Flags and banners have been an important part of warfare for centuries, and the War Between the States was no exception. While the role of the color bearer became largely ceremonial in the past century, the placement and disposition of the flag was at one time imperative. On a battlefield the flag was a center point – a focal point - and helped the men of a particular unit stay together, and move in a combined effort while making an advance or retreat, and everything in between. There were also times in the American Civil War in which commanders took the colors and stood steadfast in an effort to rally faltering troops. In many wars and in popular language, one will hear, “Rally to the colors.” And both Confederate and Union did.
If there was a handbook for 19th century warfare, it was the book entitled Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Manoeuvres of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen. More commonly known by historians and reenactors as Hardee’s Tactics, this book laid out the duties and responsibilities of infantry, and it also detailed the composition and placement of the color guard – the men who were responsible for the units’ flags. Written in the 1850s by William J. Hardee at the behest of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, this book became the standard for infantry both North and South. And as regards flags, Hardee’s Tactics established a color guard as a unit of men whose duty was primarily to protect the colors and follow the directions of their commanding officer.
When Confederate soldiers marched off to war they were often sent off with a flag made by local citizens, most often ladies. These flags varied in style and composition (silk, cotton, wool bunting), and were often given to groups as small as a company – around a hundred men – as they marched off at the start of the war. But once these men arrived at camps of instruction, there was a great chance that flags and disposition would change. As guided by Hardee’s Tactics, the color guard should consist of eight corporals and a sergeant who was selected by the regiment’s colonel. Should the color bearer – the sergeant – be lost, it was the duty of a color guard corporal to take the flag. The color guard had the flag as their primary assignment, and they were not expected to fire guns.
There are many realities of war, and among those is the fact that things almost never go as planned. Very often such a configuration of troops as laid out in Hardee’s Tactics was only temporary, if at all. And at times the man carrying the colors might never have been a member of the color guard.
The flag was so important that after-action reports would very often list not only the men killed, wounded, and missing, but the number of flags lost as well. A soldier in the Union army could earn one of the newly created Medals of Honor for saving his own unit’s flag, or for capturing one from the Confederates. The Confederate army did not award actual medals, but make no mistake; they valued their banners as highly as any soldier ever did.
After the war the sentiments of the conflict stayed alive, and such is human nature. Though attempts had previously been made, it took 40 years for Northern sentiment to allow flags such as the one of the 14th Tennessee to be returned to their former homes. The men who captured this flag respected the men from whom it was captured, and it was returned to Tennessee in the condition in which it was captured. The strongest respect for the Confederate veteran probably came from the Union veteran, and the reciprocal was also true.