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Battle flags used by the American military are a special category of flags unto themselves.  Prior to the Mexican War in the late 1840s, American military units typically did not carry American flags into battle.  The primary use of flags in this early epoch was for Navy and maritime use.  By the 1840s, Army units began to carry the Stars and Stripes, but surviving examples from this era are extremely rare.  American flags for commercial or home use during the pre-Civil War era was almost non-existent.  It wasn't until the Civil War that the use of the Stars and Stripes for military, commercial, and home use became mainstream in American culture.  American battle flags in particular, both in the Stars and Stripes format, and in the heraldic eagle forms used for headquarters flags, saw widespread use during the Civil War, and the practice continues to this day.  Recognizing an American battle flag is sometimes challenging, but those gathered from the Rare Flags collection and presented here should help you identify them. 

The most common indicators of a Army battle flag made for use by ground forces include:

  • The presence of fringe around the borders of a flag
  • Embroidered, gilt-painted, or silk sewn stars
  • Hoists that consist of the stripe or colored material, rather than a separate white hoist
  • The presence of ribbon-like ties or a sleeve along the hoist edge of the flag
  • A large, nearly square shape, which often indicates a regimental color
  • The use of silk fabric in the flag's construction
     


 

38 Stars, Regimental Battle Flag
Indian Wars Period, Colored Hoist,
Fringe, Sleeve Hoist, Rectangular Regulation Size
44 Stars, Regimental Battle Flag
Late Indian Wars Period,
Stripes to Hoist,
Fringe, Silk Ties, Regulation Size
45 Stars, Regimental Battle Flag,
Spanish-American War Period, Stripes to Hoist, Metallic Bullion Stars, Bullion Fringe, Silk Ties, Silk Fabric, Regulation Size

 

34 Stars, Presentation Color Company Battle Flag, Civil War Period, Stripes to Hoist, Fringe, Sleeve Hoist, Silk Fabric, Silk Stars 34 Stars, Company Battle Flag,
L Co. 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry,
Civil War Period, Colored Hoist, Fringe, Sleeve Hoist, Silk Fabric, Gilt Painted Stars
34 Stars, Presentation Color, A Company, 16th New York Infantry, Civil War Period, Colored Hoist, Sleeve Hoist, Silk Fabric, Silk Stars
 
35 Stars, Company Battle Flag,
Civil War Period,
Stripes to Hoist,
Fringe, Silk Fabric, Gilt Stars
39 Stars, Company Battle Flag,
Indian Wars Period, Stripes to Hoist,
Fringe, Silk Fabric, Sleeve Hoist, Gilt Stars
46 Stars, Company Battle Flag,
Peace Time, Silk Thread-Embroidered Stars, Fringe, Silk Fabric, Silk Ties

 

13 Stars, Flank Marker,
Civil War Period, Stripes to Hoist,
Sleeve Hoist, Silk Fabric, Gilt Stars
35 Stars, Union Camp Color,
Civil War Period, Stripes to Hoist,Tacked to Staff, Printed on Wool
38 Stars, US 2nd Infantry Regiment, Indian Wars Period, Embroidered Stars, Stripes to Hoist, Sleeve Hoist, Silk Fabric
38 Stars, Updated to 42 Stars, 1876-1890
Indian Wars Period, Stripes to Hoist, Silk Fabric, Gilt Stars
44 Stars, 1891-1896
Stripes to Hoist, Silk Fabric, Gilt Stars, Silk Ties
 

328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division
World War I
1st Battalion, 314th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division
World War II

Unlike Army flags which were made of materials such as silk and often feature very decorative elements such as fringe and gilt stars, Navy flags more closely resemble traditional American flags used commercially or for home use.  Navy flags are often made of wool, which is more suitable to the harsh briny, moist conditions aboard a ship. 

The most common indicators of a Navy battle flag made for use by naval forces at sea include:

  • Fine quality wool bunting
  • The use of 13 stars in specific patterns:  4-5-4 patterns in the pre-Civil War and Civil War period, 3-2-3-2-3 in the Civil War period through the early 20th century
  • Markings on the hoist, such as Mare Island or New York Navy Yard
  • Standard sizes based on Navy regulations
     


 

20 Stars (2nd Official Pattern, Late 1818) 26 Stars, Printed Silk,
Navy Master Samuel Reid's Great Star Pattern
Descended in the Family of
Commodore Stephen Decatur
30 Stars with Commissioning Pennant,
USS Mississippi
 
13 Stars, New York Navy Yard,
No. 7, 190
4
48 Stars, No. 12
USS PT-560 Battle Flag
World War II
48 Stars, Navy Battle Flag,
World War II to Cold War Period

Next:
13 Star Flags

 


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