The American Flag at Half-Staff and Half-Mast

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  • Staff = a flagpole on land.
  • Mast = a flagpole on a ship at sea or on a Marine Corps, Navy, or Coast Guard installation or other maritime location.
  • Halyard = the rope used to raise and lower the flag.

Never fly a fringed flag on a stationary or mounted (on a wall or post) flagpole. These flags are only for the color guard flagstaff. See this article for information.

This article is reworked and republished. It originally was published July 16, 2012.

The Order to Fly at Half-Staff

Most often the President will order all flags to half-staff for a national tragedy. Governors also have the ability to order flags to half-staff for their state. In the case of the governor, he/she can order state flags only to half, but this would be specified in the order. Most often, when a governor gives the order it is for the American flags in the state.

Many countries fly their flag at half-staff as a sign of mourning. Here are the established times for the American flag.

  • For thirty days after the death of a current or former president or president-elect.
  • For ten days after the death of a current vice president, current or retired chief justice, or current speaker of the House of Representatives.
  • From the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a secretary of an executive or military department, a former vice president, or the governor of a state, territory, or possession.
  • On the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.
  • On Memorial Day until noon.
  • Upon presidential proclamation.
  • Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.
  • Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7).
  • Patriot Day (September 11).
  • The first Sunday in October for National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day

4 U.S.C. § 7(m) was modified by President Bush in 2007 requiring any federal facility within a region to honor a member of the U.S. Armed Forces who died on active duty.

The Flag Code states that the flag will be raised to full truck from half-staff the day after a certain government official’s death. The time is different for different officials. Read US Code Title 4, Chapter 1, The Flag Code, here.

How to Fly the Flag at Half-staff

Raise the flag as normal, quickly to the top with smooth, continuous motion of pulling the halyard or turning the crank and then slowly lower to half-staff with the same smooth motion. To be as accurate as possible, count the number of pulls of the halyard or turns of the crank it takes to raise the flag to full truck. Then, lower it by half of that number.

When the flag is ready to come down, raise it smoothly and quickly to the top from half-staff and then lower it smoothly and slowly all the way down.

Only The American at Half

What you find in the Flag Code is that the American flag is brought to half staff. No other flag, on the same halyard, is mentioned. The center of the American flag should be at the center of the pole. If another flag was underneath, a state flag, for example, it would be too low. So, the information about another flag on the same halyard in this instance isn’t missing from the Code, as we might think (I once did), it’s just that only the American flag is brought to half-staff.

This doe not mean that flags on another halyard on the same pole or on a different pole are not brought to half-staff. This is only about the American flag and another flag on the same halyard.

The Nautical Flag Mast

Nautical displays have looked complicated to me since I served 20 years in the USAF and had no need to learn about the mast and it’s various displays. However, that has changed.

Mast with Yardarm and Gaff

When flown from the gaff, the Ensign is lowered so that the center of the hoist (center stripe) of the flag is aligned with the yardarm. The national ensign here with the pennant at the top is not flown in a disrespectful manner, please see the bottom of this article to help understand nautical flag display.

When the National Ensign is flown from the topmast at full truck, it is lowered just like on any other flagpole when it’s a single halyard mast. On a double-halyard mast, the Ensign is flown from the right (starboard) side and lowered just the same.

Mast with Yardarm, no Gaff

Though technically, half-mast is any point lower then full truck, the standard for half-mast is half-way between full truck and the cleat. In all of my research Yardarm = Crosstree. It’s possible that an argument could be made for a separation of identifying the Yardarm and Crosstree like the image below.

Two Yardarms or Yardarm and Crosstree?

For more information on the nautical display, the website, United States Power Squadrons, has created an exemplary resource here. There is also Sailing Issues with some great nautical flag etiquette here. Be familiar with MCO 5060.2, Drill and Ceremonies, Chapter 7; and [US Navy] NTP 13(B), Flags Pennants, and Customs, both available for download on the Resources page.

The Mourning Ribbon

an_outrigger_pole_set flagpolefarm-com
This flag does not get lowered

Flags flying on a pole (without a halyard) attached to a structure, are not lowered to half-staff. Instead, a black ribbon that is attached to the top of the flagstaff- yes, above the American flag- for occasions of mourning. See the picture at left and right.

Proper use of the mourning ribbon

The mourning ribbon is for flags that cannot be lowered to half staff as shown here.

All of the Flags at Half-staff?

Yes, and no. State flags are given the same consideration in each state as the American flag. Our Founding Fathers gave the term “United ‘States'” to all of the territories which was shocking back then since “state” means a nation. Each American state has its own laws concerning their flag. Here is information concerning Maryland’s flag laws as an example. The picture here of the DC police (from washingtonpost.com) with all three flags lowered to the same level, which is how all flags are to be displayed – at the same level.

But the American flag is lower than the other flags in this picture!

Take some deep breaths, you’re missing the point here. Not all countries have to lower their flags and not all flags must be at the same height all of the time. This 1968 photo, by John Wright on Smugmug, is from the Viet Nam war. The picture is from when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was not necessary for another country to lower their flag. This situation is proper.

When the President orders flags to half-staff, overseas military installations must lower the American flag as a sign of mourning. The host nation’s flag is not automatically brought to half-staff unless the host nation liaison says otherwise. The point here is not stop getting worked up over something that is relatively trivial. Don’t just think you know the rules, read them and have them ready as a reference.

Other flags Lower and the American Flag at Full Truck

This isn’t how a flag is supposed to be flown. There is no reason for the state flag here to be at half staff unless the governor specifically said that state flags will be flown at half-staff.

Otherwise, all flags must be flown at full truck (the flat piece at the top of the pole).

Flag Position on the Nautical Mast

The following is from here. The gaff-rigged pole had its origins at sea. Because of all the sail carried by the rigging of these vessels, the flag of a nation could not be clearly viewed if it was placed at the top of the mast. The stern of the vessel was the position of command and the captain’s quarters were located aft. Early boats also had the nobleman’s banner, king’s banner, or English ensign staff fixed to the stern rail. As sails changed, long booms sweep across the stern rail every time the ship tacked, so the ensign staff had to be removed when the ship was under way. Since the captain and other officers were still aft, the nearest position from which they found it practical to fly the ensign was the gaff. Over time, this became the place of honor to display the national flag. When the ship was moored, the ensign staff was set up again on the stern rail.

This was the practice in the eighteenth century, when the U.S. Navy was created. Now that warships are made of steel and the signal mast no longer carries a boom, our navy still flies the ensign at the gaff peak when under way and at the ensign staff when not underway. There is no law specifying how a flag should fly on a gaff-rigged pole, instead it is based on long standing nautical tradition.

The usual argument given by those that think it is wrong to fly the national ensign from the gaff is that the national ensign is flying below a club burgee or other flag contrary to the Flag Code. Notice that even when the national ensign is flown from the stern of a ship, it is lower in height than other flags flying on the ship. When the ensign is flown from a gaff-rigged pole, a flag flown at the top of the mast is not considered above the ensign because it is not being flown directly above the ensign on the same halyard.

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  4. Hi! Thank you for providing information on the proper way to handle the American Flag. I do have a question…. The Fresian horse in the picture doesn’t actually have a flash draped on him; it’s a decorative banner that you would put on your porch. The photographer knew not to put an actual flag on the horse (I follow get Facebook page). My question is: Are there different rules that would apply to a banner or anything that has stars & stripes but is not actually the flag? Thank you for any clarification you can give.

    1. Post

      Hello Tamara,

      Thank you for letting me know about the picture of the horse. However, to answer your questions, the Flag Code states that something that resembles the American flag is to be treated as the flag, even bunting or a drape. Section 176, below, states what bunting is and how it is displayed- flowing freely. Section 3, at the bottom, describes a thing that reasonably resembles the flag.

      United States Code, Title 36

      Chapter 10, §176. Respect for flag
      (d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.

      Title 4 Chapter 1, § 3. Use of flag for advertising purposes; mutilation of flag
      The words ‘flag, standard, colors, or ensign’, as used herein, shall include any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture or representation of either, or of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance, of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America or a picture or a representation of either, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, colors, standard, or ensign of the United States of America.

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