Uniforms and Insignia

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An English observer, at the war's outset in 1861, reported home that 'The appearance which a regiment presents on parade is remarkable to the eye of a European. Many are composed of companies who have uniforms of different colours; but in these cases there is always some distinctive

English Observer The Civil War
General Robert E. Lee
General Lee Confederate Flag

A Tennessee regiment joins the Army of Northern Virginia in early 1861. Note the tomahawks in their belts and the 'Stars and Bars' Confederate flag badge by which their particular corps can be easily told. This defect, consequent upon the companies being raised in différent neighbourhoods, is being quickly remedied, and we saw numerous regiments, which had later arrived, whose dress was all that the Horse Guards could desire.'

The Confederate Army had been created, as the Confederacy itself was being created, from state organizations. Some had been fancy, pre-war militia units, like the ist Virginia Regiment, the Washington Artillery of Louisiana or the Clinch Rifles of Georgia. These, of course, already had uniforms, accoutrements and weapons, and were drilled. Others, also socially élite, formed units at the war's beginning and nothing was too good for them. The Georgia Hussars in 1861 spent $25,000 on their initial outfits.

At the war's beginning, too, troops who enlisted for twelve months were supposed to be fully equipped by the Confederate Government against the advice of professional officers like Lee who had left the U.S. Army to side with their states. Not that there was all that much equipment to go round. Company commanders who wrote to the government when it was still in Montgomery, Alabama, before it moved to Richmond, were told that volunteers should furnish their own clothes.

Those in pre-war or city units usually received uniforms, while their rural brothers who made up the majority of the army usually had only what they brought from home. One point in common, however, was noted by the English observer: 'Besides the Enfield rifle, most of the privates in the army carry at least one revolver and a bowie knife: these are invariably kept bright and in good condition. . . .'

A veteran of the Richmond Howitzers, Francis McCarthy, recalled: 'Many, expecting terrific hand-to-hand encounters, carried revolvers, and even bowie knives. . . . Revolvers were found to be about as useless and heavy lumber as a private soldier could carry, and early in the war were sent home. . . .'

The volunteer of 1861 had brought other equipment to the field, too. Wrote McCarthy: 'The volunteer of 1861 made extensive preparations for the field. Boots, he thought, were an absolute necessity, and the heavier the soles and longer the tops the better. His pants were stuffed inside the tops of his boots, of course. . . . Experience soon demonstrated that boots were not agreeable on a long march. They were heavy and irksome, and when the heels were worn a little one-sided, the wearer would find his ankle twisted nearly out of joint by every unevenness of the road. When thoroughly wet, it was a laborious undertaking to get them off, and worse to get them on in time to answer the morning roll-call. And so good, strong brogues or brogans with broad bottoms and big, flat heels succeeded the boots. . . .'

'A double-breasted coat, heavily wadded, with two rows of big, brass buttons, and a long skirt was considered comfortable. A short-waisted and single-breasted jacket usurped the place of the long-tailed coat and became universal. The enemy noticed this peculiarity, and called the Confederates "gray jackets".

'A small stiff cap with a narrow brim took the place of the comfortable felt, or the towering tile worn in civil life. . . . Caps were destined to hold out longer than some other uncomfortable things, but they finally yielded to the demands of comfort and common sense, and a good soft felt hat was worn instead.'

Another artilleryman, the commander of the Staunton Artillery, wrote about his men early in 1861 that 'I had provided them with red flannel shirts at Harper's Ferry, because our uniforms were too fine for camp life and for service in the field.'

The newly arrived recruits, or separate companies, were quickly assigned to regiments, ten companies to a regiment. Each company was supposed to have a captain, a first and a second lieutenant, and orderly (or first) sergeant, four sergeants, eight corporals, two musicians and eighty-two privates. Besides them, the regiment had a colonel, a lieutenant-colonel, a major, an adjutant, a quartermaster, a surgeon and his assistant. There was also a sergeant-major, a quartermaster-sergeant, a commissary sergeant and a hospital steward. Most regiments, too, took brass bands with them to war, although it was said the quality of their music fell off badly towards 1865.

The Confederate Army made an attempt to avoid reducing regiments, as losses made them too small to be effective while raising new ones, by sending recruiters to each regiment's home area and feeding recruits into it throughout the war. Thus, unit esprit de corps was maintained to the end in most regiments. Furthermore, the recruits and conscripts found themselves in units with a majority of seasoned veterans, which greatly steadied them in action. It was rarely that a totally inexperienced bunch of men was sent against the enemy after the first year or so of war.

On the other hand, regiments and even brigades and divisions, as much as possible, were organized strictly along state lines. General Joseph Johnston, commanding the army before Lee, wrote in September 1861 about the 1st Virginia Cavalry: 'The regiment so far is exclusively Virginian. By all means keep it so, where it can be done without prejudicing other respects. State pride excites a generous emulation in the Army, which is of inappreciable value in its effects on the spirit of the troops.' Such an attitude may have added to the men's unit pride, but it also greatly damaged the overall army, in that the states felt responsible for their regiments only. When Lee's ragged men surrendered in 1865, North Carolina had 92,000 new uniforms in its warehouses uniforms they would issue to North Carolinians only.

The Confederate of 1861 was generally armed with a bowie knife like this one, although they were soon discarded. (Author's collection)

The Confederate of 1861 was generally armed with a bowie knife like this one, although they were soon discarded. (Author's collection)

White Linen Havelock

Left: A plain gray cap with Virginia side buttons. (Robert Crisman collection)

Right: A white linen havelock, which was buttoned over the regular wool cap, and was supposed to prevent sunstroke. They were largely abandoned early in the war. (Author's collection)

Left: A plain gray cap with Virginia side buttons. (Robert Crisman collection)

Right: A white linen havelock, which was buttoned over the regular wool cap, and was supposed to prevent sunstroke. They were largely abandoned early in the war. (Author's collection)

Another idea which seemed good at the time, but led to more trouble than it was worth, was conscription. 'With the Spring [of 1862] came the end of the term of enlistment of many of the soldiers', wrote a South Carolina artillery officer. 'Most of them went home to visit their families. The majority soon re-enlisted, but often in new-commands; some did not re-enlist at alt, others did much later. Many of the regiments reorganized with new officers. The general effect was to break up very much the organization of the army.'

The twelve-month men were theoretically gone, but not in reality. For in April 1862 Congress passed the Conscription Act, stating, among other things, that all men between eighteen and thirty-five who enlisted for one year would be conscripted to serve throughout the war. Such an Act was highly unpopular with the men, even those wanting to re-enlist anyway, because it took away their status of'volunteer' and appeared to force them to serve. Conscripts were generally distrusted by volunteers.

Private Polley recalled at Fredericksburg: 'Only two regiments of our division were engaged in any undertaking that might be called a battle. These were the Fifty-seventh and Fifty-fourth North Carolina regiments composed of conscripts young men under twenty and old men all dressed in homespun, and presenting to the fastidious eye of us veterans a very unsoldierly appearance.' The two regiments, much to Policy's surprise, did quite well, and drove out a Union force larger than themselves.

Actually, a fastidious, soldierly eye might even find some flaws in the veterans' dress. Therefore, it was one of the first matters of business, once an army was created, to design and order a standard uniform. A board of officers, therefore, met in Richmond to do just that. According to a general who served on it, 'the intention of the board was to adopt a tunic like the short, close-fitting Austrian garment, but it went by default. The officers would have none of it. They took the familiar cut of frock coat with a good length of tail.'

The coat which was acceptable for a general

Second Lieutenant J. B. Washington, aide to General Johnston, captured, 3« May 1862. Note the trim on his coat, his pockets sits with his old West Point classmate, Second Lieutenant and the U.S. shoulder-strap rank insignia G. A. Custer, 5th U.S. Cavalry, on the day Washington was
General Pettigrew Frock Coat
Uniform coat of Brigadier-General James Pettigrew. (Gettysburg National Military Park)

officer (all Confederate generals wore identical uniforms regardless of grade) had 'two rows of buttons on the breast, eight in each row, placed in pairs; the distance between the rows four inches at top and three inches at bottom; stand-up collar, to rise no higher than to permit the chin to turn freely over it; to hook in front at the bottom, and slope thence up and backward, at an angle of thirty degrees, on each side; cuffs two and a half inches deep on the underside, there to be buttoned with three small buttons, and sloped upwards to a point at a distance of four inches from the end of the sleeve; pockets in the folds of the skirt, with one button at the hip and one at the end of each pocket, making four buttons on the back and skirt of the tunic, the hip buttons to range with the lowest breast buttons.'

All other officers were to have identical coats, only with seven evenly placed buttons on them.

Other ranks had the same dress coat, but with only two buttons on each cull"and 'narrow lining in the skirts of the tunic of gray material'. For fatigue they could wear '. . . a light gray blouse, double breasted, with two rows of small buttons, seven in each row; small turnover collar . . .'.

Cuffs and collar were facing colours, and by regulation 'The facings for General officers, and for officers of the Ad jutant General's Department, Quartermaster General's Department, Commissary General's Department, and the Engineers will be buff. The tunic of all officers to be edged throughout with the facings designated: Medical Department - black; Artillery - red; Cavalry yellow; Infantry light blue.'

Trousers were to be sky-blue for regimental officers and other ranks, and dark blue for all other officers. Generals were to have two stripes of gold lace on their trousers, other officers one stripe, and regimental officers and non-commissioned officers a stripe of their facing colour.

The cap was originally to be a gray copy of the French kepi with a red, sky-blue or yellow pompon for the different branches. On 24 January 1862, however, the cap was changed. Still a kepi, it was now to have a dark blue band round the bottom, with the sides and crown of the facing colour. Other ranks' caps were to have 'the number of the regiment . . . worn in front, in yellow metal'. Officers were to have stripes of gold lace, according to rank, up the back, front and sides. Generals were to have four gold stripes, field officers three, captains two, and lieutenants one. Besides the stripes up the sides, '. . . the center of the crown [is] to be embroidered with the same number of braids'.

The same number of braids were also worn, in the form of an 'Austrian knot', on officers' coat sleeves.

Also, according to regulation, 'In hot weather, a white duck, or linen cover, known as a havelock, will be worn - the apron to fall behind, so as to protect the ears and neck from the rays of the sun. In winter, in bad weather, an oilskin cover will be worn, with an apron to fall over the coat collar.' Havelocks were initially popular, but rapidly found better use as coffee-strainers and gun patches. The oilskin covers were virtually figments of the board's imagination.

Stonewall Jackson Uniform
Stonewall' Jackson, a contemporary woodcut

Actually, most of this fancy regulation uniform was little more than a figment of the board's imagination rather than anything which actually saw service. To begin with, many of the regiments had already made up their own dress regulations and wore their old uniforms. Then many states set up their own regulations, and made uniforms more to follow them than the army-wide regulations.

North Carolina, for example, had a board of its officers who set up their own regulations on 23 May 1861. Its officers were to wear . . a frock coat, the skirt to extend from two-thirds to three-quarters the distance from the top of the hips to the bend of the knee, single-breasted for Captains and Lieutenants, double-breasted for all other grades of North Carolina gray cloth for all Regimental Officers of dark blue cloth for General Officers and Officers of the General Staff.'

North Carolina's other ranks were to wear

. . a sack coat of gray cloth [of North Carolina manufacture] extending halfway down the thigh, and made loose, with falling collar, and an inside pocket on each breast, six coat buttons down the front, commencing at the throat; a strip of cloth sewed on each shoulder, extending from the base of the collar to the shoulder seam, an inch and a half wide at the base of the collar, and two inches wide at the shoulder; this strip will be of black cloth for Infantry, red for Artillery and yellow for Cavalry.' Musicians, who had no special uniforms under Confederate regulations, were to wear their facing colours as horizontal bars across their chests. Generals were to have blue trousers, but all other officers and other ranks were to have gray trousers with black, red or yellow stripes down their legs. Gray forage caps, floppy versions of the kepi, were to be worn by all ranks for fatigue and a gray felt hat for dress.

Officers were to wear U.S. Army rank insignia, while non-com missioned ranks were distinguished by chevrons worn on both arms. A sergeant-major had three bars and three arcs, a quartermaster-sergeant had three bars and three ties, while a commissary sergeant had three bars and a star. An orderly sergeant had three bars and a lozenge. Each sergeant had three bars, and each corporal, two. All Confederates, in fact, used this, non-commissioned-oflicer insignia system.

There is little indication, however, that even state dress regulations were followed, save in the matter of rank insignia. Lieutenant-Colonel A. J. L. Fremantle, Coldstream Guards, visited the army in 1863 and reported on it with the eye of a trained soldier: 'The men were good-sized, healthy and well clothed, although without any attempt at uniformity in colour or cut, but nearly all were dressed either in gray or brown coats and felt hats.

'I was told that even if a regiment was clothed in proper uniform by the government, it would become parti-colourcd again in a week, as the soldiers preferred wearing the coarse homespun jackets and trousers made by their mothers and sisters at home. The generals very wisely allow them to please themselves in this respect, and insist only upon their arms and accoutrements being kept in proper order. Most of the officers

A contemporary official print of, from left, a general, an adjutant-general and a colonel of engineers.


A colonel, lieutenant-colonel and captain of artillery.


A colonel, lieutenant-colonel and captain of artillery.

A contemporary official print of, from left, a general, an adjutant-general and a colonel of engineers.

Kepi Woodcut


A sergeant, private and musician of cavalry. {Author's collection)

A colonel, captain and first lieutenant of infantry.



A sergeant, private and musician of cavalry. {Author's collection)

A colonel, captain and first lieutenant of infantry.


were dressed in uniform which is neat and serviceable a bluish-gray frock coat of a colour similar to the Austrian jägers. The infantry wear blue facings, the artillery red, the doctors black, the staff white, and the cavalry yellow; so it is ¡also] impossible to mistake his rank. A second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and captain, wear respectively one, two and three bars on the collar. A major, lieutenant-colonel and colonel wear one, two and three stars on the collar.'

Officers, generally, did try to conform to regulation dress. Even so, field use tended to make

them a bit less smart than they were supposed to appear. A Light Division company commander wrote home: '1 have my sword, a blanket, haversack, canteen, and a change of underclothing in a light knapsack, and let everything else go; for our wagons are always far off - you never can find what you put in them and as we are continually moving about, I find my load sufficiently heavy without adding to it. When ordered to march, I am at the head of my company, heavily laden as any. . . .'

The typical private, as described by one of

STArr them, was even more unmilitary in appearance: 'Around the upper part of the face is a fringe of unkempt hair, and above this is an old wool hat worn and weatherbeaten, and the flaccid brim of which falls limp upon the shoulders behind, and is folded back in front against the elongated and crumpled crown. Over a soiled shirt, which is unbuttoned at the collar, is a ragged gray jacket that does not reach the hips, with sleeves some inches too short. Below this trousers of a nondescript color, without form and almost void, are held in place by a leather belt, to which is attached the cartridge-box that rests behind the right hip, and the bayonet scabbard that dangles on the left.

'Just above the ankles of each trouser leg is tied closely; and, behind, reaches of dirty socks disappear into a pair of badly used and curiously contorted shoes. Between the jacket and the waistband of the trousers, or the supporting belt, there appears a puffy display of cotton shirt which works out further with every hitch made by Johnny in his efforts to keep his trousers in place. Across his body from his left shoulder there is a roll of threadbare blanket, the ends tied together resting on or falling below the right hip. This is Johnny's bed. Within this roll is a shirt, his only extra article of clothing.'

As Colonel Fremantle was told, most soldiers preferred clothing from home. One Alabamian wrote home in 1864: 'I send you a couple of shirts and a pair of drawers. Use them as you please. I had rather wear your make. The reason 1 drew them was that they are so much cheaper than you can make them. You can use them in making cloth -s for the children.' One Virginian practically made a business of selling his home-made clothes. He wrote home: 'I have sold my pants, vest, shoes and drawers for sixty-one dollars so you can see I am flush again You will have to make me more pants and drawers, if you can raise the material make two pair of pants and four pair of drawers and I will have a pair of pants and two pair of drawers for sale and in that way will get mine clear ... if you could make up a good supply of pants, vests, shirts and drawers, I could be detailed out to come after them.'

Another source of supply - probably the most important one of all in all areas of Confederate

Many Confederates wore blouses with lay-down collars. Such blouses were, in fact, regulation among North Carolina troops. (Author's collection)

supply was the Federal Government. It was a saying in the army that all a Yankee was worth was his shoes, and after Fredericksburg the story went round how a Confederate soldier stopped to pull oil" the boots of a Union officer supposed dead. Suddenly, in the midst of pulling off the (irst boot, the 'corpse' weakly raised his head and cursed the rebel for robbing the wounded. 'Beg pardon, sir,' replied the Confederate as he nonchalantly walked away, 'I thought you had gone above.'

In many companies the combination of a gray or brown jacket and Union sky-blue trousers was so common as to be almost regulation. The trouble began, of course, when the men showed in virtually complete regulation Federal uniform. One Confederate commander was forced to order in December 1864: 'All men and officers belonging to this command who have blue Yankee overcoats and clothing who do not have them dyed by the 20th Inst The Coats Especially will be taken from them. . . .'

The problem in mixing up which side was which was obvious, and could be fatal. An artillery colonel recalled, just before the Wilderness: 'Jenkin's Brigade was one of those which had recently returned from the South, and the men were dressed in new uniforms made of cloth so dark a gray as to be almost black. Mahone's men, some distance off in the thick underbrush, hearing the cheers and seeing this body of dark-uniformed men, took them for Yankees and fired a volley. Fortunately they fired high, or there would have been a terrible slaughter.'

These troops may have been among those seen as prisoners shortly later by an Ohio lieutenant who wrote: '. . . we had the pleasure of seeing about four thousand prisoners passing us on their way to the rear. They seemed completely surprised, which is a wonder for old troops. As to their appearance, they were all clad in neat gray jackets and pantaloons with entire seats. In contrast we were in rags, scarcely one of us having a complete garment of any sort.'

This must have been virtually the only time when captured Confederates were better dressed than their captors. A Texan wrote in 18(54 that 'in this army one hole in the seat of the breeches indicates a captain, two holes a lieutenant, and the seat of the pants all out indicates that the individual is a private'. In the Richmond Howitzers repairs on trouser seats took an artistic flair when one day a cannoneer showed up for morning roll-call with a bright red flannel heart on the seat of his trousers. Each man, thereafter, had to outdo the next with cut-out eagles, horses, cows and cannon. The contest finally ended when one man showed up with a cupid holding out a bow on one side, and on the other a heart pierced by an arrow - all in bright red wool.

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