ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. " Victory on the battlefield depends principally on swift and coordinated troop movement. In the past, Soldiers followed the cadence and instruction of the color guard, led by the color sergeant.
With hundreds or thousands of men involved in the heat of battle, the significance of the color sergeant and his ability to carry the flag, rally the troops and fearlessly face death cannot be exaggerated.
This was especially true during the Civil War. Because of their strategic value (and their visibility), the color sergeant was a ready target. Although normally protected by six corporals, it remained a very dangerous assignment. Yet the position and title held special significance amongst the troops, and it was considered a high honor usually reserved for the bravest and strongest soldiers. The flags they carried represented the reputation of the unit, and were not to be surrendered.
During the Battle of the Wilderness (fought between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee) in Virginia, both sides suffered heavy casualties, including a Union color sergeant during the close, intense fighting. Sgt. Charles E. Morse saw his color sergeant perish, virtually surrounded by the enemy. Morse rushed to the fallen Soldier, grabbed the colors and raised them into the air. He continued the rallying cry through the entire battle, earning him the Medal of Honor. Many other Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for similar action during the Civil War.
Because of the extreme danger and improvements in firearm accuracy, the Army abolished the rank of color sergeant. However, the need for a color guard did not diminish, as the drills and ceremonies Soldiers participate in today share the values of the past. Each regiment had two flags, the U.S. and organizational colors. To ensure the men knew the flag of their regiment, both flags were carried before them during drills and ceremonies. From this practice developed the modern color guard.
Now the honor of color sergeant belongs to the unit’s senior enlisted member, the “keeper of the colors.” In garrison, the colors are normally kept at the headquarters. Down range, the colors are normally displayed from reveille to retreat in front of the commanding officer’s tent or command post. As units deploy their colors are “cased” before they move, and subsequently “uncased” once in the field, signifying readiness to conduct combat operations.
The same ceremony takes place when headquarters move. The Pentagon's 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process directed First Army to close its headquarters at Fort Gillem, Ga., and move to the Rock Island Arsenal. “Right now our colors are not flying in front of First Army headquarters; they are not on display in the building.” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jesse L. Andrews, Jr. “When we uncase the colors and put them on display, that means the move is complete and First Army is officially conducting business on Rock Island.”
Andrews is First Army’s keeper of the colors, a responsibility he takes very seriously. “Our colors serve as a rallying point for all of the soldiers of the unit; it is the heart and soul of our soldiers. I make sure that wherever the commander is, the colors are always carried, presented and displayed properly.”
Andrews will uncase the organizational colors with the commander, Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, July 21. The ceremony will highlight almost 100 years of rich history, including General John J. Pershing leading First Army troops into France in World War I, to General Omar N. Bradley commanding First Army Soldiers on Normandy Beach in WWII. That historical lineage continues today, training reserve and active duty Soldiers for worldwide deployment.
During the uncasing ceremony the organizational color is unfurled, revealing its battle streamers. The concept of battle streamers came to prominence during the Civil War, when individual units embroidered the names of battles in which they fought on their flag. An official system was adopted by the Army in 1921.
“The battle streamers signify a historical representation of a unit's participation in the battles and campaigns of American history and represent the blood, sweat and tears of those who fought alongside the flag; it is emblematic of the Esprit de Corps in the unit,” Andrews said.
The ceremony itself is rather quick, but the historical importance is evident. “As the commander and myself uncase the colors,” Andrews continued, “the message is of First Army Headquarters acknowledging responsibility as the senior command team here, and we’re ready to go to work, not only on Rock Island, but to do our nation’s will, which is continuing to train all of our guard and reserve forces throughout the Army.”
The “keeper of the colors” looks forward to working for First Army in a new location.
“I am very impressed with the level of community support our Soldiers, their families and the headquarters has received,” said Andrews. “I have seen nothing but the potential for greatness in building a strong, positive relationship between the communities in the Quad Cities and the First Army team, and the warm reception our Soldiers and families received from the Quad Cities has been unbelievable. We all look forward to working with them in the future to make it even better.”
(U.S. Army photos by Mr. Scott Curtis)