- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

In addition to consistently high casualty rates, a related hazard of officers in the Civil War was retaining the command’s colors. The Marine Officer’s Guide (1977) is clear about the importance of U.S. and Marine Corps flags: Colors or standards must never fall into enemy hands.

Definitions: “National colors” are flags of nations. Carried beside them in military formations are the unique flags of particular commands, called “colors” or “standards.”

Colors were important in a war lacking modern communication equipment. They identified friendly and unfriendly commands; showed command locations; gave men pride and inspiration; and showed which way to attack amid battlefield confusion.

Soldiers carrying colors were “color-bearers” or, for example, “color-sergeants.” Because colors were so important and thus targets, “color-guards” protected them. Colors were so valuable that capturing enemy colors meant commendation; losing colors meant condemnation and investigation.

Numerous battle reports mentioned colors captured or lost, but discussion translated to this reality: Keep yours and get theirs.

Condemnation: In 1863, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early wrote that his division captured no flags “in the recent battles around Fredericksburg,” but noted that a Virginia regiment lost its colors. Early included a statement from regimental commander Col. F.H. Board, who had been ordered by corps headquarters to explain the loss of colors. Board said that when the regiment to his front retreated, he ordered his men to fire. Learning that the brigade was retreating, he ordered his men to retreat. “During this confusion, the color-bearer (as gallant a soldier as ever marched to battle) was wounded (as I am informed by those who saw him), dropping the standard, and the color-guard failing to bring it off, the color-bearer fell into the hands of the enemy; so did the colors.”

Board continued, “Even if the color-bearer was not wounded, he has acted so gallantly upon so many hard-fought fields that I could not attach any blame to him. This standard has been carried into fifteen engagements previous to the one in which it was captured, and has always come out victorious.”

Corps Commander A.P. Hill was unforgiving, writing of “much regret that this regiment lost its colors, and I cannot believe, from Colonel Board’s own statement, that the circumstances were such as to hold the regiment blameless.” Hill recommended to Gen. Robert E. Lee that the regiment “not be allowed to carry a color until it has redeemed its own by capturing one in battle.”

Commendation: In 1864, Lee sent enemy colors to the secretary of war, writing that the enemy had penetrated a Confederate line and planted the colors. It lost the fight; the 20th North Carolina Regiment captured the colors; and a major from the 20th took the colors to Lee, requesting its delivery to North Carolina’s governor.

A Union report of Oct. 31, 1864, noted that in the previous year more than 200 flags had been captured from the “rebels.” Most were in safekeeping, but, the report lamented, some captors disposed of them “in ignorance of their being public property.”

Capturing colors was doubly important for Union soldiers: Captures could merit the Medal of Honor. The October report listed 106 enlisted receiving medals, many for taking colors.

The citations in United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Citations credit Union soldiers for saving and capturing colors. The most citations involving colors were granted during the Civil War to men of all grades:

• Major capturing Jubal Early’s headquarters flag.

• Captain, during an advance, finding the color-bearer and the entire color-guard of eight men shot, seizes “the regimental flag and with conspicuous gallantry carried it to the extreme front, urging the line forward.”

• Lieutenant voluntarily returning under fire to save his regimental flag from capture after the color-bearer had been wounded.

• Sergeant major capturing a North Carolina flag “and saved his own colors by tearing them from the staff while the enemy was in the camp.”

cSergeants capturing a North Carolina flag, “tearing it from the staff, which was retained by the color-bearer”; capturing a Virginia flag, the color-bearer surrendering only when the sergeant was about to shoot him; rushing out to capture a flag after a shell had struck it down; capturing a Virginia flag, “knocking down the color-sergeant with his fist”; and carrying colors in advance of the line when the flagstaff was shot off as he was planting them on an enemy parapet.

cCorporals taking up colors “from the hands of the color bearer who had been shot down and bore them through the remainder of the battle”; capturing a Mississippi flag although the “flag was torn up by the color-bearer before it was captured”; capturing a Mississippi flag, standing on it, and firing three times before taking it up; capturing a North Carolina flag after “a personal encounter with an officer who carried and defended it”; and seizing his regimental colors “at a critical moment and by a prompt advance on the enemy caused the entire brigade to follow him.”

• Privates returning with a companion under heavy fire to retrieve their colors left behind during a retreat (the companion was killed); capturing colors by wrestling them from the color-bearer and then shooting someone (probably an officer) trying to regain them; and a drummer boy taking a sick comrade’s gun, “[going] into the fight, and when the color bearers were shot down, carried the colors and saved them from capture.”

A battle over colors continues to this day. Minnesota retains the 28th Virginia’s flag, notwithstanding Virginia’s request for its return. Marshall Sherman of the 1st Minnesota earned a Medal of Honor capturing the flag at Gettysburg amid the chaos of Pickett’s Charge, while his comrade, Henry O’Brien, earned the medal for seizing the 1st’s fallen colors and rushing forward to repel the “Confederate high tide,” holding them on a staff, nearly broken by a bullet, until twice wounded.

Colors stories are etched in stone — literally. Col. J.B. Strange, commanding George Pickett’s Brigade at Frazier’s Farm after Pickett was wounded at Gaines’ Mill, wrote that Pickett’s brother Charles, on foot after losing his horse, carried a flag beside Strange at the head of the brigade until Charles was “shot down seriously wounded.” Charles begged fellow soldiers to “leave him his flag, which he still held, and let him die there under its folds.”

Strange’s words appear on Charles Pickett’s tombstone in Norfolk’s Elmwood Cemetery.

Strange’s report was remarkable for Pickett’s story as well as his chilling, poignant reference to a U.S. flag: Sadly, terminology indicated a divided nation. Strange identified enemy troops when he saw their “open, honest display of the old flag.”

Charles A Jones, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, is a lawyer in Norfolk whose relatives fought with North Carolina units.

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