Saturday, June 13, 2020

Corps Badges - Ready Recognition

When the American Civil War began there was no formal method for a United States Army military organization to distinguish itself from another. Tradition attributes the conceptual idea of a corps badge to Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny from the Army of the Potomac. Kearny, a veteran of the Mexican-American War who had lost an arm in that conflict, supposedly became frustrated when on a retreat he could not tell his division’s soldiers from others. Apparently soon thereafter, men started wearing a red piece of cloth cut into the shape of a “lozenge” or diamond. Kearny received a mortal wound at the Battle of Chantilly (also known as Ox Hill) on September 1, 1862, but the idea of an army-wide system of corps badges was born.

During the spring of 1863, the Army of the Potomac, now under the command of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, instituted a formal system of identifying the army’s various corps. Apparently, Hooker’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Daniel Butterfield worked out the basics of the badge system for the army. Each corps of the Army of the Potomac was designated with a shape or symbol. For example, the I Corps was a sphere or circle, the II Corp was a trefoil (clover), the III Corps inherited the lozenge, and the V Corps a Maltese Cross, etc. In addition, a color denoted each division of each corps. The first division was red, the second division was white, and the third division was blue. Therefore, for instance, one could recognize the second division of the I Corps by its white sphere, and so on.

The corps badges were often no more than shaped swatches of colored cloth that soldiers often sewed onto their hat or cap. However some soldiers also sewed corps badges to their uniform jackets, and some decorated their canteen covers or knapsacks with painted corps symbols.    

Soon, other Union field armies adopted the corps badge system, although they sometimes incorporated different colors than the Army of the Potomac’s red, white, and blue scheme.

Among the collections at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier there are a number of corps badge examples. One, shown here, is from the Army of James’ X Corps. Constructed of brass, it contains a blue center, indicating that its wearer was from that corps’ third division. The Third Division of the X Corps was composed primarily of men serving in various regiments of United States Colored Infantry.

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