The Civil War was a turning point in American history, and the flag played a significant role in the conflict. The tradition of color bearers dates back to the early days of the war, when soldiers would carry flags into battle to rally their troops and show their allegiance.
Over time, the role of the color bearer became more ceremonial, and these soldiers came to be known as “honor guards.” They would carry the flag during military parades and other public events, and their duties also included protecting the flag from damage or dishonor.
Today, many units in the military still have color guards, and they play an important role in preserving the traditions of our country’s armed forces.
The American flag and its bearers enjoyed their greatest popularity during the Civil War (1861-1865). With strong historical fidelity, numerous stirring battle paintings show the colors and their brave carriers in the forefront of the fight or as a rallying point in a retreat.
The colors of a Civil War regiment were representative of its pride, and those who volunteered to bear them formed an elite. Tall, muscular males were preferred since hoisting a large, heavy banner at arm’s length to keep it visible through battle smoke and at a distance required physical strength.
The color bearer also had to be brave, because he was a primary target for the enemy. The Civil War was not the first time in American history that flags and their bearers played an important role on the battlefield. In the Revolutionary War, as today, the flag was a rallying point for troops. It was also a way for commanders to direct their troops.
The Continental Army’s Regulations of 1776 stated that “the colonel or commanding officer of each regiment shall take care that two ensigns or flags be provided, accoutered and armed as hereinbefore directed; one of which flags, when there is no field-officer present, he shall keep with himself as an ensign; and the other he shall appoint one sergeant to take care of, who is to carry the same before the regiment.”
Ensigns were usually made of silk and measured about two and a half by four feet. They were appliqued or painted with the regiment’s number, name, and other identifying information. The flag staff, which was also the gun barrel, was six to nine feet long and weighed eight to ten pounds. The staff was capped with a brass spearhead and fitted with a leather thong for tying the flag to it. The flag was furled (wrapped around the staff) when not in use.
Revolutions in military tactics and technology would eventually make flags obsolete as battlefield tools, but in the Civil War they were still an important part of a regiment’s equipment. The flag was a rallying point for troops in the heat of battle and a symbol of a unit’s identity and pride. The color bearer had the important but dangerous job of carrying the flag into battle and keeping it visible to the troops.
Courage was also required to carry a flag into battle, as the colors “attracted lead like a magnet.” At the Battle of Seven Pines, for example, South Carolina’s Palmetto Sharpshooters lost 10 out of 11 of its bearers and color guards, with the flag passing through four hands without touching the earth.
The flag also served as a rallying point for troops in the heat of battle and came to be seen as a symbol of a unit’s honor. “We would have gone through hell for that flag,” one Confederate veteran said.
After the Civil War, many veterans joined fraternal organizations like the Grand Army of the Republic or the United Confederate Veterans. These groups kept alive the tradition of honoring flags and color bearers. At GAR encampments and UCV reunions, former soldiers would stand at attention while the colors were unfurled and presented in ceremonial fashion. It was a way of remembering their fallen comrades and paying tribute to those who had fought so bravely under the banner.
The tradition of honoring color bearers and flags continues to this day. Every Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Fourth of July, Americans pause to remember the sacrifices of those who have served our country. And at military funerals, the flag that draped the coffin is carefully folded and presented to the family as a token of gratitude for their loved one’s service.
For generations of Americans, the color bearer tradition has been a way of showing respect for those who have fought for our freedom. Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of these men and women, our nation remains “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The United States of America has gone through four distinct flags throughout history: the 33-star flag, the 34-star flag, the 35-star flag, and the 36-star flag. The original banner flown over Fort Sumter in 1861 was the 33-star flag, which was established in 1859 following Oregon’s admittance to the Union.
The 34-star flag was created in 1861 after the admission of Kansas into the Union; it was flown over Fort Sumter when Confederate troops surrendered to Union forces in 1865. The 35-star flag was made in 1863 after the admission of West Virginia into the Union. The 36-star flag, which is the current United States of America flag, flew over Fort McHenry during the bombardment by the British in 1814; it also flew over Appomattox Court House when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War.
The Color Bearer tradition began during the Civil War. A Color Bearer was a soldier who carried a flag representing their unit. The position of Color Bearer was a position of honor, and the flag was considered a sacred trust. The Color Bearer would march at the head of the unit, and their flag would be used to rally troops in battle. If the Color Bearer was killed or wounded in battle, another soldier would take up the flag and continue carrying it.
The tradition of the Color Bearer continues today. Color Bearers can be seen marching in parades and carrying flags at sporting events. They also play an important role in military funerals, where they carry the flag of the United States of America to honor fallen soldiers.