Also by Mike Nugent (see post on saddles below) this information on Civil War flags and guidons is the most comprehensive ever put together. Now when you see the mounted arm’s flags, you’ll be able to determine a bit of their history and symbolism. It’s interesting to note (for those of you who watch historical auctions) Gen. Custer’s personal guidon (pictured below) just came up for sale recently by the private owner.
Throughout history, armies have carried flags. Flags provide a sense of identity for a unit and build pride and morale. In combat, flags serve a practical purpose as a means of identifying unit locations and as a rallying point for soldiers in the confusion of battle. Flags are also used to identify specific individuals, and mark important locations such as unit headquarters and field hospitals.
The U.S. Army Regulations of 1861 called for infantry regiments to carry two flags, the National colors and the regimental colors. Both were nearly six feet square, made of silk and fringed in yellow silk. The regulations called for embroidered white stars and embroidered unit designations on the center stripe of the National colors. In practice, silver and gold paint often substituted for the regulation embroidery. Since silver paint tended to tarnish, it was abandoned in favor of gold. No pattern was set for the placement of stars on the flag and they appear in rows, circles, and ovals. There was little standardization and manufacturers made flags according to their own interpretation of the regulations. Volunteer units frequently carried National colors embellished with a State motif. Some added the coat of arms, eagles, mottos, and other designs.
Infantry regimental colors were dark blue with the Coat of Arms of the United States in the center. Artillery regimental colors were yellow with two gold-colored crossed cannon barrels in the center. Both infantry and artillery colors had a red scroll noting denoting the unit’s designation below the central design. Regimental colors showed even greater variations than the National colors and feature a number of different designs of eagles, stars, and scrolls. Again, volunteer units often adorned their flags with symbols from their home state and region. In 1862 the Federal Government assumed the responsibility for supplying the State units but the regimental colors made by the depots in Philadelphia, New York, and Cincinnati still showed numerous variations.
The large flags carried by infantry regiments would have been unmanageable on horseback. Cavalry regiments therefore carried much smaller flags than the infantry. Called “standards,” a cavalry regiment’s colors measured roughly 2 by 2 feet. Regulation cavalry standards were similar in design to infantry regimental colors. They featured the United States Coat of Arms on a blue field with a red scroll bearing the unit designation. As with their infantry counterparts, however, there was little standardization and cavalry units often carried a variety of non-regulation flags featuring state and regional designs.
In addition to the regimental standard, individual cavalry companies carried swallow-tailed flags called “guidons.” At the beginning of the Civil War cavalry guidons featured two horizontal bars, red over white. In 1862 the regulations changed and cavalry guidons featured red and white stripes with a blue canton in the same design as the National colors. The canton featured a painted gold star in each corner, with the remaining stars arranged in two concentric rings. Company letters were painted in the center of the ring of stars and the regimental designation was often painted on the guidon’s center stripe.
Although the regulations did not authorize cavalry regiments to carry the National colors, many did, carrying either a scaled-down version similar in size to their standards, or a swallow-tailed guidon in the pattern of the National colors, but without company or regimental designations painted on.
Cavalry standards and guidons were flown from nine-foot long staffs capped with a brass spear point at the top and a brass butt cap on the bottom. Color Bearers would attach a small leather cup or “boot” to the stirrup leathers on the off side of their saddle (see post on saddles below) to facilitate carrying the flags while mounted.
During the course of the War, corps, divisions, and brigades adopted non-regulation flags to mark the location of their headquarters. Several systems to standardize these headquarters flags were attempted. In 1862 Major General George B. McClellan devised a system of red, white, and blue flags and flags divided into bars of red, white, and blue to designate various higher headquarters. Numbers added to the flags distinguished the regiments within a brigade. McClellan’s complex, confusing system was replaced in 1863 by a simpler system that identified commands by the shape of the flag. Corps headquarters were designated by a swallow-tailed flag, divisions by a rectangular flag, and brigades by a triangular pennant. Within a corps, divisions were differentiated by use of the distinctive corps badges developed earlier in 1863 by Major General Joseph Hooker. A red badge on a white field distinguished the 1st division, a white badge on a blue field the 2nd division, and a blue badge on a white field the 3rd. Within divisions, brigades were designated by the borders of their triangular flags. A plain pennant with no border denoted the 1st brigade, a stripe along the “hoist” of the pennant denoted the 2nd brigade, and a border on all three sides of the pennant the 3rd brigade. This model gradually became the standard for armies in the east and was adopted with some variation by the western armies when the 11th and 12th Corps were transferred to Tennessee to reinforce General Ulysses Grant late in 1863.
When these guidons and pennants were adopted and flown, for instance during the Gettysburg
Campaign, the top standards designated General Buford’s division. Colonel Gamble’sBrigade
would have flown the 1st Brigade pennant at the bottom left, Colonel Devin’s 2nd Brigade the one
in the middle, and General Merritt’s Reserve (3rd) Brigade the one at lower right.
Despite the attempts at establishing a standard system, variations in flag designs persisted and it was not uncommon for units to carry non-standard flags. General officers often adopted “personal” flags, like General Custer’s below.
Cavalry commands in the Military Division of the Mississippi continued to use red and white, and red and blue swallow-tailed guidons at corps, division, and brigade level. Cavalry divisions in the Army of the Potomac continued to use a red and white swallow-tailed guidon emblazoned with the division number in both bars. The crossed-saber insignia was not standardized and differs widely, sometimes even within the same division.
Regimental flags were returned to the states at the end of the War. Many bore the scars of battle, some riddled with dozens of bullet holes. Many Civil War flags were proudly displayed in state capitol buildings for years afterwards. Sadly, the open display of these fragile artifacts hastened their deterioration and today, many of them have literally fallen apart. Several states have initiated programs to protect and save their treasured colors, carefully preserving and displaying them under controlled, archival conditions to honor the veterans who risked their lives to defend them.
Mike Nugent (as Colonel William Gamble) and J. David Petruzzi (as Colonel Thomas C. Devin)
with their guidons and pennants atop McPherson Ridge in Gettysburg.
Left to right, the flags are: Devin’s 2nd Brigade pennant, Gamble’s 1st Brigade pennant,
Buford’s Division guidon, and the National colors guidon.
Taken in April 2001, this was likely the first time these flags have flown at McPherson Ridge
again since Buford’s stand here on July 1, 1863.