Duties of the Color-Guard

The officers and men of the command should understand that their colors should be the last thing surrendered, and that in all well-regulated military organizations, it is considered a disgrace for a majority of the command to return from the field of battle without them.

– Brigadier-General John Gibbon, Commanding Officer, U.S. Army, Second Division, Second Corps





43. In each battalion the color-guard will be composed of eight corporals, and posted on the left of the right-centre company, of which company, for the time being, the guard will make a part.

44. The front-rank will be composed of a sergeant to be selected by the colonel, who will be called, for the time, color-bearer, with the two ranking corporals, respectively, on his right and left; the rear-rank will be composed of the three corporals next in rank; and the three remaining corporals will be posted in their rear, and on the line of file closers. The left guide of the color company, when these three last named corporals are in the rank of file closers, will be immediately on their left.

45. In battalions with less than five companies present, there will be no color-guard, and no display of colors, except it may be at reviews.

46. The corporals for the color-guard will be selected from those most distinguished for regularity and precision, as well in their positions under arms as in their marching. The latter advantage, and a just carriage of the person, are to be more particularly sought for in the selection of the color-bearer.


In the ranks, the color-bearer, whether at a halt or in march, will always carry the heel of the color-lance supported at the right hip, the right hand generally placed on the lance at the height of the shoulder, to hold it steady. When the color has to render honors, the color-bearer will salute as follows:

At the distance of six paces slip the right hand along the lance to the height of the eye; lower the lance by straightening the arm to its full extent, the heel of the lance remaining at the hip, and bring back the lance to the habitual position when the person saluted shall be passed, or shall have passed, six paces.



According to Richard A. Sauers, author of Advance the Colors! Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags, “If more than one flag was carried simultaneously, the usual practice was to keep both flags together in the color-guard, which was placed in the center of the regimental battleline” per U.S. Army regulations. “According to Casey’s Infantry Tactics … Company C was assigned as the color company. The ten companies of an infantry regiment were assigned an exact place in line depending on the seniority of each captain. From right to left, the original order of battle was as follows: A, F, D, I, C, H, E, K, G, B. This order could be changed when officer casualties revamped the seniority order of the company commanders.”

“The large size of the infantry colors made them very important to the regiment,” writes Sauers. “The usual battle formation alluded to in  the passage on the position of the color-guard was in two ranks, the men marching shoulder-to-shoulder, the rear rank thirteen inches behind the front rank. A third rank of file closers marched behind the two battle ranks, the closers aiding in keeping the lines straight and echoing the verbal orders given to the regiment…. When advancing, a usual command was to ‘Guide on the colors,’ which meant that the soldiers were to keep their eyes on the flags in reference to keeping the lines straight to prevent confusion…. The large size [of the flags] was also important because of the black powder muskets of the Civil War era. Each volley of .58 and .69 caliber muskets produced clouds of hazy, white smoke that obscured vision and made regimental maneuvers difficult.”

More simply put, even when the soldiers couldn’t see each other through the fog of battle, they could almost always still see the brightly colored flag carried by their regiment’s main color-bearer. Consequently, color-bearers became not only rallying points for their respective regiments, but key targets of enemy artillery and riflemen as they attempted to disrupt and disorient their opponents.



* Casey, Brig.-Gen. Silas. Infantry Tactics for the Instruction, Exercise, Manoeuvres of the Soldier, a Company, Line of Skirmishers, Battalion, Brigade, or Corps d’ Armée, vol. 1. New York, New York and Washington, D.C.: D. Van Nostrand for the U.S. War Department, 1862.

Sauers, Richard A. Advance the Colors! Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Capitol Preservation Committee, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1987.


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