About Uncle Sam

With July 4 coming up, I thought I’d revisit a classic American symbol.

There is a famous Army recruiting poster from World War I that shows Uncle Sam in his current ‘look’. He is sternly looking and pointing at the viewer, and the caption below him reads “I Want You For U.S. Army!” Generally, all the representations of Uncle Sam since 1917, and including the one my son drew for the cover of The Yankee Road, are similar to that of J.M. Flagg’s.

Uncle Sam was not the first representation of the country to be used, though he has lasted the longest. Before the Revolution, a common figure was a female one of ‘Columbia’. The term was used in naming the District of Columbia, Columbia, South Carolina and New York City’s Columbia University, among others.

Then a male figure came into prominence, Brother Jonathan. He seems to have represented the New England region in the Revolution. One story refers to General Washington’s comment that he wanted to get the advice of Brother Jonathan about a military matter, referring to the New England colonies. Brother Jonathan lasted until the Civil War as a representative of the ‘universal Yankee nation’ as well as of the United States as a whole.

Meanwhile, a new figure was emerging on the scene, Uncle Sam. The term gained popularity during and after the War of 1812. Sam Wilson was a Yankee who was born in Arlington MA in 1767 and moved from there to New Hampshire. He joined the Revolutionary Army when he was not quite15 and was put to work tending and slaughtering cows to feed the troops. After the War, he and his brother set off for Troy, New York, where he eventually found himself back in the meat packing business. He was popular locally, in part because he produced quality beef.

When the War of 1812 broke out, Sam got a sub-contract to supply a nearby Army base with beef. It came to the soldiers in wooden barrels stamped ‘E-A U.S., the E-A being for the general contractor and the U.S. meaning for whom the beef was destined. The local boys in the Army immediately began to note the barrels as coming from the Uncle Sam they’d known in Troy. A local paper picked up on this, printed a story about Uncle Sam, and a new national symbol started to catch on.

By the Civil War, Uncle Sam began to dominate the symbol field, perhaps because Brother Jonathan was too much a regional figure. Getting something from Uncle Sam seemed more in tune with the times, with the transition from a union of States to a national union. By the 1890s, Uncle Sam had become the symbol of the country.

As an aside, when a young man named Hiram Ulysses Grant showed up at West Point as a new student, he found that the Congressman who had nominated him had got his name wrong. He was registered as Ulysses S. Grant, and that is what he remained. His fellow students took to calling him ‘Sam’ because of Uncle Sam. He didn’t seem to mind.

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