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Since the early days of warfare, flags, standards and guidons have served as talismans of unit identity. The flag was symbolic. It helped units develop a sense of pride and Eprit de Corps, as well as serving the more practical purpose of providing a rally point for soldiers during the heat of battle.
A guidon is a swallow-tailed unit marker, with the dimensions measuring 20 inches (hoist) by 27 inches (fly). The swallow-tail end is forked l0 inches. A fringe, often seen on unit colors, is not used on guidons. Letters and numerals read from left to right on each side of the guidon. The letters and numbers on guidons are 3 1/2 inches high unless otherwise indicated. Today, when a Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI) is authorized for use on the guidon, the design will appear proper on both sides.
|Cavalry Troops of Regiments||Separate Cavalry Squadrons||Named TOE Troops of Cavalry Squadrons||Spearhead Finial|
The word Guidon traces its origin back to the Italian "guidone" meaning 'guide' or 'marker'. The guidon was often endorsed by the religious practice of blessing a banner before it was carried into combat. The Roman legions were said to have fought fiercely to protect their guidons, and the loss of a guidon was considered a disgrace.
Traditionally, the carrying of a Guidon, Color, or Standard remained the exclusive privilege of those who fought face to face with the enemy, namely the Cavalry and the Infantry. Originally they were battle flags, carried by the headquarters staff to show the position of the King, Lord, General or unit commander. For that reason they were always cut with a swallow tail design so that they would flutter better in the breeze, which actually made it easier for Troopers to recognize. It is a tradition that has been followed by many countries with mounted units.
The U.S. Army Regulations of 1861 called for Infantry regiments to carry two flags, the National colors and the regimental colors. The large flags carried by Infantry regiments (nearly six feet square) would have been unmanageable on horseback. Cavalry regiments therefore carried much smaller flags than the infantry. Called “standards,” a Cavalry regiment’s colors measured roughly 2 by 2 feet. Regulation cavalry standards were similar in design to infantry regimental colors. They featured the United States Coat of Arms on a blue field with a red scroll bearing the unit designation. As with their infantry counterparts, however, there was little standardization and cavalry units often carried a variety of non-regulation flags featuring state and regional designs.
In addition to the regimental standard, individual cavalry companies carried swallow-tailed flags called “guidons.” At the beginning of the Civil War cavalry guidons featured two horizontal bars, red over white. In 1862 the regulations changed and cavalry guidons featured red and white stripes with a blue canton in the same design as the National colors. Although the regulations did not authorize cavalry regiments to carry the National colors, many did, carrying either a scaled-down version similar in size to their standards, or a swallow-tailed guidon in the pattern of the National colors, but without company or regimental designations painted on.
The U.S. Cavalry used guidons in the Civil War as well as the Plains Indian Wars later on. The Cavalry were the last of the three branches of service of the U.S. Army to get to carry the Stars & Stripes in battle - Artillery was first in 1836, then Infantry in 1842 and the Cavalry at the start of the Civil War.
A U.S. Army guidon chronology:
1834 - Army Regulations authorize a silk, 27-inch by 41-inch red-over-white guidon for the Regiment of Dragoons (now the 1st Cavalry). It had a 15 inch forked swallow tail, with the letters "U.S." in white on the upper half and the company letter in red on the lower. It was carried on a nine-foot lance with a finnial at the top in the shape of an arrowhead (or spearhead). Color Bearers would attach a small leather cup or “boot” to the stirrup leathers on the off side of their saddle (see post on saddles below) to facilitate carrying the flags while mounted.
1836 - The 2d Regiment of Dragoons is formed. Most guidons issued thereafter included not only the "U.S." and company letter, but also the regimental number.
This 7th Cavalry guidon sold in 2010 for $1955.00 on cowansauctions.com.
1841 - Army Regulation reverted back to the original 1834 design.
January 18, 1862 - U.S. Army General Order 4 directs that "Guidons and camp colors will be made like the United States flag with stars and stripes." The dimensions were the same as prescribed in 1834, but the new design consisted of gold stars in two concentric circles with one star in each corner of the canton. A canton is any quarter of a flag, but typically refers to the upper hoist (left) quarter. The regulation called for embroidered stars, but field units often painted the stars with either silver or gold paint. The silver paint eventually tarnished over time, so it was abandoned for gold.
During the course of the Civil War, corps, divisions, and brigades adopted non-regulation flags to mark the location of their headquarters. Several systems to standardize these headquarters flags were attempted. In 1862, Major General George B. McClellan devised a system of red, white, and blue flags and flags divided into bars of red, white, and blue to designate various higher headquarters. Numbers added to the flags distinguished the regiments within a brigade. General McClellan’s complex, confusing system was replaced in 1863 by a simpler system that identified commands by the shape of the flag. Corps headquarters were designated by a swallow-tailed flag, divisions by a rectangular flag, and brigades by a triangular pennant. Within a corps, divisions were differentiated by use of the distinctive corps badges developed earlier in 1863 by Major General Joseph Hooker. A red badge on a white field distinguished the 1st division, a white badge on a blue field the 2nd division, and a blue badge on a white field the 3rd. Within divisions, brigades were designated by the borders of their triangular flags. A plain pennant with no border denoted the 1st brigade, a stripe along the “hoist” of the pennant denoted the 2nd brigade, and a border on all three sides of the pennant the 3rd brigade. This model gradually became the standard for armies in the east and was adopted with some variation by the western armies when the 11th and 12th Corps were transferred to Tennessee to reinforce General Ulysses Grant late in 1863.
When these guidons and pennants were adopted and flown, for instance during the Gettysburg
Campaign, the top standards designated General Buford’s division. Colonel Gamble’sBrigade
would have flown the 1st Brigade pennant at the bottom left, Colonel Devin’s 2nd Brigade the one
in the middle, and General Merritt’s Reserve (3rd) Brigade the one at lower right.
1863 - Army Regulations, Appendix B, “there shall be inscribed upon the colors or guidons of all regiments and batteries in the service of the United States the names of the battles in which they have borne a meritorious part.” These were to be painted on the guidons.
Cavalry commands in the Military Division of the Mississippi continued to use red and white, and red and blue swallow-tailed guidons at corps, division, and brigade level. Cavalry divisions in the Army of the Potomac continued to use a red and white swallow-tailed guidon emblazoned with the division number in both bars. The crossed-saber insignia was not standardized and differs widely, sometimes even within the same division.
Regimental flags were returned to the states at the end of the Civil War. Many bore the scars of battle, some riddled with dozens of bullet holes. Many Civil War flags were proudly displayed in state capitol buildings for years afterwards. Sadly, the open display of these fragile artifacts hastened their deterioration and today, many of them have literally fallen apart. Several states have initiated programs to protect and save their treasured colors, carefully preserving and displaying them under controlled, archival conditions to honor the veterans who risked their lives to defend them.
1878 - Army orders written to clarify that guidons would only bear the battle honors won by the company on separate service.
1881 - Army orders direct that the company letter be inscribed in yellow on one of the white stripes of the guidon.
1885 - General Order 10 reverts back to the red-over-white guidon, now with the regimental number on the upper half and the letter of the troop on the lower half.
1895 - Army Regulations: "Each troop of Cavalry will have a silken guidon...to be used only in battle, campaign, or on occasions of ceremony." The regulation further states: "Each troop will also have a service guidon made of bunting or other suitable material" which was for daily use.
1922 - Change to Army Regulations 129 abolishes silk guidons from service.
1931 - Army Regulation 260-10 reduces the standard size of Army guidons to 20 inches by 27 3/4 inches with a 10 inch forked swallowtail.
1944 - Army Regulation 260-10 provides for the battalion (or squadron number) to be placed centered in the hoist.
Despite the attempts at establishing a standard system, variations in flag designs persisted and it was not uncommon for units to carry non-standard flags. General officers often adopted “personal” flags. General George Custer went to into the Battle of Little Big Horn flying the swallow-tailed guidon of the famous (or infamous) United States 7th US Cavalry. Custer also had a personal headquarters flag, it was swallow-tailed of equal horizontal stripes of red over blue with two crossed white sabers in the center. This flag was made by Custer's wife, Libby. Both the Guidon and the personal flag were carried into the battle. A third flag, the regimental standard, was not carried into the battle.
Soldiers of the 7th US Cavalry still fly a swallow tail guidon and they now refer to themselves as "Custer's Own". They also led the charge in the War to Liberate Iraq in 2003. Today, the Guidon still holds its sacred place next to the Commander of a Cavalry unit.
LOSS OF COLORS
There is no official definition of the term "loss of colors." However, the term, in common usage, refers to the capture of a unit's colors (flags) by the enemy in battle, or the taking away of a unit's colors as a punishment or disciplinary measure. Unit colors were a great source of pride, and victories or defeats were often expressed in terms of colors being captured from or lost to the enemy. During the Civil War, many awards of the Medal of Honor were made for the capture or defense of colors. Even then however, units which lost their colors remained intact and continued to fight. Modern warfare tactics do not call for rallying points in the open, with large numbers of men performing intricate maneuvers. Therefore, today's armies use colors in ceremonies but do not carry them into battle. Official Army records contain no mention of any unit of the United States Army having lost its colors to the enemy during World War II, the Korean War, or the war in Vietnam. There is also no record of any unit having its colors taken away as a punishment for any action at any time in the history of the United States Army.
There have been several rumors concerning various units losing their colors. These are generally false. One of these includes the question of the loss of colors by the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn, which has also generated considerable debate. Although the Center for Military History has no conclusive evidence one way or the other, it has been suggested that Custer's personal flag along with several troop guidons were taken, but that the regimental flag was not captured. A regimental flag subsequently turned up at the Custer Battlefield National Monument in Crow Agency, Montana, but it has never been verified that this was the flag at Little Big Horn. There is also a rumor that the 7th Cavalry lost its colors in Korea. This can be tracked back to the 7th's association with the 1st Cavalry Division.
Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History - Originally prepared by DAMH-HSO [laterDAMH-FPO] 12 October 1989
Much of the information on this page would not be possible without the generous help from the two gentlemen below. The original text can be found here.
Mike Nugent (as Colonel William Gamble) and J. David Petruzzi (as Colonel Thomas C. Devin) with their guidons and pennants atop McPherson Ridge in Gettysburg. Left to right, the flags are: Devin’s 2nd Brigade pennant, Gamble’s 1st Brigade pennant, Buford’s Division guidon, and the National colors guidon. Taken in April 2001, this was likely the first time these flags have flown at McPherson Ridge again since Buford’s stand here on July 1, 1863.
J. David Petruzzi is a noted American Civil War cavalry historian and author. Petruzzi wrote the historical text for one of the U.S. Army's recruiting pieces for modern armored and air cavalry. He has instructed U.S. soldiers and soldiers of various nations on Civil War era battlefield tactics and their application to modern maneuvers. He is the author of many magazine articles on Civil War cavalry topics. Petruzzi is a popular speaker at Civil War Roundtables and related conferences, conducts living history programs as a Civil War cavalry officer, and gives detailed tours of battlefields and related sites. A reenactor for many years, Petruzzi has appeared as a main character in two Civil War documentary movies. You can see his blog "Hoofbeats and Cold Steel" here.
Mike Nugent is a Lieutenant on the Westbrook Police force, a tour guide at the Joshua Chamberlain Museum, and portrays a Civil War Cavalry officer in living history presentations in Gettysburg. A long time student of the Gettysburg Campaign, Mr. Nugent is also a retired US Army Armored Cavalry Officer and the descendant of a Civil War Cavalry soldier. He has previously written for several military publications and co-authored "One Continuous Fight".
Many thanks for your help with this guidons page and for your continued efforts in preserving our military history and traditions!