American officers had traditionally worn epaulettes as a badge of rank and although their use was beginning to die out in the early years of the Civil War, it was not unusual to find them particularly on the shoulders of some militia officers. The 69th New York State Militia had worsted epaulettes on its new jackets adopted shortly before the war. These epaulettes had a broad bullion fringe for NCOs, a medium fringe for sergeants, and a narrow fringe for corporals and privates.

Epaulettes were expensive uniform accessories and were individually tailored to fit the left and the right shoulder. Epaulettes were fixed on the shoulder by an open brass strap on the underside which passed through cloth loops on the wearer's shoulder and were secured by a spring clip. Epaulettes came with three sizes of bullion fringe. For general and field officers the fringe was 3.5 inches long and .5 of an inch in diameter, for captains it was 2.5 inches long and .25 inch in diameter and for lieutenants it was the same length. Colonels had a silver embroidered eagle on their epaulettes, lieutenant colonels had a silver embroidered oak leaf, captains had two silver embroidered bars and first lieutenants had one silver embroidered bar.

The cost of epaulettes helps to explain their declining use and why they were usually reserved for full dress occasions. Replacing epaulettes for widespread use were shoulder straps and these came in a regulation size of 1.375 by four inches. Shoulder straps all had gold embroidery trim on the borders and regulations stipulated that the borders should be .25 inches in width; but many officers bought shoulder straps which had wider borders. Originally, shoulder strap borders were sewn on cloth designating the branch of service the officer belonged to. The rank indications on shoulder straps were the same as for epaulettes.

Prior to the Civil War, worsted epaulettes were worn by enlisted men in all branches of the Army. Artillerymen wore scarlet epaulettes, and infantry light or Saxony blue. Enlisted men's epaulettes had crescents made out of worsted cord and straps made out coarse material attached to a piece of tin plate. The epaulettes had three rows of fringes which were three inches long often held in place at the bottom by a cord running through the ends. Epaulettes were fastened to the men's coats by a hook at the pointed end of the strap and a loop of cloth on each shoulder which the strap could be passed through.

Worsted epaulettes were eventually withdrawn and replaced by brass scales which had previously only been worn by cavalrymen as shoulder protectors and can be regarded as the last vestiges of medieval armour. Scales were called different names. 1851 regulations called them shoulder knots, which was a little peculiar because they didn't resemble shoulder knots at all, but they were usually officially called 'shoulder straps (brass)' or 'metallic scales'. The scales were originally issued in two patterns, one for noncommissioned staff and the other for dragoons and light artillery.

Brass scales issued to privates had seven scalloped pieces of metal, mounted on a strap which was slightly over two inches wide with a rounded end and four inch wide crescent. Sergeants' scales were similar in design, but their crescents were slightly larger and the scales and six of the scallops each had three small round head rivets. The scales were attached to soldiers' coats by open brass straps that were fixed to cloth or brass straps on the shoulders and over brass staples near the collar.

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  • Sarah
    Why are epaulettes on a coat?
    6 years ago

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