Division Patches

Article excerpt

On June 14, we celebrate the 236th birthday of the United States Army, many of us in the presence of soldiers proudly wearing division patches on their shoulders. If on their left sleeve, these represent their current unit; if on their right, a unit in which they served in combat. More than a few will be "sandwiches," bearing the same division patch on both sleeves. For veterans standing tall in their uniforms, campaign ribbons tell us where they were, personal awards suggest what they did and division patches tell us who they were with. All are points of pride and quicken the pulse of those who know how to read them.

The imperative of identifying an individual's unit is at least as ancient as the regulated symbols Spartans placed on their shields. Until the time of the American Civil War, unique and colorful battalion and regimental uniforms generally fulfilled this purpose. Units followed their flags in Napoleonic array, and senior commanders monitored their activities from convenient vantage points. By the middle of the Civil War, the sizes of armies, ranges of weapons, dimensions of battlefields and an emerging preference for drabness when under fire encouraged a change of method. Something that could be seen by nearby friendlies without drawing undue attention from more distant enemies seemed in order. Union MG Joseph Hooker draws criticism for an initiative or two that worked out less than well, but he was capable overall and did impose an appropriate system for battlefield identification on the Army of the Potomac. Each corps received an insignia, often worn on the top of the hat, with a specific geometric design. Each division within a corps was assigned its own color for the design. Thus soldiers of the 1st Division of the First Corps wore a red disc, those of the 2nd Division a white disc and so on. The insignia proved useful to commanders and also became a source of esprit de corps among those who wore them.

Civil War divisions and corps disappeared without lineage in the downsizing that followed, as did the divisions and corps of the much briefer Spanish- American War. Americans preparing to fight in World War I hastily constructed division and corps overheads atop the regimental structure that had fought the Indian Wars. Arriving in France, they found the British and French already far down the path MG Hooker had envisioned with respect to distinctive insignia. American units hastily improvised markings, variously applied to headgear and dothing. The matter came to a head when the 81st Division shipped to France. Consisting largely of Carolinians for whom the wildcat was a respected local predator, the division arrived at port with a patch bearing a wildcat on every soldier's shoulder. This provoked a series of snits concerning authorized and unauthorized wear until GEN John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, decided that shoulder patches were the solution to his unit identification problem. The 81st Division got to keep theirs, and other divisions were directed to follow suit. Corps and nondivisional units came up with their own shoulder patches as well.

The World War I scramble to field unique and meaningful patches featured more than a little serendipity, expansiveness and whimsy. The Big Red One chosen by the 1st Division was obvious enough, and the color hearkened back to the 1st Divisions of the Civil War. The originals, however, were cut from the red cloth of captured German field caps, hardly a reliable source of supply. The 2nd Division chose a stylized Indian head in a star as a uniquely American symbol, but promulgated a bewildering array of background shapes and colors to accommodate subordinate units. The 3rd Division added parallel white stripes for each of its major operations after the fact. The 4th Division was clever enough to equate symbolic ivy with the Roman numeral IV. The 5th Division took to the logo of a then-popular commercial company; they liked its motto, "Diamond Dye - it never runs. …