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Why Were Flags Enormously Important in the Civil War?

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Thomas Nast illustration of wounded color bearer

Thomas Nast illustration captioned "A Gallant Color-Bearer"

Library of Congress

Civil War soldiers placed great importance on the flags of their regiments, and men would sacrifice their lives defending a regimental flag to protect it from capture by the enemy.

The devotion to a flag wasn't merely emotional. Regimental flags played a vital part in Civil War battles, and it’s important to know why that is.

Flags Were Valuable Morale Builders

Civil War armies, both Union and Confederate, tended to be organized as regiments from particular states. And soldiers tended to feel their first loyalty toward their regiment.

Soldiers strongly believed they represented their home state (or even their local region in the state), and much of the morale of Civil War units was focused on that pride. And a state regiment typically carried its own flag into battle.

Soldiers took a great deal of pride in those flags. The regimental battle flags were always treated with great reverence, and at times ceremonies would be held in which the flags were paraded in front of the men.

While these parade ground ceremonies tended to be symbolic, events designed to instill and reinforce morale, there was also a very practical purpose, which was making sure that every man could recognize the regimental flag.

Practical Purposes of Civil War Battle Flags

The regimental flags were critical in Civil War battles as they marked the position of the regiment on the battlefield, which could often be a very confused place. In the noise and smoke of battle, regiments could become scattered, and vocal commands, or even bugle calls, could not be heard. So a visual rallying point was essential, and soldiers were trained to follow the flag.

A popular song of the Civil War, "The Battle Cry of Freedom," made mention of how "we'll rally 'round the flag, boys." The reference to the flag, while ostensibly a patriotic boast, does actually play upon the practical use of flags as rallying points on the battlefield.

Because the regimental flags had genuine strategic importance in battle, designated teams of soldiers, known as the color guard, carried them. A typical regimental color guard would consist of two color bearers, one carrying the national flag (the U.S. flag or a Confederate flag) and one carrying the regimental flag. Often two other soldiers were assigned to guard the color bearers.

Being a color bearer was considered a mark of great distinction and it required a soldier of extraordinary bravery. The job was to carry the flag where the regimental officers directed, while unarmed and under fire. Most importantly, color bearers had to face the enemy and never break and run in retreat, or the entire regiment might follow.

As the regimental flags were so conspicuous in battle, they were often used as a target for rifle and artillery fire. And, of course, the mortality rate of color bearers was high.

The bravery of color bearers was often celebrated. The cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a dramatic illustration in 1862 for the cover of Harper's Weekly captioned "A Gallant Color-Bearer." It depicts the color bearer for the 10th New York Regiment clinging to the American flag after receiving three wounds.

The Loss of a Civil War Battle Flag Was Considered a Disgrace

With the regimental flags generally in the middle of the fighting, there was always the possibility that a flag could be captured. To a Civil War soldier, the loss of a regimental flag was a colossal disgrace. The entire regiment would feel shamed if the flag was captured and carried away by the enemy.

Conversely, to capture the battle flag of an opponent was considered a great triumph, and captured flags were cherished as trophies. Accounts of Civil War battles in newspapers at the time would generally mention if any enemy flags had been captured.

The Importance of Protecting the Regimental Flag

Histories of the Civil War contain countless stories about regimental flags being protected in battle. Often the stories around the flag will recount how a color bearer was wounded or killed, and other men would pick up the fallen flag.

According to popular legend, eight men of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry (part of the legendary Irish Brigade) were either wounded or killed carrying the regimental flag during the charge on the Sunken Road at Antietam in September 1862.

On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, the men of the 16th Maine were ordered to hold off an intense Confederate attack. As they became surrounded the men took the regimental flag and tore it into strips, with each man hiding a portion of the flag on their person. Many of the men were captured, and while serving time in Confederate prisons they managed to save the portions of the flag, which were eventually brought back to Maine as cherished items.

Tattered Battle Flags Told a Regiment’s Story

As the Civil War continued, regimental flags often became something of a scrapbook, as the names of battles fought by the regiment would be stitched onto the flags. And as flags became tattered in battle they took on deeper significance.

At the end of the Civil War state governments put considerable effort into collecting battle flags, and those collections were looked upon with great reverence in the late 19th century.

And while those statehouse flag collections have generally been forgotten in modern times, they do still exist. And some extremely rare and significant Civil War battle flags have been put on public display again in time for the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

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