Dress on the Colors
Virginia, 1864

During the Civil War, sergeants and corporals preserved order when troops massed in line and assisted the officers by leading small units deployed for skirmishing. The color sergeant, performing what had once been an officer's duty, became the pivotal point in battle around which the regiments advanced and wheeled. Visible through the smoke and dust of battle, the sergeant's colors attracted the heaviest enemy fire and became the center of hand-to-hand combat. Here a regiment advances during the siege of Petersburg by aligning itself on the color sergeant.

Each infantry regiment had two colors, the Stars and Stripes and a second with a solid field bearing the national arms. Both flags were large, 6 by 61/2 feet, mounted on 91/2 foot pikes. The national colors, shown here, bore the regimental designation on the central stripe. It became the battle flag, the one usually carried into combat. The practice of inscrib-ing honors on the other stripes during the Civil War led to the modern custom of streamers. Each flag was borne by a color sergeant, a special duty position distinct from the company-level NCO. He was protected by the six corporals of the color party.

Sergeants in the Civil War were distinguished by their chevrons and trouser stripes and by their right to carry a sword, in this instance, a model 1840 NCO sword suspended from a shoulder belt and waist belt with distinctive eagle plates. Branch insignia included devices (for infantry, the light infantry horn) as well as the distinctive color of the uniform trim. Each foot soldier carried his possessions in a painted canvas folding knapsack with blanket roll strapped above. The knapsack was the first thing dropped before going into action. The soldier, however, was rarely separated from his haversack, which contained his rations, and from his tin canteen.