Colors, Part Two
Advancing the colors
This week we’ll tackle the color guard’s role in moving an infantry battalion. To briefly reiterate: The color guard is part of the color company, the members are assigned one or a two, and do everything rank and file does in terms of doubling and undoubling, up to the point when a battalion front is formed. This is what it looks like when the battalion is formed in line of battle:
At some point it becomes time for the battalion to move forward. There is a tedious process for laying out the points on the desired direction of march, for drilling purposes, in Casey’s. Rather than get bogged down in that – bog yourself down this spring at battalion drill if you want, it’s good exercise – we’ll just take the practical example of the Confederates on the third day at Gettysburg: Most of the battalions were aimed at the clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge. When the command came for a regiment to advance, several things happen at once:
- The first half of the command is “Battalion, forward”. Casey (School of the Battalion, 653.) says that with this command, the front rank of the color guard – three men, a color sergeant and two color corporals, step out six paces to the front, while the rear rank corporals in the color guard move into the front rank and the three who were file closers, in the manuals, step into the rear rank. The color sergeant has been given his target by a field grade officer – ie., the battalions colonel, lieutenant colonel or major; he knows where the battalion is to go and the battalion will guide on his flag.
- The rest of the rank and file DO NOT MOVE YET.
- The next command is “MARCH.” Now, and only now, does the entire battalion steps forward and march, in step. Dress is to the colors, that is, “center dress”.
- This is where the color guard comes into its own. The front rank is out there, with the color sergeant keeping his eyes on the clump of trees, the barn, the road junction: whatever he was told. The second rank of the color guard MUST stay directly behind them. This can be a tough job, as a battalion not used to moving in line, or a battalion trying to cover rough ground going across lots, will twist and turn and shift left or right. This is usually the time when someone who just doesn’t get any of it shouts out to the color guard front rank “Hey, you’re too far to the right! (left!)” That guy is trying to wag the dog, the dog being the color sergeant. That guy is going to put the battalion into an unredeemable condition of exflunctification. Don’t be like that guy. If you’re a noncom, shush that guy, quietly, remind him he is marching to the step so his job is to keep his place in line, stay in step, and BE QUIET. Not so the corporals in the color guard; they can call out what needs to be done for them to stay directly behind the color guard.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many assertive corporals. I know corporals who are diligent and who are hard workers and who know drill, but not many who are the kind of confident, assertive extrovert you actually need at this time and place.
We can compensate for that, but it won’t be a period solution. It will be an expedient solution.
We often get by with six in the color guard instead of nine; in fact, the third rank seems to be a vestigial remnant of the days when regiments were in line of battle three ranks deep. However, immediately at hand, we have the second sergeant for the color company. A few feet away we have another second sergeant behind the next company on the right; with our small companies, it’s only a few yards. And down at the end of the battalion, really not far away if you have the typically small reenacting battalion, you have a sergeant major who probably doesn’t have much to do if the company noncoms on that end are keeping the alignment. So when the rear rank of the color guard steps up and becomes the front rank, one way to usefully refill the rear rank of the rank and file would be for the sergeant major take the center spot in the rear rank, flanked by those two second sergeants. I know a lot of quiet corporals, but no quiet sergeant majors. It simply isn’t done. And that’s what we need. We need a sergeant major with a voice that carries like a bullwhip and a vocabulary like a mule driver, someone who will immediately shut down all the random and contradictory chatter and reassure the quiet corporals they do, indeed, stay behind the colors. It looks like this:
With this arrangement, the battalion might look like it has a battle flag in front and a bright blue pulsing light and doomsday thunder in the line right behind it, but the odds are good the battle line will be straight and true. I have, when assigned as sergeant major at this or that event, moved to this spot as a de facto expediency, assessing the color guard as the inevitable center of all possible woe on an otherwise happy afternoon, and taking the initiative, as the chief noncom, to put myself at the point of confusion, sort it out, and make sure the battalion is doing what the colonel needs to have done.
Remember the discussion about some ranks deciding what needs to be done and others making sure it gets done properly? This is that, on a regimental scale. This is the dictum that you have as much authority as you need to get the job done. It is not according to Hoyle or Casey, but Hoyle and Casey weren’t dealing with weekend warriors. The end result is one Casey would approve: A straight battle line moving in the right direction, with every musket capable of being brought to bear when the shooting starts.
(Caveat: The sergeant-major ploy is just reenactment expediency. And if you don’t need that ploy, great!)
FYI, There is much more that needs to be done, all available in Casey’s School of the Battalion, Part V, starting Section 652 with “Battalion, forward”. Among other things, the captains on the left wing shift from the right end of their companies to the left, so they can look to the center and make sure their company is on line.
The color rank, out in front of the battalion by six paces, should have a major to one side or the other to direct them if things get wacky. That bring home this guiding principle: The colors have become a battalion tool.
And none of this needs to be loud. Case tells us, “If openings be formed, if the files crowd each other, if, in short, disorder ensues, the remedy ought to be applied as promptly as possible, but calmly, with few words and as little noise as practicable.” Section 681
The other discussions we’ve had about the absolute necessity of communication? Here it is coming up again: The colonel must tell both the color bearer and the sergeant major, and the major if there’s going to be one out there near the color guard, what the target is. And the colonel must be comfortable with the sergeant major asserting himself with overseeing implementation while the colonel focuses on what the battalion is going to have to do next and what the battalions on each side are doing. Otherwise this is for naught.
So, there it is: Don’t wag the dog. Wag the dog and the sergeant major will bite you.
Next week: Yikes! What happens when the battalion halts? First hint: Patience becomes a virtue.
Meanwhile: Am I ever going to write about civilians and food and camping and stuff? Yes. Patience is again a virtue. The blog is published every Tuesday at 9:22 a.m.; when we get into the active season, it may come out more frequently to include stuff relevant to the upcoming or just past event.