The beginnings of heraldry in the Civil War– Symbols Rally the Spirit
Colonel Ralph R. Burr
Army Information Digest – August 1961
A mistake in identification by a general early in the Civil War started the system of shoulder patches that now is common in the U. S. Army. The use of these distinctive unit emblems to identify soldiers as members of organizations with proud traditions all started when General Philip Kearny, in the summer of 1862, mistook some officers for stragglers from his own command. As described by General E. D. Townsend, Adjutant General of the United States Army in his “Anecdotes of the Civil War,” the resulting explosion was “emphasized by a few expletives.”
“The officers listened in silence,” recounts General Townsend, “respectfully standing in the ‘position of a soldier’ until he had finished, when one of them, raising his hand to his cap, quietly suggested that the general had possibly made a mistake, as they none of them belonged to his command. With his usual courtesy, Kearny exclaimed ‘Pardon me; I will take steps to know how to recognize my own men hereafter.'”
The result was an order that officers of his command should thereafter wear “on the front of their caps a round piece of red cloth to designate them.” Thus was born the famed “Kearny Patch.” There is some evidence that General Kearny did not actually designate the shape of the patch, for at first almost any piece of red cloth was acceptable. General Kearny even donated his own red-blanket to be cut up by his officers. Some covered their entire caps with red cloth.
Although Kearny had designated the patch to distinguish his officers, enlisted men of his command very soon adopted the red patch, often cutting up their overcoat red lining to make them. The men idolized Kearny and were anxious to identify themselves as members of his command. The practice is said to have reduced straggling-and even the Confederates are reputed to have given special attention to wounded and dead wearing the patch because they recognized the valor of Kearny’s troops.
From that beginning, the idea spread to other divisions and corps. By March 1863, Major General Joseph Hooker had provided the first systematic plan for the entire Army of the Potomac. It is said that General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s Chief-of-Staff, had much to do with designing the patches. At any rate, General Hooker ordered that the First Corps should wear a sphere, the Second Corps a trefoil, Third Corps a crescent and Twelfth Corps a star.
By the time the war ended almost I all of the corps wore some sort of identifying mark. Usually they were, as with Hooker’s first order, quite simple. The Fifteenth Corps, however, wore a patch that told something of a story-which is what heraldic symbols and insignia have done since the early middle ages.
The story goes that in the fall of l863 the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps under General Hooker were sent to aid in the relief of Chattanooga. It became apparent that the eastern soldiers were better dressed. Corps badges were a novelty in the western units. This caused some sharp words between the men.
One day an enlisted man in the corps of Major General John A. Logan was asked where his corps patch was. Clapping his hand on his cartridge box, he said “Forty Rounds. Can you show me a better one?” Shortly thereafter General Logan issued General Order No. 10 prescribing that the badge for the Fifteenth Corps should be “a miniature cartridge box and above the box will be inscribed the words ‘Forty Rounds.'”
The badge of the Fourteenth Army Corps also told a story. Members had often referred to themselves as “acorn boys” because at one time when rations were scanty, the men roasted and ate acorns. In 1864 their badge was designed in the form of an acorn.
Other deviations from simple designs included the Ninth Corps whose men wore “a shield with the figure nine in the center crossed with a foul anchor and cannon”; The Seventeenth Corps, an arrow; the Sixteenth Corps four minie balls with the points towards the center.
Not to be outdone, the Engineer and Pontonier Corps adopted a badge of “two oars crossed over an anchor, the top of which is encircled by a scroll surmounted by a castle; the castle being the badge of the U. S. Corps of Engineers.” The Signal Corps was two flags crossed on the staff of a flaming torch. The Department of West Virginia adopted a spread-eagle. The Pioneers wore a pair of crossed hatchets. Both General Sheridan’s Cavalry corps and Wilson’s Cavalry wore distinctive badges featuring the crossed saber.
In most instances the badges were adopted by a General Order, often after competitions for designs. However, several Corps adopted badges without any order at all–they apparently just grew out of popular demand. One or two, on the other hand, never adopted any sort of insignia.
To a considerable extent the adoption of these corps badges was a morale building factor, and often the enlisted ranks contributed materially to design. From a humble beginning the wearing of the patch spread. The drives for unit identification, esprit de corps and pride in organization–factors in leadership, in discipline, in battle efficiency–made themselves felt.
A general rule was that within each corps the first division patch would be red, the second white, the third blue. When a corps had a fourth division, as was sometimes the case, another color would be designated. In the Ninth Corps it was green; in the Fifteenth, yellow.
It is obvious that the colors of the National Ensign influenced this choice of colors for the divisions. As a matter of fact, even before the first glimmerings of the patch insignia idea had manifested themselves, General George B. McClellan, as early as March 1862, had issued orders directing that various kinds of flags should designate corps, divisions and brigade headquarters.
The First Division Flag was to be red, six feet by five, the Second Division blue, the Third red and blue. Army regulations already had prescribed colors of Artillery regiments, Infantry regiments, camp colors, standards and guidons of mounted regiments.
Not long after, the men themselves sought to have on their flags the names of the battles in which they participated. Authority for recognition of battle on the regimental flag came as a result of a joint resolution of Congress on 24 December 1861. By February 1862, such a high regard was placed on colors for regiments and batteries that General McClellan ordered that names of the battles in which units bore a meritorious part would be inscribed on the colors of guidons of all regiments or batteries thus engaged.
It must be remembered that in the type of fighting of the time, when men were usually massed in line, the sight of the flag, whether national ensign or regimental standard, was a positive factor in leadership. The ranks could follow the flag. As long as it floated above the battle line it was a factor in advance–as well as a rallying point in a retreat. Great store was set on keeping the flag from even touching the ground. Conversely, to capture an enemy flag was highly regarded.
Units that were not yet entitled to battle honors were not to rest satisfied until they had won them by their discipline and courage. Here again is another example of proper motivation for further exemplary achievements by units. An example of the symbolism of the flag and its role in inspiring achievement was the action taken by the Chief Signal Officer in 1862 when he issued the order
“…any officer who distinguishes himself in battle and skillfully uses his flag (that is the signaling flag) shall hereafter while serving as a signal officer bear upon his service flags a star and the name of the action in which the star was won,and upon completion of his service the flag will stay in his possession…”
Thus the flag was used in prompt recognition of meritorious service–in effect, the same as presenting a medal–in an invaluable expression of leadership technique.
Still another incentive for superior performance was evolved by General J. C. Douglas, commanding general of the Third Division, Seventeenth Corps. He awarded a flag to the units judged best in battalion drill, soldierly appearance, camp condition, discipline. The unit could keep the flag only by continuous winning of it; it was to be carried on parades and on the battlefield–and on the battlefield the commander could withdraw it from a unit that failed to demonstrate its right to retain it.
While heraldry in the modern Army embraces medals, in the Civil War period the various medals extant today had not been adopted. Congress, it is true, had issued several for various special reasons and many of the States issued medals as well. But it was during this conflict that the highest award that can be given an individual for heroism beyond the call of duty came into being. This was the Medal of Honor.
At first it was to be issued only to men in the ranks, but later it was changed to include officers and finally was changed in design. The original medal was designed by Anthony C. Paquet, and was later redesigned by Major General George L. Gillespie.
Although not in the same category, the idea of using identification tags was first suggested during the Civil War by one John Kennedy. Not until 44 years later, however, was this idea adopted as an aid in identification and disposal of the dead and wounded.
Even after the war, veterans cherished their badges, and they were frequently seen in parades of the Grand Army of the Republic. Many veterans had models of their badges made in enamel, silver or gold, and wore them pinned to the breast or suspended from a ribbon around the neck during the parades or at meetings or encampments of the G.A.R.
As it developed amid the exigencies of Civil War, symbolism took on added significance as a practical tool of leadership. Through the use of badges, flags and medals, military leaders were able to communicate a pride in organization to their men. The resulting responsiveness manifested itself in heightened esprit de corps which has been time–tested to the present day.
Colonel Ralph R. Burr, Quartermaster Corps, was Commanding Officer, Quartermaster Activities, Cameron Station, Alexandria, Virginia