The Navy is known for its deep seated traditions. Muster for noon formation at the Naval Academy, ship launching and commissioning in the harbors, Navy certificates marking rites of passage and many many more. Beyond their formal purpose of bringing women and men together as a unit, these traditions often have even deeper meanings.
Navy and Marine Corps morning colors is one of them. A tradition that is both regular and extraordinary, it’s a daily ceremony wherein the colors (the national ensign or flag) are raised at exactly 8:00 am, and “To the Colors” or “National Anthem” is played by the Navy band (usually “To the Colors” or the national anthem). Morning colors not only gives both participants and viewers the chance to pause and reflect on the meaning of the flag raising, but also to think deeply about the women and men who sacrificed their lives and those who continue to do so today to protect our shores from harm. It is a moment of deep gratitude and awe for all.
How The Morning Colors Started
This moving tradition has deep roots. The Royal Navy National Archives tells us that this morning ritual of raising the colors hearkens back to 1797, when Admiral Lord St. Vincent started the tradition of raising and lowering the ensign and jack with the guard of the day and a small band, right after the 1797 mutinies at Spithead. It was in 1843 that the U.S. Navy first adopted the British tradition of both morning and evening colors. The 1843 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Navy provided these requirements: If sunset were after 6:00 p.m. morning colors would be at 8:00 a.m; otherwise, the colors would start at 9:00 a.m.. This was updated in the 1870s, when the time for morning colors was definitively moved to 8:00 a.m.
For all else, the Navy follows the requirements in Article 1206 of Navy Regulations, which states that the ceremony be performed on all ships that are not underway and at all shore stations of the Navy and Marine Corps. Even though many guards don’t have buglers or bands, the ceremony is undertaken with quiet solemnity and respect.
Morning Colors on the Yard
Today on the Yard, you can watch the morning colors at 8:00 am every day in T-Court. There is an introduction at 7:55 am when “First Call to Colors” is sounded. Then, a bugle calls “Attention” at precisely 8:00 am and the flag detail hoists the colors - the American flag. Whether a bugle or band plays “To the Colors” or the National Anthem, all military members and civilians within sight or hearing distance must pay their respects. They will immediately stop what they are doing when they hear the ceremony begin. If they are covered and dressed in uniform, it is expected that they render a salute; if not they may simply stand at attention. They must also face the flag, but if that is not visible from where they are standing, they can face the music instead. Upon the completion of the song, those saluting must cut their salute, and the command is given by the bugle sound, “Carry on.”
A similar ceremony is performed in the evening for colors at sunset. One important difference is the speed with which the flag is moved. In the morning, it’s hoisted quickly, as if to symbolize the start of a new day. In the evening, a slow motion closes out the evening and provides even more time for reflection.
Morning Colors Beyond the Yard
The time for reflection is sacred. Whether on bases, at the Naval Academy, or while deployed, morning colors are a constant across the Navy and Marine Corps branches. At Naval Base Coronado, one mom was proud to see her children stop jumping on their trampoline when they heard morning colors. They held their hands over their hearts as they stood in silence facing the sounds of the bugle. Previously at a U.S. Marine Corps base in Afghanistan, the ceremony included the raising of the Afghan flag, to symbolize the partnership of the two countries. No matter where it's performed, morning colors commands the same rapt attention and reverence. Military members immediately stop what they’re doing, face the flag, snap to attention and salute. It’s an incredibly moving tribute.
Traditions like these form a bridge from the past to the present, honoring those who have gone before in defense of our country, and continuing their important legacy. They are a source of routine and comfort to the far flung bases, and a solid connection to U.S. soil. At the Naval Academy, morning and evening colors are daily lessons in honoring and respecting traditions, as well as an introduction to the Navy and Marine Corps ceremonies that are so critical to their unity.
You can visit and see the morning colors when you spend time at the Yard. Come and experience this important bit of Naval Academy history and feel its power. When you visit the Yard, you’re supporting the Brigade of Midshipmen, since every bit you spend here goes back to them. Be a part of USNA tradition.