Press "Enter" to skip to content

To The Color

To The Color is sounded today as a salute to the National colors.

To The Color (Unison Bugles)

The earliest notation of the modern call is found in the 1874 U.S. Army Infantry manual (Upton Manual). The call can be sounded in unison by assembled buglers or by one. When a band is not present, To The Color is sounded in place of The Star-Spangled Banner. Military members render a hand salutes and face the flag or music.

To the Color 1874 Upton Manual

The call has had two uses over the years. One to bring the regimental standard or flag out and salute it. The other was to form into an organized formation for battle or review.

The first authentic instance of a command being given by a trumpet (bugle) call was at the Battle of Bouvines, where Philip Augustus of France defeated Otto IV of Germany in 1214, when the trumpets sounded the signal for the victorious French charge. According to Markman in his Soldires Accidence, one of the  signals listed was: ”A la Standard” To The Standard or Color

Cesare Bendinelli (c. 1542–1617) in his “The Entire Art of Trumpet Playing” in 1614 lists Alla stendardo. “To the Standard” “Call for falling into rank against the enemy; you can play [only] part [of it] or more as it seems [fitting] to you; you can also take the occasion of playing it in the field as a sarasinetta.”-Translation by Edward H. Tarr.

In 1632 Marin Mersenne published Harmonicorum Instrumentarum Libri IV. Mersenne was a French polymath, whose works touched a wide variety of fields. His work included trumpet signals including A l étendard-To The Standard

Marin Mersenne A l étendard-To The Standard (1632)

The 19th century reference is “Au Drapeau” (To The Flag) found in French Infantry Manuals of 1832. It was incorporated into the United States Light Infantry Manual by General Winfield Scott as “To the Colour.” The call is No. 3 in the Scott Manual following “The General” which is an alert to pack up and prepare to move and “The Assembly”, the signal to form up in ranks on the company streets.

To The Colour 1835 Scott manual
To The Colour (Color)

“To the Colour” is the bugle call for the companies to march to the parade ground to form as a full regiment. In other words, “march to the flag or color.” The colors (national ensign and regimental flag) are pre-positioned on the parade ground and the companies form in line on either side. This is the way a dress parade was formed which was also the line of battle for a regiment. This routine was performed each day as a way to practice the formation of a regiment. “To the Colour” is followed in the manual by “Common Time” which is a march performed with drums to provide a cadence for the Soldiers to march to the parade ground.

It should be noted that with the exception of the “Tattoo”, all the calls used in the U.S. Infantry manuals were derived from the French manuals. The French had no Tattoo call which explains the insertion of a newer Tattoo call into the 1835 Scott Manual. That’s another article

The US Cavalry used the trumpet call “To The Standard” which was written for three parts. “Standard”, of course, means flag. The Cavalry and Artillery uses “Boots and Saddles” and “To Horse” to form the regiment. “To The Standard” is used in ceremony to salute the flag. It is performed after a presentation of sabers.

To the Standard 1842 Behn
To The Standard

Throughout the Civil War “To the Color” (The “u” is dropped in Civil War Infantry manuals) was used as the call to form companies on the regimental line. There was no official call used as a salute to the U.S. Flag in the Infantry as was prescribed in the Cavalry. And there was no national anthem at that time although The Star-Spangled Banner and Hail Columbia were considered the top national airs.

To The Color 1861

It is interesting the only Medal of Honor ever bestowed upon a musician for doing a musical activity was awarded to William Carson for bugling To The Color at Chickamauga, Georgia in September, 1863.

William Carson

His Medal of Honor citation reads: “At a critical stage in the battle when the 14th Corps lines were wavering and in disorder, Musician Carson, on his own initiative bugled “to the color(s)” amid the 18th U.S. Infantry who formed by him, and held the enemy. Within a few minutes he repeated his action amid the wavering 2d Ohio Infantry. This bugling deceived the enemy who believed reinforcements had arrived. Thus, they delayed their attack.”​

Full article can be found at:

After the Civil War the Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery continued to use the same bugle and trumpet signals. In 1874 Lt Colonel (Brevet General) Emory Upton published an updated manual based on his revisions for tactics for the U.S. Army. In the creation of his new instructor’s manual, Upton ordered Major Truman Seymour of the 5th U. S. Artillery to construct a new system of bugle calls for the military. Upton’s intention was to create a more unified system among the different branches of service so as to eliminate battlefield confusion. Major Seymour chose from among the existing calls (mostly Cavalry) still in use. Some (mostly French derived) he discarded. Others he revised. Then there are several new calls added including a new version of To The Color.  In the end, Seymour’s set of calls remains in use today.

In 1886 John Philip Sousa published his “A Book of Instructions for the Field Trumpet and Drums” In the book he included a drum part for To The Color as well as adding a Sound Off to precede and end the call.

To the Color Sousa 1886

In July 1889 General Order 374 was issued by Navy Secretary Benjamin Franklin Tracy for band music performed at Morning and Evening Colors. He prescribed The Star-Spangled Banner (not yet our national anthem at that time) for morning colors and Hail Columbia for evening colors. This music would accompany the raising and lowering of the flag. What was not specified was the bugle call to be sounded if there was no band.

The bugle music for Morning Colors and Evening Colors appears in the Book of Seamanship by Admiral Stephen Bleecker Luce in 1891. No doubt this was to be used in flag raising or lowering when no band was present. The music chosen for these was arranged by Lieutenant William McCarty Little. Little was a student of Luce’s and must have been musically inclined. Instead of using the music of To the Color for morning colors Little inserted the music President’s Call from the 1874 US Infantry manual by Emory Upton and arranged in three parts. President’s Call is based on the 1789 “The President’s March” by Philip Phile. “The President’s March” was composed for the first inauguration of George Washington and became better known as Hail Columbia when arranged with lyrics by Joseph Hopkinson in 1798.

President’s March
Morning Colors (President’s March)
Morning Colors (President’s March)

Evening colors was the bugle call of retreat which originally derived from Based on French bugle call La Retraite written by David Buhl in 1829. The call was used Act 3 of damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz in 1846. This was not to remain in use for long. The calls for morning colors and evening colors became To the Color and Retreat respectively. It remains in Naval tradition to this day with the addition of Attention sounded before and Carry On sounded afterwards. In the V.F. Safranek “Complete Instruction for Bugle, Trumpet, and Drum” (1918) it specifies only the first part of the call sounded on shipboard. This was, no doubt, due to the shorter staffs.

1918 V.F. Safranek Complete Instruction for Bugle Trumpet and Drum
US Marine Corps 1915 Instruction for Trumpet and Drum
Escorts of the National Colors US Marine Drum and Bugle Call Book 1935

The Army and Air Force now use Reveille to raise the flag in the morning and To The Color to lower the flag. Here is an article on how Retreat and To The Color are used today:

To The Color is meant to be sounded in a stationary position and is not meant to march colors in. Colors are marched to a drum cadence or a band playing but not To The Color

Below is an example of what NOT to do .

Don’t do this!

“To The Color” or “To The Colors”?? What’s in a name?

It’s as common as the incorrect rhythmic performance of Taps, the usage of the term “21-gun salute” at military funerals, or the continued recitation of the origin of that  Taps myth. The bugle call “To The Color” is commonly referred to as “To The Colors.” This is incorrect. The proper title for the call is “To The Color”, singular, referring to one flag, not the colors of the emblem. In most of the military manuals over the past 200 years (there have been a few misprints) it has been titled “To The Color” or “To The Standard”

The Navy Band has a version of To The Color for Band

Here is a version for four trumpets

One Comment

  1. Eric Schindler Eric Schindler July 2, 2020

    Really interesting to noted the history and the uses of different bugle calls by the different services to this day. Learning bugling initially in the Boy Scouts and then serving in the Marines and the Navy, To the Color was almost always (occasionally heard the Star Spangled Banner) what we used to raise the flag in the morning. Reveille was used exclusively for waking people in the morning. Vive la différence!

Comments are closed.


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)