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This is the first in a three-part blog series curated by Richard White about the Museum's new book, Civil War Flags of Tennessee (The University of Tennessee Press)
Civil War Flags of Tennessee, Stephen D. Cox, Principal Author and Editor-in-Chief (The University of Tennessee Press)
by Richard White
Recently released by University of Tennessee Press, Civil War Flags of Tennessee is a monumental work, and a project 20 years in the making. The book covers the flags of Union and Confederate units that were associated with the state in some way. This includes infantry, artillery, cavalry, naval, garrison, and surrender flags. While Stephen Cox serves as the book’s principal author and editor-in-chief, the work was a group project with many different editors, authors, and scholars contributing. It was one of the first projects I began working on when I started my career at the Museum six years ago. In addition to writing an entry, I spent countless hours editing the various sections of the book. It was time wonderfully spent.
Watercolor, “Flags of the 75th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry” (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2013.94.179)
The project began as a survey of flags within the State Museum collection and morphed along the way to include records of every flag the Museum could find in other institutions or in private hands. We also included those we found records of, but that no longer physically exist. A work of this magnitude deserves context, so the first portion of the book contains essays about various aspects of the history of these Civil War flags. To provide further context, and offer an introduction to the book, this is the first in three-part blog series will highlight some of the lesser known features of flags, as they pertain to Civil War armies and the military in general.
Flags are present everywhere in our world, and people respond to them in different ways – sometimes positively and at other times negatively. The people of the Civil War-era were no different. The flags they carried were symbols of unit pride, were functionally used to move men around the battlefield, and were either surrendered or carried home by these men following the war. Flags could also be symbols of oppression or liberation, depending on the attitude of the viewer.
Tintype, Thomas H. McLain, Michael H. Martin, E. E. Ferguson, and A. J. Shupe, Co. I, 8th Tennessee Cavalry, U.S.A., with regimental flags. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 92.93.22)
In one of the opening essays of the book, “Forward the Colors: The Evolution and Importance of Military Flags as Devices of Command and Control in the Civil War,” noted flag historian Gregg Biggs offers insight into the history of flags within the military. The first mentions of banners for specific troops appears in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the 5th century BCE. Control on the battlefield was important, and Sun Tzu recommended the creation of colored banners denoting different portions of the army.
The Romans built on this tradition by creating the Legion, their standard fighting body of troops and the predecessor to our modern infantry regiments. The Legions all carried an Eagle, an actual representation of the bird cast in bronze or gold plate, with a banner hanging from the cross bar, emblazoned with the Legion’s number. The best soldiers in the unit where given the honor of carrying the banner, another tradition that carried over to future armies. This progressed into the Medieval period when lords, barons, and kings created coats of arms and colored standards to identify their troops on the battlefield. These standards or colors were also instrumental in the movement of troops. This trend reached a zenith during the Napoleonic period when regiments carried finely crafted and adorned flags into battle.
Book, Hardee's Tactics or Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Manoeuvres of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen (1862), (Tennessee State Museum collection, 80.236)
Flags became integral to the development of the United States military from the earliest phases of the Continental Army. George Washington helped establish this system, which would evolve over the years leading up to the Civil War, but not drastically change. Following the American Revolution, a standing army was created, and written rules and regulations included mention of flags to identify and guide units in battle. General Winfield Scott was instrumental in writing early regulations but changed his mind over the years about flags in new editions of the regulations. Scott variably shifted between combat troops carrying two flags, one national standard and one regimental, to units carrying one flag, the regimental. William J. Hardee’s popular 1862 book, Hardee's Tactics or Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Manoeuvres of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen, became the standard training manual in the years before the Civil War. Hardee adopted the two-flag system of Scott, but only one flag was carried by the unit during active combat. This became the standard system for the Confederate armies, while the Union armies adhered to Scott’s system of carrying two flags into battle.
Print, Harper’s Weekly, 1863. Showing the battle flag of the 26th Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A. at the Battle of Stones River. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2005.202)
Biggs' essay offers a great deal more insight into these developments throughout the centuries, as flags pertain to military units, and is just one example of the contextual essays that are featured at the beginning of the book. While a flag is an inanimate object, it had very real and emotional connections to the men in the ranks. While flags could be replaced, damaged, or captured, the regiment always carried a banner into battle. A regiment could have a cast of thousands throughout the whole war, but these men always had a common flag they marched and fought under attached to their specific unit.
The next post in this series will discuss some of the features found on the flags, and their construction, in order to illustrate their special meaning for the men who fought under them.
Richard White is the Tennessee State Museum curator of 18th and 19th Century History