The US Marine Corps in the American Civil War didn't have the same prominence in the Army that the Marines occupy today. The corps numbered under 5,000 men and despite the bad performance of a detachment of Marines at First Bull Run, who
This first sergeant of Light Artillery is pictured wearing a regulation shell jacket and the red stripe down his trouser seam designates his branch of service. David Scheinmann.
Union Cavalry, Five Forks, April 1865.
Of all Union commanders, none had such a reputation or theatrical taste in uniforms as George Armstrong Custer. Loved by his men but sometimes resented by fellow officers, Custer had a meteoric rise to fame during the Civil War and wore flamboyant clothes to match.
Photographs of Custer taken early in the war when he was a captain, show him to be quite tamely dressed in a short dark blue jacket open at the collar to reveal a flowing neckerchief, and sky blue trousers. But when Custer was promoted to Brigadier General at the age of 23, he wore a black velvet uniform adorned with gold lace. One contemporary report said that he looked like 'a circus rider gone mad'. Rather like his hero, the Napoleonic Cavalry general Murat, Custer had a taste for exotic uniforms and the panache to carry them off.
One of Custer's best known uniforms is the one he's wearing in this painting. Custer adopted this style of uniform when he was promoted to major general in the autumn of 1864. His broad brimmed hat, and his sailor's shirt with white stars and white trim on the collar remained from his old uniform, but with them Custer now wore a cut down regulation double breasted officer's frock coat and blue trousers with gold stripes. Finishing off the ensemble was Custer's trademark, his red necktie.
Some may have laughed at Custer's uniforms but standing out on the battlefield Custer was an inspiration to many men in the Union cavalry. James H. Kidd who succeeded Custer to the command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, wrote: 'That garb, fantastic as at first sight it appeared to be, was to be the distinguishing mark which showed us where in the thick of battle we were to seek our leader.'
The two troopers behind Custer wear regulation shell jackets with the distinctive yellow trim on the collar, fronts and cuffs. Custer and his men are all wielding sabres and doubtless bore them in many other battles and skirmishes, but how how much use sabres saw in Civil War combat and how effective they were, has been the subject of much debate. Assessing the relative values of the Union Cavalry's use of swords or sabres in Civil War battles is difficult, because of conflicting reports written at the time. One account records Custer plunging his sabre into a Confederate cavalryman. Major Leonidas Scranton of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry wrote: 'Pistols are useless. I have known regiments that have been in the field over two years that have never used their pistols in action. At a charge, the sabre is the weapon.' Painting by Chris Collingwood.
Inventor turned Union officer, Hiram Berdan founded the crack Berdan's sharpshooters. The uniforms of Berdan's Sharpshooters officers were similar to the men's, but made out of better quality cloth. David Scheinmann.
Major General Gordon Meade was a no nonsense commander and made an imposing figure in his uniform. Two stars are visible on his shoulder straps. David Scheinmann.
Was this article helpful?