Flags serve many purposes. They symbolize a people and represent national pride. Flags convey a shared history. Over the centuries, military units have carried flags and colors. Colors and flags affirm group identity. They build pride and morale, and represent the group’s honor. In battle, flags served as a rallying point when a formation was broken. Troops gathered around the flag to regroup, attack or retreat. Flags marked specific individuals, locations and functions such as hospitals and ambulances.
Infantry regiments regularly held trooping ceremonies. Colors were paraded up and down the line of assembled soldiers to music to make sure the men remembered the colors. A guard of non-commissioned officers usually protected flags and colors. Held in great reverence, a regiment’s honor was embodied in its colors. The entire regiment was humiliated if its colors were lost in battle.
From the establishment of the United States Army in 1785, US regular infantry regiments carried colors. Regiments didn’t carry the United States flag, as it was felt that no one unit could carry the national honor into battle. By the 1840’s, the infantry carried the United States flag with the regimental number or title printed on one of the white stripes. If the flag was lost in battle, only that regiment’s honor, and not the national honor, was lost. During the Civil War, a soldier who captured enemy colors or saved his unit’s colors frequently was honored. In addition to receiving a medal honor, a soldier was sometimes given a leave of absence. Soldiers who captured enemy colors were often mentioned in dispatches or listed on a role of honor.