Civil War Top 100

Flags of the 28th Massachusetts

During the Civil War, each federal infantry regiment was generally issued two flags: a state color and a national color.

State colors typically had plain fields with state seals positioned prominently in the center. In the first year of the war, these flags came in a wide variety of colors and non-regulation patterns. Some states instead issued copies of the dark blue U.S. regimental flag, bearing an "army eagle" in the center, a ribbon inscribed with the unit's designation in its beak.

National colors were the familiar stars and stripes. They featured 34 stars early in the war, with additional stars added as new states entered the union after 1863. The stars, often gold in color, were positioned in a variety of ways on the blue canton, sometimes surrounding a state seal. The regimental name was typically printed in gold or white lettering along the fourth, or middle, red stripe.

Flags were not just for show. They were vital field markers that readily identified unit positions for men in the ranks and their officers, as well as for aides carrying orders for brigade commanders. Without their flags in sight, it would be easy for all of them to become disoriented amidst the powder smoke and broken terrain, and fall out of formation.

Beyond their practical uses, flags boosted regimental pride and morale. They were considered the very heart and soul of the regiment itself. Presented as they so often were in the context of a formal ceremony accompanied by patriotic speeches and displays, flags symbolized the hopes and aspirations of the men, and the cause they were fighting to uphold.

Carrying the colors was considered the highest honor for enlisted men, since it meant entrusting the safety and upkeep of these revered symbols to a select few. A regiment's two flag bearers and color guard were carefully selected by the commanding officer. Among the privileges they enjoyed was being excused from most drill and fatigue duties when they were not engaged in battle.

Being a color bearer was also among the most dangerous of assignments, since flags made inviting targets for enemy rifles and artillery. In the thick of fighting, especially during a charge, those assigned to the color guard were usually among the first to fall, and many are the stories of brave men readily scooping regimental banners from the hands of wounded comrades, only to be hit themselves just moments later.

Two color sergeants of the 28th Massachusetts gave their lives bearing regimental flags: Sgt. John J. McDonald, killed at James Island on June 16, 1862, and Sgt. Peter Welsh, mortally wounded at Spotsylvania on May 18, 1864. Another color sergeant, Henry Fraser, was seriously wounded at Hatcher's Run on March 25, 1865.

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