Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Capture the Flag, Cont’d

June 17th, 2010 · No Comments

In response to the previous post regarding a biker gang’s seemingly childish obsession with stealing their rivals’ sew-on patches, a few sharp readers pointed out that this game was once the essence of warfare. One, in particular, mentioned the following:

I’m definitely no Civil War expert, but I believe more medals were awarded during the Civil War for capturing or saving flags than for any other reason.

We’re no Civil War experts, either—we always defer to more learned scholars of the conflict—but we decided to take a stab at determining the veracity of our dear reader’s claim. As it turns out, he’s absolutely correct, at least in terms of Medals of Honor:

Out of 1,520 Medal of Honor actions during the Civil War, 467 were given to men who either defended the flag of their side or captured a flag of the Confederate. Some “seized the colors” from fallen comrades and with them rallied their comrades still standing. Others struck out to the foremost part of the line and proved their “soldier-like qualities” by returning with the flag of the enemy…

Bringing the flag bearer down, everyone knew, was the most effective way of dismantling an attack. Not only did the loss of a color-bearer demoralize a regiment, it created confusion by leaving in question exactly where the point of attack lay. Both officers and enlisted men relied on the flying colors to define the position of the regiment and its progress. As a regiment advanced, they followed the flag. The command “rally ’round the flag” was used not simply to inspire patriotism, but to prevent a rout. Many color-bearers fell. Very few held the job throughout the war.

We somehow doubt that the grizzled members of the Outlaws MC are aware of this fact, nor the lengthy history of battlefield symbol seizure that stretches back to Imperial Rome (at least). But all contests require tangible symbols in order to invest them with the appropriate meaning. Civilized contests, such as athletic tournaments, create symbols that are held and awarded by independent bodies. Less civilized contests, like those involving warring biker gangs, must settle for thievery.

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