Schuylkill Arsenal Sack Coat

In 1861 the regular United States Army only number-13,000 strong in all arms, barely the strength of a single division. Since the end of the American Revolution, the United States had never maintained a large standing army during peacetime. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, over 180 of its 198 infantry, artillery and cavalry units were stationed in more than 100 small frontier posts, and the strength of the army was further eroded when more than 300 officers resigned to join the Confederacy. It had to draw on the large reservoir of volunteers that existed either in the many pre-war militia units that almost every town or city had, or in the units that were raised virtually overnight to meet President Lincoln's call in April 1861, for 75,000 volunteers to fight the South.

Heavily influenced by the North's greater interest in Zouave and Chasseur uniforms, many of these units wore a variety of dress. This variety, together with the creation of specialist units, like Colonel Hiram Berdan's green-clad sharpshooters, meant Union uniforms matched the range of dress found in the Confederacy. The Union Army eventually comprised some 2,772,408 men and was the largest force raised in the country until the United States mobilised its forces for World War One. In many ways, American Civil War uniforms represent a transition period between the gaudy uniforms of the Napoleonic era and the functional dress of the First World War.

The official responsibility for providing uniforms for the United States Army lay with the U.S. Army's Quartermaster Department which had been supervising the design and manufacturing of clothing for regular troops at the Schuylkill Arsenal in Pennsylvania since the War of 1812. But the regular army was so small that its influence on uniforms in a country which blossomed with volunteer militia units was often limited. Many of the individual companies in the militia designed their own uniforms, but some large cities like New York uniformed all the companies of a volunteer battalion or regiment alike and many states based a large proportion of their dress regulations on those laid down by the United States War Department.

When President Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months, the War Department quickly realised that many volunteer regiments lacked even the most basic uniform and equipment items. The Quartermaster Department was authorised to provide volunteer troops with cheap basic clothing, but the supplies just weren't there. It was recommended that the States furnished their own clothing supplies and be reimbursed by the government. Some States responded efficiently, others less so. In the scramble to provide uniforms, corruption flourished with some unscrupulous contractors out to make easy money.

Some early war uniforms were made of a cheap material called shoddy which would literally fall apart at the seams and disintegrate. The popular magazine Harper's Weekly described it as: 'a villainous compound, the refuse stuff and sweepings of the shop, pounded, rolled, glued and smoothed to the external form and gloss of cloth, but no more like the genuine article than the shadow is to the substance. Soldiers on the first day's march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats and blankets scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.'

The New York authorities decided to give their troops a standardised outfit with a smart dark blue jacket and ordered more than 32,000 of these jackets from nine different contractors. But there was a shortage of dark blue cloth, so the New York tailors Brooks Brothers, was authorised to produce over 7,000 grey jackets instead. Soldiers claimed that not only did the jackets fall apart, but the coarse cloth irritated their skin. Meanwhile in Ohio, an enterprising tailor ran a uniform production line cutting out uniform parts from pieces of cloth which were then handed to a team of local ladies to be sewn together.

Many of the proud volunteers who received the uniforms, said they were about two feet too large across the chest but at least they were luckier than some volunteer outfits marching to defend Washington, who had no uniforms at all and precious little in the way of armaments. One regiment had to leave 200 of its men at home for want of weapons and some regular officers were very scathing about the quality of the volunteer troops. 'You might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt gun,' sneered William Tecumsheh Sherman.

The situation in supplying uniforms and equipment was to improve dramatically, once the hysteria of the first few months of the war calmed down. Cloth imports from abroad stimulated American manufacturers to improve standards, so much so that the Boston Board of Trade complained bitterly about the imports of foreign cloth, claiming that Northern industry was now sufficiently geared up to clothe the Union Army. They were right; by the end of 1861 Northern factories produced 550,000 uniforms.

The majority of uniforms worn by Northern soldiers were manufactured from wool. In the first half of the 19th Century the U.S. Army had issued linen or cotton fatigue uniforms to its men, but around 1853 the army stopped buying the material and only occasional issues were made after 1855. Officers' uniforms were usually of better quality broadcloth or serge, while kersey, a coarse cloth woven from wool was chiefly used in the manufacture of enlisted men's trousers. Linsey, a coarse wool material of inferior quality, was a feature of many uniforms manufactured in 1861 but was really only a couple of steps away from the notorious shoddy cloth.

The U.S. Army's uniform regulations of 1821 stated that dark blue should be the national colour of uniforms for American soldiers. Yet during the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 the fatigue uniforms of most of the soldiers were mainly sky blue material which was much easier to get hold of and cheaper to manufacture. From 1858-1861 the army wore dark blue coats and dark blue trousers, but in the early stages of the Civil War it was suggested that issuing cheaper sky blue trousers could save the hard pressed Union treasury $750,000 a year. Some American military thinkers of the time also wanted to outfit the regular army in sky blue jackets, but the only regular Northern unit ever to wear sky blue jackets was the Invalid Corps formed in 1863 from wounded veterans who performed light duties.

A curious aspect of some Civil War uniforms worn

Shoddy Uniforms Early Civil War

This photograph of a private of the 10th U.S. Infantry taken in the 1850s, shows all the finery of pre-Civil War American soldiers and the French influences in uniforms that continued all the way through the Civil War. The 10th U.S. Infantry was organised in 1855 and the Private wears a regulation frock coat cut in the French Chasseur a pied pattern. The coat has light blue piping and brass shoulder scales. On show beside the private is his full dress hat or shako. These hats were made of felt stretched over a cardboard or paper base, but some were made entirely out of leather. Just visible on the hat is a light blue welt and pompom, which like the trim on the private's coat designates that he is an infantryman. David Scheinmann.

This photograph of a private of the 10th U.S. Infantry taken in the 1850s, shows all the finery of pre-Civil War American soldiers and the French influences in uniforms that continued all the way through the Civil War. The 10th U.S. Infantry was organised in 1855 and the Private wears a regulation frock coat cut in the French Chasseur a pied pattern. The coat has light blue piping and brass shoulder scales. On show beside the private is his full dress hat or shako. These hats were made of felt stretched over a cardboard or paper base, but some were made entirely out of leather. Just visible on the hat is a light blue welt and pompom, which like the trim on the private's coat designates that he is an infantryman. David Scheinmann.

by Union volunteers is that while the majority were outfitted in blue uniforms some units wore grey, leading to potential disasters on the battlefield against a largely grey clad enemy. Grey had been a popular colour with many Northern militia units before the war, including volunteers from Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin who proudly held on to their uniforms at the beginning of the conflict. But by the middle of 1862, no grey clad Northern troops could be found on the battlefield. Good sense had at last prevailed.

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  • AFWERKI
    Why are civil war uniforms so tiny?
    9 years ago
  • salla
    WHAT CLOTHING DID THEY WEAR DURING THE CIVIL WAR?
    8 years ago

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