In light of Den Bolda’s great inaugural post on Union uniform coats, I thought I would share a paper I wrote for a class I took on material culture a couple years ago that dealt with Civil War soldiers. Being involved in reenacting since then, I have a greater appreciation for the objects and materials that constituted a soldier’s life and person during the war. On Friday, I head to Fort Sisseton for their history festival, so I will be absent from the blog for the weekend, but will post soon after I return on the fun of the weekend.
Civil War soldiers are commonly thought to wear blue or gray, for North and South; however that was not always the case, especially in the beginning of the war. Although many Northern militia units wore gray uniforms early in the war, a variety of uniforms were issued by federal and state governments. Generally, the federal government issued three standard types of uniform jackets. Those would be the frock coat, shell jacket, and the sack coat. There are too many exceptions to include in this brief introduction, so please know that the information provided here is very basic. This thread will cover a fraction of the uniforms worn by Union soldiers.
The federal frock coat was primarily issued to soldiers in the infantry and heavy artillery. The frock coat has nine buttons down the front, two on the back and two on each sleeve. They had piping on the collar and cuffs which identified the soldier’s job. Red piping meant that the soldier was in the artillery, while light blue piping (shown below) meant that the soldier was in the infantry. The frock coat was the fanciest coat that a Union soldier might be issued. It was considered to be a dress or parade jacket. The frock coat was quilted on the front inside lining. The quilting added weight and bulk to add to the soldier’s prestige. Unfortunately, it also added heat on hot Southern days. It had one inside pocket and two pockets in the tail.
The shell jacket was usually issued to mounted troops, or troops who rode horses. This meant that cavalry and artillery soldiers wore this. Just like the frock coat, it had nine buttons and had trim that identified the soldier’s occupation. The soldier was an artilleryman if the shell jacket had red piping, but the trim would be yellow if he was a cavalry trooper . These jackets were shorter than the frock coat because they were more comfortable to wear when riding a horse. The jacket was quilted on the inside front lining. Also, the shell jacket had two small “pillows” on the back which are very useful for keeping the army service belt in place! It had one inside pocket.
The final jacket mentioned above is the sack coat. This jacket was made to be a fatigue blouse, or a work jacket. It was not glamorous in any way. It was shapeless and made of thin material. Although almost all Union jackets were made of heavy wool, the sack coat was made of much lighter wool. This jacket was supposed to be used by the troops when they were on fatigue duty. By the end of the war the sack coat was used by Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery on all occasions. It became the standard Union army coat. The sack coat did not have any kind of color trim and only used four buttons. It was usually lined with wool flannel or cotton. It had one inside pocket.
One addition that I would like to mention is the state jacket. Many Northern states produced uniforms at their own expense. The state jackets varied in design from state to state but they were all very similar. Many people identify the state jacket with New York, but Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and other states also distributed these jackets. Although they were very common earlier in the war, photographic evidence has shown several examples in service later on. State jackets did not have piping but were usually of high quality. They were made short like a shell jacket, so that they could be issued to mounted and foot soldiers indiscriminately. They were almost always quilted and lined with one inside pocket. State jackets sometimes had shoulder straps.
To aid the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, Stuart, Joe, and I headed down on Saturday to do some living history for the day. We met the new supervisor, Thomas Casler, who is quite enthusiastic and interested in reenacting as well. We put out a bit of equipment and set ourselves up in the guard-house. Though the day started slow and rainy, it eventually picked up. We did pass the time as soldiers might have (although illegally) by playing cards (our pot was coffee beans). About thirty people came out throughout the day, including one couple who traveled all the way from Philadelphia, coming to North Dakota to visit forts and the Badlands.
Several youngsters came with their parents and we demonstrated the sequence for firing the weapons and talked about our gear. We also raised and lowered the flag over the post. Overall, it was a good day, despite the iffy weather, and we had a good time helping them commemorate Memorial Weekend. Our next trip will be to historic Fort Sisseton in South Dakota to take part in their annual historic festival. Below are some pictures (courtesy of Thomas Casler) from our day at Abercrombie.
I would like to welcome friend and fellow reenactor Den Bolda to the writing staff of this blog. Den brings a lot of great knowledge to the table in the realm of reenacting and material culture related to the war. Look for postings from Den in the near future and give him a hearty welcome.
In light of my recent visit to Ellen Hopkins Elementary School to present on the war, I wanted to take the opportunity to reach out to educators that are likely getting to the Civil War in their history curriculum to ask questions about the war that they would like more information on. Any topic goes.
Teachers, if you are interested in using this site to enhance your Civil War curriculum, please use the comment section of this post to ask your question, or a question from your students. I, or one of my esteemed colleagues, will do our best to answer the question in a separate post. If you are interested in having students do brief writing assignments on the war as guest posts, please let us know and we can make that happen (I will edit the commenting on such posts to ensure safety). We look forward to your questions.
On Wednesday, May 16, members of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry (Joe Camisa, Stuart Lawrence, Den Bolda, and I), also known as the Fort Abercrombie Garrison, brought some of our gear and presented on the Civil War to an eager group of fifth grade students at Ellen Hopkins Elementary School in Moorhead, MN. Special thanks to Mrs. Cheri Puetz for allowing us the opportunity to come and talk with her students. It was a beautiful day and we were situated in the shade. We set up a tent, as well as our colors, and a small ground cloth with some soldier equipment on display. We also dressed and wore some of our gear. It was a lot of fun and we had kids from the lower grades coming up to us and asking us questions for an hour after school let out, which was really awesome. They were really excited by our stuff and if we did not need to return to Grand Forks so soon, we would have stayed longer. There were some good questions posed and the students came away with a great introduction to their study on the war. Below are photos taken from that day, courtesy of Mrs. Puetz.
Today marks this blog’s fifth birthday. My little blog is just growing up so fast, as it seems like yesterday it was only a couple posts and an idea (couldn’t resist relating it to someone turning five). It also marks my 250th post as well. While I have not reached some of the goals I set out from last year, I am happy that I have been able to keep this site up with being busy with Ph.D. studies. I have covered some of the events related to the sesquicentennial of the war over the last year, as well as some of the excitement of reenacting (we have a great season lined up this summer). I have tackled a couple tough subjects, which have sparked some great discussion. We currently have over 150,000 hits and I hope to make 200,000 by year’s end. I am looking to get a couple new writers posting to the blog to keep the content a bit more regular, but with summer upon us, I hope to also get posting more often as well. Now having a laptop with a webcam, I hope to do a few video posts as well, so look forward to those. I want to thank you all for your readership and support.