Flag At Half Staff?

I’ll never forget the first time I heard one of my children asked me why some flags weren’t being flown at the top of the pole. Distracted with something else on the road, I offhandedly threw back an answer:


“I don’t know. I guess something bad happened. Sometimes they do that.”


Sometimes they do that? Later I remember sitting down with that question rolling around in my head. “Why isn’t that flag flying at the top of the flag? Is it broken?”


No, the flag wasn’t broken. But maybe something inside of me was broken. It would seem that years of tragedy and outrage have kept the flag flying at half staff so often that we’ve forgotten why we do practice this symbolism in the first place. Perhaps the best thing for us as a country is to remember why the way we fly Old Glory is so essential.

It’s Easy To Forget Why We Fly The Flag

In late 2018, following the death of Arizona Senator and decorated Vietnam war hero John McCain, American flags across the country were lowered to half-mast to honor the American icon.


While Flags were lowered on a Saturday in August, the flag at the White House had returned to full staff by Monday morning. Many observers were confused why the flag remained at half-mast at some locations, while others raised it to full-mast once more on Friday.


However, no disrespect was meant by either side - it was another example of the confusion of when, why, and how institutions raise and lower the flag.


Few realized that State officials held the authority to raise or lower a flag in honor under the Federal Flag Order. Once the message was sent up the chain of command and the miscommunication was realized, the flag at the White House once again came down in honor of Senator McCain’s passing.


Not only do passersby forget the reason for lowering the flag to half-staff, but even those at the heights of power can make honest mistakes. With so many fallen heroes and tragedies occurring, it can be hard to know when and how long to lower the flag.


Let’s take a look at the history of lowering the flag to half-staff and how we can know to follow flag code at our own homes and businesses.

A History of Half Mast

To understand why we fly American flags at half-staff, it is necessary to trace the history of flying the flag throughout American history itself. While the first time the American flag was ordered at half-mast or staff has been largely lost to history, the general agreement is that the tradition began in 1799.


Upon the death of President George Washington in 1799, the Navy Department ordered that every American Navy vessel fly their American flags with “their colors at half-mast high.” Based on this, it’s clear that the tradition traces its history to the earliest days of the flag itself.


History also raises references to “an invisible flag of Death” that was reportedly flown above the American flag during times of mourning. This hidden flag of tragedy being raised to the top of the mast or staff quickly became the reason that many lowered the American flag.

Mast or Staff?

One confusion that abounds with flying the flag at half-height is the terminology. Should we refer to flying the flag at half-mast, or is it better to say half staff?


The answer is simpler than you may expect and reaches back to the history of flag flying. When a flag is being flown on a ship, flying it at half height is known as half-mast. If the flag is flown on land, then you speak of the flag flying at half-staff.


A little bit of knowing the difference goes a long way when it comes to being a proud American. Unless you own a pirate ship or flag-flying yacht, you will most likely fly your flag at half-staff.

When Do I Lower My Flag to Half Staff?

Another central question that many have about flying the flag at half-staff is when to lower the flag. While most major news outlets and government offices will release notices regarding lowering the flag, it can be beneficial to know the code regarding flying the flag at different heights.


The Department of Veterans Affairs leads the nation in education on how to respectfully and officially flying the American Flag. According to the VA, an American flag should be flown at half-staff at any time when the country is in collective mourning due to a tragedy or remembrance of a tragic event.


Who or what constitutes an event worthy of lowering the flag? The role of declaring the nation to be in a state of mourning comes from the highest office in the land. When appropriate, the United States president can call upon the nation to lower the American flag collectively.


The United States Flag Code states that the President can order a half-staff order “upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory….”


Similarly, the President can call on flags to be lowered “whenever he deems it to be appropriate or desirable…” - most notably, this occurs during times of national tragedies such as September 11th, mass shootings, and the death of prominent cultural figures in the country.


The flag can also be declared flown at half-staff or half-mast when global figures pass away, such as the deaths of historical figures Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela.

How Long Does the Flag Stay at Half Staff?

How long should you keep your flag at half staff? Again, you can often follow national or State-led guidance on how long to keep your flag at half staff. However, the U.S. Flag Code contains guidelines for the duration of time that a flag should be kept at half staff or mast for varying events and tragedies.

Fly Your American Flag Proudly with Flags Forever


Wooden American Flag with carved 50 star union

Learning why we fly our American flags at half-staff can help us remember the sacrifices that so many have made for us to have the freedom to fly any flag at all.


Taking a trip down history’s winding path reminds us that each day we live in the United States is a day to proudly fly a flag that stands for freedom, hope, and enduring peace. No more should we be willing to forget the blood-bought sacrifice that the American Flag reminds us of when it flies at half-height.


At Flags Forever, our team of flag enthusiasts is committed to helping American’s discover more reasons to fly the stars and stripes proudly. We proudly offer only the highest-quality American-made products featuring the American Flag. Not only do we offer a full line of durable, professionally made American flags, but we are proud to feature a catalog of patriotic artwork perfect for home and business.


Every handmade product at Flags Forever has been meticulously designed to help everyone in our country remember why we fly Old Glory proudly - even when the flag flies in honor of tragedy and mourning. Our hope and prayer every day of the power of the American spirit and the hope that tomorrow brings for those who know the price of freedom.


Check out our full catalog of American flag-inspired products online at Flags Forever.

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