The Colour Bearer
“Here is something material, something I can see, feel, and understand.
This means victory. This IS victory.”
Abraham Lincoln on receipt of a Confederate battle flag captured at the battle of Five Forks.
A units flag served an important tactical function as in spite of the major advances in weaponry during the first years of the war battles were fought according to the rigid discipline of linear deployment used in the Napoleonic Wars.
Here a unit's flag was often the soldier's only guides, his way of knowing if he was where he was supposed to be when the thick smoke from cannon and muskets obscured the combatants on the battlefield.
Flags were not only used for identification purposes but served as a means of inspiring morale with your own army and reducing that that in your opponent “their battle flags looked redder and bloodier in the strong July sun than I had ever seen before”, “no such sight in all the history of battles had ever been seen. On they came regardless of the carnage among them, nearer and nearer until horse and rider, officer and private, standards and banners waving in the lead were plainly seen.” So who were these men who carried these “fiery red crosses”, those “damned red flags of the rebellion”, this “treasons flaunting rag”?
The colours of a Civil War regiment embodied its honour and that of the men who followed it. It could also effect the emotions all those who knew it. W.E. Berry of the 4th Texas stated, “I saw coming up the road from the battlefield some colours.... the Major asked the Yankee with the colours where they got them. He said in the cornfield….. I knew the colours. I told him they belonged to the 1st Texas Regiment....He said there were 13 dead men lying on or around it when he found it. I asked him to hand it to me a moment, which he did. I took it in my hand, kissed it, and handed it back to him, tears blinding my eyes.”
William J. Hardee's infantry manual dictates that a colour guard be chosen from the best men the unit had to offer, those “most distinguished for regularity and precision, as well as in the 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 colour-bearer.” The men chosen, and those in the guard, were an elite. These flags were carried by the colour sergeant and protected by the colour guard, a group of up to a dozen soldiers whose responsibility it was to ensure the safety of the flags. Infantry flags were supposed to be larger than those of artillery and cavalry, but many times these arms also carried the larger infantry flag.
Courage was also needed to carry the flag as everyone who was given, or picked it up, must have known that his opposite numbers would be aiming at him, and that his chances of being shot became much greater with the flag in his hands as the colours “drew lead like a magnet” with each side tried to shoot down the other's flag, and colour guard “the waving battle flags seemed to be the special mark as soon as we came in range of the small arms.” And yet there was no trouble getting a colour guard, in fact many even asked for the privilege.
So the distinction of being in the guard was a very dangerous honour. The task of bearer demanded physical strength, so tall, muscular men were preferred, because holding aloft a large, heavy banner, and keeping it visible through battle smoke and at a distance demanded this.
It was typical that when assaulting a position that the units battle flag was in the forefront of the charge, guiding the men. When arriving at the position, be it either a battery or rampart, that the flag be placed in a conspicuous place, thus marking their possession and achievement.
Many colour bearers would yield their flags only with their lives and their opponents recognized the importance of the flag not just by concentrating there fire upon it, but also by explicitly honouring the men who captured them. Flags that belonged to the enemy seized in combat were the most cherished of battlefield memorabilia.
There are many instances of the bravery of the colour bearers, and the colour party, just a few of those I have found follow:
A/ At Chickamauga the flag of Hilliard's Alabama Legion bore “the marks of over 80 bullets, and its colour bearer was wounded 3 times.
B/ At Chickamauga the 28th Tennessee’s flag was "riddled with balls, being pierced not less than 30 times.”
C/ At Gettysburg the 26th North Carolina lost 14 colour guards in the first day of battle.
D/ At Gettysburg the 20th Georgia lost seven colour guards and had its flag riddled with 87 bullet holes.
E/ At Seven Pines the South Carolina's Palmetto Sharpshooters lost 10 out of 11 of its colour guard, at one time the flag supposedly passed through four hands without touching the ground.
F/ At Cedar Mountain the fate of the colours of the 21st Virginia typifies the danger to the colour guard: the “colour bearer knocked down a Yankee with his flagstaff, and was shot to death at once.” ”One of the colour guard took the flag, and he also was killed; another.... bayoneted a Yankee, and was immediately riddled with balls, three going through him. Four colour bearers were killed with the colours in their hands, the fifth man flung the riddled flag to the breeze, and went through the terrible battle unhurt.”
G/ At Gettysburg in one volley two of the 55th North Carolina's colour bearers were shot down. A third was then hit the Colonel of the regiment now seized it and carried on the attack. As he made a conspicuous target he immediate drew a volley wounding him in the arm and hip. A Major from the regiment took the flag and successfully completed the attack.
H/ At Gaines Mill the colour bearer of the 11 Alabama was wounded in the arm. He carried on using just his good one. He is now wounded in first the leg and then the other. Both these were flesh wounds so didn’t stop him carrying the flag. He was finally wounded in the other arm. With both arms out of action he implored his comrades to tie the flagpole to his body. This they did and he continued to carry his units flag.
I/ At Gettysburg the colour bearer of the 13th North Carolina had his right arm mangled by a shell, later to be amputated. Not with standing this he picked it up with his left and carried on.
The effort to capture a Confederate Battle Flag was just as deadly for at Gettysburg men from the 6th Wisconsin battled the 2nd Mississippi for their flag: “Just about that time a squad of soldiers made a rush for my colours and our men did their duty. They were all killed or wounded, but they still rushed for the colours.... they still kept rushing for my flag and there were over a dozen shot down like sheep in their mad rush for the colours.”
When all was lost there was still no wish to surrender their battle flags:
A/ Colour Sergeant J.R. Barnhardt, 8th North Carolina, ripped his flag to pieces rather than see it taken when the unit was assaulting Fort Harrison, Virginia, September 1864.
B/ Sergeant William N. Cameron, 25th Tennessee, tore his regiment's flag from its staff and stuffed it under his coat when capture seemed imminent at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in December 1862. He kept it concealed throughout his subsequent captivity.
C/ Colour Sergeant George Barbee, 44th North Carolina, on his regiment retreat from Petersburg, Virginia, took the units battle flag from its staff, wrapped it around a stone, and threw it into the Appomattox River declaring, “No enemy can ever have a flag of the 44th.”
D/ The colour bearer of the 7th Louisiana revealed to his comrades that he had hidden their battle flag when they were overwhelmed and captured at Rappahannock Station, Virginia. The next night he burned it in the campfire so that it would not become a prize.
J.A. Strikeleather, 4th North Carolina, said of the men chosen as colour bearer, and the guard, that in describing their character he was “treading on sacred ground. I doubt if there was a nobler hero in the war, North or South.”