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National Colors (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-09-20 by rick wyatt
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National Colors

[National Color - Army/Air Force Version] image by Joe McMillan, 7 November 2000
Army and Air Force version

[National Color - Army/Air Force Version] image by Joe McMillan, 7 November 2000
Coast Guard and Marine Corps and Navy version

Usage: This version of the U.S. National Flag, called the National Color, is used on parade and for indoor display with all other types of Army flags and colors. For example, all regiments, battalions of regiments and separate battalions are authorized a "stand of colors"--the National Color and their Organizational Color. The dimensions are 3' at the hoist by 4' on the fly with 2 1/2" yellow fringe, i.e. the same as for Army flags and colors. (For display with larger size Army flags and colors, e.g. the Organizational Color of the U.S. Corps of Cadets, dimensions are 4'4" at the hoist by 5'6" on the fly with 2 1/2" yellow fringe.)
Tom Gregg, 30 September 1998

The sea services use a national color without fringe, generally 52x66 inches, with red, white, and blue cord and tassels.
Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999

Prior to 1775 the local military in the British North American colonies was the Militia. Some units were co-opted by the rebels by purging loyalist elements, some remained loyal, and some simply disintegrated. Did these Militia battalions follow the newly adopted British regulation (1740s) of carrying a King's Colour (Union flag) and Regimental Colour?

The Continental Congress in 1775 authorized the Continental Army as a regular force, and it was disbanded at war's end. Did the Continental Congress at any time between 1775 and 1783 stipulate that infantry battalions SHOULD carry a national colour (even if the arrangement of stars and stripes was never prescribed), along with a regimental colour?

When did the post-Revolutionary US re-form its regular army and reorganise state militias as American rather than British institutions? When were the first regulations promulgated governing the Colours of regular and Militia units?

By the so-called War of 1812 (let alone 1840s, as originally stipulated in the question), the US had a regular army (very small), and Militia units were mobilized (embodied) to fight the British. Surely all these battalions (regiments) were by then issued with a regulation national color that they carried in battle?

Lastly, what is the origin of the legend(?) that the stars and stripes were first carried in battle at Cooch's Bridge (3 Sep 1777, three months after the Continental Congress in a general sense authorised a national flag, if not infantry colours)? I had never previously heard of this legend.

T.F. Mills, 10 June 2011

My gut feeling is that the concept of carrying any sort of national flag post-dates the Revolution and before that most flags were local, unit specific, and one of a kind. We were still struggling with the concept of national identity throughout the whole Articles of Confederation period and it wasn't until the War of 1812 (our second War of Independence?) that really saw the blossoming of the use of national flags, and later by the public during the Mexican-American War period of the 1840s. As you point out, the military, especially the naval forces (and merchant marine) who had more foreign contact, would have felt the first real need.
Pete Loeser, 10 June 2011

The concept of a National flag did not exist at the time. It was Washington and his staff in their discussion of a single flag design for use in the Army that first came up with the concept of a National Color (as opposed to a King's Color). The June 14, 1777 Flag Resolution was likely intended for Naval usage, but again, it was an attempt to create a National symbol as opposed to a Royal symbol. Given that probably less than 2% of all the flags used in the War for Independence are known today, I think there was more awareness of a National symbol at the time than we are aware of today.

Under the British system in use at the time, each local militia unit was a company commanded by a Captain. No color was prescribed for these units except as noted below, however many of the pre-War units, especially those with independent funding, did acquire their own colors, usually, but not always, involving a solid color ground with a Union canton. When these companies were massed into Regimental strength, the regulations regarding colors were supposed to be followed, that is, one Regimental and one King's Color (supposed to be in the possession of the companies directly commanded by the Colonel and the Major respectively). However it appears that this seldom, if ever happened (and this was only after the 1745ish Royal Army reorganizations--it was completely different prior to this and more uniformly adhered to in the colonies).

By the time the 1775 difficulties started, many of what later became known as "patriot" units either continued with their Union-marked colors or altered or replaced them with similar colors but with some different kind of "union" in the canton. There are a number of extant examples of this. At some point, by the middle of 1776, I think, the union emblem became the 13 stripes. There are also a number of extant examples of this as well. By 1778 the union had again changed, now to the familiar blue canton bearing 13 white stars. These trends were by no means universal as we know of a number of colors with no canton at all as well as some that are fairly plain, which may be grand divisional colors.

Washington and his staff debated the National Color and the General said he liked the one with the serpent and emblems in the center of the Union best. We don't know exactly what this flag looked like and shortages prevented a general distribution of these national colors until the War was effectively over. Some think (and I tend to agree) that the 1779 color of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons that sold at auction in 2006 (from Tarleton's collection) was an example of the National Color. Given the other regimental colors that still exist for this unit, this seems more likely than not.

Battalions (regiments) were issued with a regulation national color that they carried in battle, starting at least in 1791, and perhaps earlier (think the Legion), a national color was specified for use by the army. It was blue with the US Eagle and (usually) gold stars. I think there are several of these in the West Point collection.

Concerning the legend(?) of Cooch's Bridge, to date, I have not seen any evidence that there was a Stars and Stripes carried at Cooch's Bridge in 1777. This appears to be an Urban Legend promoted by the US Parks Service.

As a Revolutionary War Light Infantry re-enactor, I can say with some certainty no LI Unit carried a flag by itself. To understand this, first some reflection on what a Light Infantry unit is and does.

In the Continental Army 1777-1781, each regiment was formed of (usually and nominally) ten companies of 50 men each. Among other designations, one company in each regiment was to be a Light Infantry company. These were supposed to be composed of the best men who could move fast, with precision, carrying only the basic gear. These guys lived out of doors year round (no tents!) and could be mustered and moved out in under 10 minutes. They were used for reconnaissance, and for quick line formation while the regulars were being formed. They were trained in rapid fire and reload and rapid advance, retire and deployment techniques.

Having said all that, there is one exception to the no flag for Lights rule. In 1779 Lafayette returned from France bringing uniforms, helmets and flags for the Light Infantry Corps. This was an amalgamation of the Light Infantry companies of each regiment into one fast, but hard hitting, corps of troops. The Marquis was the commander of this corps and the flags were distributed so that there was one for every two companies, which formed a Battalion. This formation was used at Yorktown to some good effect. After Yorktown the Corps was disbanded and the companies were returned to their respective regiments after returning their colors. The record is silent on what happened to the flags.

After the war, the basic military formation in the USA was the militia company. Each State passed its own laws, consistent with the Federal Militia Act of 1792. In short, each State authorized the formation of militia companies based on existing settlements which were then organized into Battalions, Regiments and Divisions. Each able-bodied male of a certain age was required to join a company of militia or pay a fine. By about 1800 however another militia system had developed. For lack of a better term, it is often referred to as the Volunteer Militia. Theoretically all militia companies were volunteers (or pay a fine) but these Voluntary Martial Societies as they were sometimes called subjected themselves to rigorous training and equipped themselves with the best uniforms, weapons and accouterments that they could afford and usually they adopted a style of military practice combined with a colorful name such as the Kittery Sea-Fencibles, the Waldoboro Light infantry, or the Putnam Rifle Company. There were no requirements for any unit to be a Rifle Company or a Sea-Fencible Company (sort of like a Marine) or a Light Infantry Company but the militia officers quickly saw the advantage in having units with such training so they were encouraged and adopted into the regular militia system as the elite units of the day.

I can provide examples of Massachusetts (prior to Maine Statehood in 1820) and Maine Light Infantry as well as other colors. These of course are all State colors; in the event of a call to Federal Service, these units would have been brigaded into Regiments that would have been provided with Federal Colors. This happened on a large scale in 1861. None of the Maine units carried the Stars and Stripes until they joined regiments in Federal Service in the Civil War although in other states some units were federalized for the Mexican War.

See my Survey of 18th Century Stars and Stripes at my web site
Dave Martucci, 10 June 2011