Jump to Navigation

Flags of the American Civil War

During the American Civil War, flags were a necessary piece of military equipment. They added flare to military parades and also served a practical purpose. All regiments, whether they were infantry, cavalry, or an artillery battery, served proudly under their own set of flags. According to the Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861, “Each regiment of infantry shall have two silken colors. The first, or the national color, of stars and stripes… The second, or regimental color, to be blue, with the arms of the United States embroidered in silk on the center.”[i] Flags were also used to designate general commanders of brigades, divisions, and even corps. The flags used to designate such unit sizes were carried by a staff member of the general commander who was required to follow the commander everywhere on the field.
Due to Napoleonic tactics, soldiers of the Civil War were drilled to high proficiency. In battle and on the march, infantrymen and cavalrymen moved and fought shoulder to shoulder with their comrades in order to work together as a well-oiled machine. Flags were tools for soldiers in battle and the regiment as a whole. An infantry regiment, ideally consisting of five hundred to a thousand men, used the regimental flags as their guide to keep their battle line straight when advancing in formation. Soldiers also dressed or corrected their formation by leaning and moving inward towards the regimental colors. When the battlefield filled with smoke and obscured view or noise prevented orders from being heard, the soldiers could use the flags as a guidepost directing movement. Where the flag led, soldiers followed. If a regiment broke and ran during battle, the regiment’s commander could post the flags at a specific location where he wanted his men to rally and reform their line. The flags also served as markers. A general commander could see the flags and identify what regiment is at a specific location.[ii]
Out of necessity and tradition, each regiment had a color guard. This color guard, with eight corporals and one color-sergeant, would have been positioned at the center of the regiment during battle. The color-sergeant was known simply as “color-bearer,” a position required to carry the national flag of the regiment, and to command the color guard collectively. A corporal, by virtue of seniority, was designated to carry the state regimental flag. The remaining seven corporals had the honor of defending the colors with their lives, and rescuing them from the ground should the bearers fall. This was a dangerous and dubious honor and is why color guard members were carefully chosen from each company of the regiment for their soldierly qualities by the Colonel. Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics manual states:

“The corporals of the color guard will be selected from the most distinguished for regularity and precision, as well in their positions under arms as in their marching. The latter advantage, and a just carriage of their person, are to be more particularly sought for in the selection of the color-bearer.”[iii]

Flags were also a major symbol of pride. A regimental state standard included the U.S. Coat of Arms hand painted or embroidered on and the name of the regiment, home state, and battle honors. For example, the Second Kansas Infantry was the second regiment of infantry to be raised from the state of Kansas. If it performed a successful action at a specific engagement, the regiment was allowed to paint the name of the battle onto the regimental state flag. The flags of a regiment stood as a representation of the men of the regiment, their successes, their home state, their country, and their fallen members. If a regimental state flag was lost in battle, it was seen as a serious dishonor to the regiment’s fallen members and their home state. If a regiment’s national flag was captured, it dishonored the nation as a whole. A soldier who captured an enemy flag, was often rewarded with a leave of absence or even a medal. Of the 1,522 medals of honor awarded to Union soldiers, more than 460 were given to those who committed an act of heroism related to a flag. Due to these several factors, flags were revered. This sentiment had been a part of American military traditions spanning decades, and in Europe, for centuries.[iv]
The devotion the soldiers had to these flags often led to acts of incredible defiance. On July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union First Corps of the Army of the Potomac was in position along McPherson’s Ridge and Oak Ridge. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was attacking towards the town of Gettysburg from the west and north. As the battle was raging, Union First Corps Commander John Reynolds was killed in action for bravely leading the famous Iron Brigade forward. Shortly after, the Union line along the ridges began to disintegrate as more and more Confederate troops arrived on the field. Union General John C. Robinson commanded a division of Union infantry, which included the venerable 16th Maine Volunteers. As the Union lines were disintegrating around them, Robinson rode to the 16th Maine and ordered its commander to “Hold at all costs!” While their comrades retreated to the town of Gettysburg, the 16th Maine held off Robert Rodes’ Confederate Infantry Division until it was surrounded. The men of the 16th, rather than handing over their proud colors in surrender, began ripping their proud colors to pieces. Many men of the 16th who surrendered that day, had a piece of their honored colors to bear while imprisoned by the Confederates during the remainder of the war.[v]

(Select each image to enlarge)

Flags of the American Civil War

Flags of the American Civil War

Flags of the American Civil War

Flags of the American Civil War, photo courtesy Ohio Memory                                                                 Photo courtesy Ohio Memory

[ii]Spicer, Gwen. 2022. “Battle Flags of New Market Heights: History and Conservation.” American Battlefield Trust. September 28, 2022.

[iii]Lt. Colonel William Joseph Hardee. 1861. Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics; for the Exercise and Manoeuvres of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen. Prepared under the Direction of the War Department.. V.1. HathiTrust. Vol. 1. HathiTrust.org: Harvard University.

[iv]Spicer, Gwen. 2022. “Battle Flags of New Market Heights: History and Conservation.” American Battlefield Trust. September 28, 2022.

[v]Civil War Institute, Bryan Caswell. 2013. “At All Costs: The Stand of the 16th Maine at Gettysburg.” Gettysburg Compiler. September 17, 2013.


Battle Flags Series:

Entry: Flags of the American Civil War

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2024

Date Modified: April 2024

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.