Civil War Corps Badges

During the Civil War the Corps badges made out of colored cloth were issued to soldiers and typically worn on top of kepis. In addition to these many soldiers privately purchased higher quality badges, which were often worn over the left breast pocket. These were often engraved with the soldier's name and regiment and doubled as identification. These additional privately purchased badges were not officially approved. These badges exist in nearly endless variations and were jeweler made in small numbers.

The idea of corps badges undoubtedly had its origin with General Philip Kearny, but just how or exactly when is somewhat legendary and uncertain. men who served under him tell widely differing stories of the origin of the ' Kearny Patch,' yet all agreeing as to the author of the idea, and also in its application being made first to officers.

General E. D. Townsend, late Adjutant-General of the United States Army, in his "Anecdotes of the Civil War," adopted an explanation which is substantially correct. He says: - "One day, when his brigade was on the march, General Philip Kearny, who was a strict disciplinarian, saw some officers standing under a tree by the roadside; supposing them to be stragglers from his command, he administered to them a rebuke, emphasized by a few expletives. The officers listened in silence, respectfully standing in the 'position of a soldier' until he had finished, when one of them, raising his hand to his cap, quietly suggested that the general had possibly made a mistake, as they none of them belonged to his command. With his usual courtesy, Kearny exclaimed, ' Pardon me; I will take steps to know how to recognize my own men hereafter.' Immediately on reaching camp, he issued orders that all officers and men of his brigade should wear conspicuously on the front of their caps a round piece of red cloth to designate them. This became generally known as the 'Kearny Patch.'"

General Townsend is incorrect in saying that Kearny issued orders immediately on reaching camp for all "officers and men" to wear the patch; first, because the testimony of officers of the old Third Corps to-day is that the order was first directed to officers only, and this would be in harmony with the explanation which I have quoted; and, second, after the death of Kearny and while his old division was lying at Fort Lyon, Va., Sept. 4, 1862, General D. B. Birney, then in command of it, issued a general order. General Kearny did not specify the lozenge as the shape of the badge to be worn, as some claim; for, had such been the case, so punctilious a man as General Birney would not have referred in general orders to a lozenge as " a piece of scarlet cloth," nor have given the option of having the crown-piece of the cap made of scarlet cloth if the lamented Kearny's instructions had originally been to wear a lozenge. This being so, General Townsend's quoted description of the badge as "a round piece of red cloth " is probably erroneous.

Soon after these emblems came into vogue among the officers there is strong traditional testimony to show that the men of the rank and file, without general orders, of their own accord cut pieces of red from their overcoat linings, or obtained them from other sources to make patches for themselves ; and, as to the shape, there are weighty reasons for believing that any piece of red fabric, of whatsoever shape, was considered to answer the purpose.

These red patches took immensely with the "boys." Kearny was a rough soldier in speech, but a perfect daredevil in action, and his men idolized him. Hence they were only too proud to wear a mark which should distinguish them as members of his gallant division. It was said to have greatly reduced the straggling in this body, and also to have secured for the wounded or dead that fell into the Rebels' hands a more favorable and considerate attention.

There was a special reason why Kearny should select a red patch for his men, although it is seldom referred to. On the 24th of March, 1862, General MeClellan issued a general order prescribing the kinds of flags that should designate corps, division, and brigade headquarters. In this he directed that the First Division flag should be a red one, six feet by five ; the Second Division blue, and the Third Division a red and blue one; both of the same dimensions as the first. As Kearny commanded the First Division, he would naturally select the same color of patch as his flag. Hence the red patch.

The contagion to wear a distinguishing badge extended widely from this simple beginning. It was the most natural thing that could happen for other divisions to be jealous of any innovation which, by comparison, should throw them into the background, for by that time the esprit de corps, the pride of organization, had begun to make itself felt.

Realizing this fact, and regarding it as a manifestation that might be turned to good account, Major-General Joseph Hooker promulgated a scheme of army corps badges on the 21st of March, 1863, which was the first systematic plan submitted in this direction in the armies. When General Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac Jan. 26, 1863, he selected General Daniel Butterfield for his Chief of Staff. The army at this time was considerably discouraged and demoralized by the useless slaughter at the battle of Fredericksburg and the melancholy failure of Burnside's "stick-in-the-mud" march. General Butterfield was a firm believer in the advantage of the esprit dc corps and fertile in resources for producing it. It existed in a limited way in companies, regiments, and possibly in some few brigades, but these organizations lost their identity in the great army. The "Grand Divisions" of "Right," "Left" and "Center," were armies in themselves, and too large to make possible any feeling of unity between their component parts. There had been army corps before, but it seems to have been determined by General Hooker to abandon the "Grand Division" idea and make the Army Corps the unit for military operations.

During this period of reorganization, General Butterfield devised the system of corps badges, to be fastened upon the centre of the top of the cap, for the purpose of ready recognition of corps and divisions in the Army of the Potomac, and to prevent injustice by reports of straggling and misconduct, as well as for the purpose of recognizing not only those engaged in conflict with the enemy, but those who might be left on the field among the killed and wounded. Butterfield, it is said, had much to do with designing and perfecting the first scheme of badges for the army, which appears in the circular "Headquarters Army Of The Potomac. Circular. March 21, 1863": -

For the purpose of ready recognition of corps and divisions of the army, and to prevent injustice by reports of straggling and misconduct through mistake as to their organizations, the chief quartermaster will furnish, without delay, the following badges, to be worn by the officers and enlisted men of all the regiments of the various corps mentioned. They will be securely fastened upon the centre of the top of the cap. The inspecting officers will at all inspections see that these badges are worn as designated.

First Corps - a sphere: red for First Division; white for Second; blue for Third.
Second Corps - a trefoil: red for First Division; white for Second; blue for Third.
Third Corps - a lozenge: red for First Division; white for Second; blue for Third.
Fifth Corps - a Maltese cross: red for First Division; white for Second; blue for Third.
Sixth Corps - a cross: red for First Division; white for Second; blue for Third. (Light Division, green.)
Eleventh Corps - a crescent: red for First Division; white for Second; blue for Third.
Twelfth Corps - a star: red for First Division; white for Second; blue for Third.

Accompanying this order were paper patterns pasted on a fly-leaf, illustrating the size and color required. Diligent inquiry and research in the departments at Washington fail to discover any of the patterns referred to, or their dimensions; but there are veterans who preserved the first badge issued to them in pursuance of this circular, from which it is inferred that the patterns were of a size to please the eye rather than to conform to any uniform scale of measurement. As a matter of fact, neither size nor shape were rigidly or even closely adhered to in many cases, so that there are frequent disputes as to the exact correctness of many of the old corps marks so carefully preserved by their original owners. To settle all disputes, one may say that there was considerable variations in the sizes and shapes at various periods.

Join the mailing list