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The Colors of the Blue: The Flags of the Union Army

 

“The Colors of the Blue – Flags of the Union Army” will be on display at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center, 10AM to 4PM, Saturday, February 17.  The display will include reproductions of the most common flags of the Union Army infantry, cavalry, and artillery units, and the flags designating corps, division and brigade commanders. 

Flags served practical purposes on the battlefield.  They helped to control troops by indicating alignment and direction of movement; observing flags helped commanders follow the course of a battle, and they aided messengers in locating commanders. 

As the Civil War approached, there were 33 stars in the United States flag.  Even as states were seceding in the winter of 1860-61, Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, bringing the total to 34 stars.  Later in the war, West Virginia would make 35 stars in 1863, and Nevada would bring the total to 36 stars in 1864. As states left the Union, some people suggested that their stars be removed from the flag but Lincoln refused since he believed secession was illegal.  Thus, the flag included the stars of the seceded states.      

Other than the overall size, six by six and one-half feet, there was no standard design for the United States flag carried by the U. S. Army.  The flags were made by private contractors and the blue field varied from one-third to one-half the width of the flag.  Stars were in various sizes and were placed in rows, circles, ovals and geometric patterns.  Most stars were rendered in gold paint.   

Infantry and cavalry regiments were authorized to carry blue flags with the American eagle.  The eagle was painted so each flag was a unique work of art.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued special flags to its troops.  Infantry regiments received a Stars and Stripes flag that had the state coat-of-arms painted among the stars.  Cavalry regiments were given small blue flags with the state coat-of-arms rather than an American eagle as specified in the U.S. Army Regulations. 

The Battle of Gettysburg was the first time a new system of headquarters designating flags were used in battle.  They indicated the location of corps, division and brigade commanders on the battlefield.  Enlisted men carried the flags and followed the commanders so that messengers could easily locate the generals and deliver important dispatches.

The display will also include artifacts from the July 4, 1866, “Return of the Colors” ceremony when the Pennsylvania units returned their flags to the state in a ceremony at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  Included among the relics are a souvenir flag carried by war orphans who marched in the parade (perhaps the only surviving example) and a bronze version of a gold medal presented to Maj. Gen. George Meade.  The bronze medals were given to other officers who served in the Civil War.   

The display is being presented by the Civil War Dance Foundation (CWDF) as part of its educational outreach programming.  The flags in the display are on loan from the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, Camp Curtin Historical Society, 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, James Fouts, and Annette & Lawrence Keener-Farley.  Throughout the day, Dr. Lawrence Keener-Farley, retired Education Director at the National Civil War Museum, will present brief talks on the various flags.

In addition to conducting Civil War balls, dance demonstrations and classes, the CWDF also presents military and civilian artifact displays and lectures on a variety of Civil War topics.  The Civil War Dance Foundation leads the dancing at the Civil War Preservation Ball and National Civil War Ball.  These two balls have raised over $180,000 for Gettysburg National Military Park.  In 2011, the CWDF was named the Reenactment Unit of the Year by the Civil War Trust in recognition of its support of preservation projects. In 2016, the CWDF received the President’s Volunteer Service Award for 3,480 hours of volunteer service to twenty-eight organizations.  Gettysburg National Military Park benefited the most, with 875 hours, more than one-fourth on the dancers’ total hours.