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What were the Civil War branch colors?

The American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, saw the United States divided into the Union states of the North and the Confederate states of the South. Both sides in the conflict established their own armed forces, with their own distinct uniforms and insignia. The different branches of the Union and Confederate armies each had characteristic colors that helped identify them on the battlefield and became an important part of their identity and lore.

Union Army Branch Colors

The Union Army, also known as the United States Army or the Federal Army, primarily wore different shades of blue for uniforms. Blue coats with buff-colored facings were the standard uniform at the beginning of the war. Here are the representative branch colors of the main Unions Army combat branches:

Branch Colors
Infantry Dark blue
Artillery Scarlet
Cavalry Yellow
Engineers Scarlet

Infantry soldiers bore dark blue coats with light blue trousers. Artillery regiments had scarlet red piping and facings to distinguish themselves from the infantry. The cavalry adopted yellow as their branch color, seen on hat plumes, piping, and other uniform accents. Engineers also wore scarlet fittings to denote their specialized role building bridges, roads, and fortifications.

Confederate Army Branch Colors

The Confederate States Army wore varied shades of gray and butternut brown on their uniforms. Like the Union, the different branches had their own representative colors that distinguished them in the field:

Branch Colors
Infantry Light blue
Artillery Scarlet
Cavalry Yellow

Confederate infantry wore light or sky blue trim on their coats and kepis headgear. Artillery continued the tradition of using scarlet accents. The cavalry retained yellow as their identifying color, seen on hat plumes, piping, and other places. While Union engineers had red, special Confederate engineer troops wore white or silver insignia.

Origins and Meanings of the Colors

The colors adopted by each nation’s army branches had both practical and symbolic origins. Here is some background on the distinctive colors:

  • Dark Blue (Union Infantry) – The dark blue coats of Union infantry echoed the blue continental army uniforms of the Revolutionary War era. Blue was a practical color that helped conceal soldiers in forests and fields. It also had patriotic connotations going back to the Sons of Liberty and the blue flags with white stars used early in American history.
  • Light Blue (Confederate Infantry) – Light blue had been used by many militia units in the South before the war. It matched the blue shades on the Confederate national flag. Light blue helped Confederate infantry blend into hazy landscapes while differentiating them from the dark blue Union troops.
  • Scarlet (Artillery) – Bright red piping and accents for artillery units helped them stand out on crowded battlefields. The flashy color helped identify critical artillery support during the confusion of combat. Red’s boldness also reflected the aggressive, offensive role of artillery branches.
  • Yellow (Cavalry) – Yellow had long been associated with cavalry soldiers across the world. In heraldry tradition, yellow represented the golden spurs worn by many cavaliers. Yellow accessories helped identify mounted troops rapidly traversing battlefields. The bright color also suits the speed, precision, and elite status of cavalry units.

Beyond practical identification, the colors took on deeper meaning for the soldiers over time. Each branch gained pride and esprit de corps from the distinctive uniforms of their service. The representative colors became part of regiments’ shared histories and identities.

Individual Regimental Colors

In addition to the standard colors for each branch, individual infantry and artillery regiments had their own variation of piping, facings, and accents that made their uniforms unique. Here are some examples of regimental colors on both sides:

Regiment Branch Colors
1st Virginia Infantry Infantry Dark green
5th New York Infantry (Duryée’s Zouaves) Infantry Red
Jeff Davis Artillery (Alabama) Artillery Black
1st Rhode Island Artillery Artillery Light blue

The variety of regimental colors created a rainbow effect of identifying features across each army. It allowed individual units to take pride in their own unique flair. Specific colors were linked to particular battle honors and histories. For example, the Zouaves regiments on both sides favored bold red caps and piping to pay homage to elite French light infantry units that had first worn the colors decades earlier.

Flags and Guidons of the Civil War

In addition to uniforms, branch colors were displayed on the flags and guidons carried into battle by various units. These helped identify and locate regiments amidst the chaos of combat. Here are some of the representative flags and their meanings:

  • U.S. National Colors – The American flag with white stars on a blue canton and red & white stripes was carried by Union infantry regiments. The Stars and Stripes affirmed their fight to preserve the United States.
  • Confederate Battle Flag – The red flag with a blue “Southern Cross” design was used by many Confederate army units. It symbolized rebellion against the Union and a uniquely Southern cause.
  • Cavalry Guidons – Triangle-shaped cavalry flags came in either swallow-tailed or fork-tailed versions. They bore the branch colors like Artillery (red) or Cavalry (yellow).
  • Infantry Regimental Colors – Rectangular blue infantry flags were emblazoned with an individual regiment’s unique insignia, name, state, and number.

In the noise, chaos, and heavy gunsmoke of Civil War battlefields, flags and guidons were crucial for directing units in combat. Their bright colors and designs helped rally men amidst the din. Carrying the banners into danger was a matter of regimental honor and pride.

The Colors Carried On

The Civil War branch colors took on greater resonance after the conflict ended in Confederate defeat. The different colors became part of regimental lore and identity. Veterans organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic and United Confederate Veterans adopted the blue, gray, red, and yellow schemes. Collecting and displaying preserved battle flags was an important tradition for postwar veterans groups on both sides, affirming their service.

The branch colors are carried on by active U.S. Army units that trace lineages back to Civil War regiments. For example, the 101st Airborne Division currently wears shoulder patches with dual blue and white stripes, a nod to the 2nd Michigan Infantry from which it originally descended. Each set of colors represents a proud legacy passed down for over 150 years since the Civil War.


The symbolic branch colors of the Union and Confederate armies helped add cohesion, esprit de corps, and tradition to the young volunteer forces assembled in 1861. Blue, red, yellow, and other colors helped identify different combat roles on battlefields. They took on deeper meaning and honor for individual regiments over time. The distinctions gave a new nation and revolution fresh icons to rally around and fight for. The branch colors remain a visual legacy of the Civil War still honored today.