Civil War uniforms

Civil War uniforms

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In the collective imagination, the Civil War remains the conflict of the "Blues" (the Northerners) against the "Grays" (the Southerners), with reference to the color of the uniforms worn by soldiers from both camps. This vision corresponds to the contemporary understanding of the notion of uniform, in which standardization remains the primary characteristic. The result for the conflict that concerns us is the impression of a certain poverty, especially in comparison with the flamboyant and varied uniforms of the Napoleonic wars - where in certain troops (the hussars, for example), there were not two regiments of the same army wearing the same uniform. But if you take a closer look, Civil War uniforms actually turn out to be much more diverse than they appear, although this variety tended to fade over the course of the conflict for certain reasons. practice.

The uses of an army

The dark blue was the main color of the United States Army as early as 1779, when the first uniform regulations were passed - at a time when it was still called the "Continental Army." Blue was the traditional color of the "Whigs," the power opponents of the British monarchy, a name used by American revolutionaries when they fought for independence. This is the explanation most frequently given for this choice, but blue was already preponderant among the uniforms given to themselves by the companies of colonial militiamen occasionally raised during the 18th century, to fight the Indians or the French. Either way, dark blue conveys such symbolism for the U.S. Army that it has returned, since 2008, for its service outfits - after decades in olive green.

The cup, meanwhile, remained inspired by contemporary European armies, whether it is the suit or the head covering. The classic coat was replaced in 1812 by a coatee, a sort of tailcoat cut at the waist in front but left long behind, and the shako imposed itself from 1810. The uniform gradually becoming less and less suited to field service, the army soon supplemented it a "corvée outfit": a round cap in 1825, then a short sky blue jacket in 1833. Added to the sky blue pants of the service outfit, these elements will constitute the uniform most often used by the American soldiers during the war against Mexico, the local climate making it frankly uncomfortable to wear the regulatory dress.

In 1851, the federal army adopted a uniform very largely inspired, in its cut, by that of the French army - then arbiter of elegance in military matters. The main difference was in the coatee, abandoned in favor of a long dark blue frock coat. Since this was inconvenient for riding, the cavalry and light artillery units were instead given a short jacket, quite similar to the chore dress - which was now also dark blue. Another novelty concerned the color of the facings, which adopted a new system of ’unit identification. These colors were sky blue for the eight infantry regiments, red for the four artillery regiments, orange for the two dragon regiments, green for the mounted infantry regiment, and black for the officers. of staff. When the two cavalry regiments were created in 1855, they received yellow facings.

The round cap of the corvée outfit was replaced by a dark blue kepi, also derived from the red kepi of the French army. The shako remained in service dress until 1858, when a navy blue felt hat was replaced. Known by the nickname "Hardee hat", or even "Jeff Davis hat" because it was originally designed when Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War (between 1853 and 1857), it was decorated with a black feather. and identification marks: a bead of the color of the corps to which the soldier belonged, and badges in brass, another novelty. These represented two crossed cannons for the artillery, a bugle for the infantry, two crossed sabers for the mounted units and a castle for the engineers.

Clothing the volunteers

As soon as the outbreak of hostilities brought tens, then hundreds of thousands of volunteers into recruiting offices, the question of dress them was even more of a problem than arming them. The Federal Army in 1861 was sourcing uniforms from one of its own facilities, the Schuylkill Dockyard in Philadelphia. Sufficient to provide clothing for an army of 16,000 men, this single factory was no longer to clothe the 75,000 volunteers requested in April 1861, and even less the 500,000 men called up in July. Without speaking about the volunteers, it was also necessary to take into account the strengthening of the regular army, decided by the president in May and validated by the Congress in August: 11 regiments representing a total of 24,000 soldiers.

To overcome this insufficiency, it was necessary to appeal to private industry, both within and outside the national territory. Tens of thousands of outfits were thus imported from Europe, the northern factories not yet having the production capacity they would acquire during the conflict. To make matters worse, these first supplies would be marked with the seal of the corruption. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs sold shoddy clothes to the government at exorbitant prices. All too often these junk uniforms fell apart after a few weeks or months. The soldiers even invented an adjective, shoddy, to designate second-zone material that the supplies department (Quartermaster Department) distributed to them - mostly unwillingly and to his own annoyance.

This situation allowed many war profiteers to get rich rich. It was further aggravated by the presence at the head of the War Department of Simon cameron. This Republican-backed Democrat - he had twice achieved the feat of being a senator under each of two labels - was said to be the most corrupt member of the Lincoln administration. So much so that he is credited with this uplifting quote: "The honest politician is the one who, once corrupted, never changes his mind ". Cameron had made a specialty of placing orders on behalf of his department without resorting to a competitive bidding process, consistently favoring suppliers from his home state of Pennsylvania. It was not until his replacement by Edwin Stanton in January 1862 that the situation improved significantly. By the end of 1862, the Northerner could consider himself properly dressed.

At least that was true when it came to the intrinsic quality of the clothes. But the uniforms were uncomfortable and, in fact, they remained so throughout the war. The source of the problem lay in the material used: wool, which had the advantage of being produced in large quantities by northern agriculture. For convenience, military uniforms produced during the war were generally made of this fabric - all of it, that is, including undergarments, although these would normally have to be jersey or flannel. The soldiers who were able very often had shirts and boxers made by their mothers, their sisters or their wives, so as not to have to endure the unpleasant and irritating friction of the wool on their skin. Despite this, the Civil War fighter more often than not had to put up with a suffocating uniform in the summer, and perpetually damp in the winter, if the weather was right.

The other major problem was that the uniforms intended for the soldiers were visible mass-produced regardless of whether they would fit properly on those who should wear them. Depending on his size and build, each soldier could find himself floating in his outfit, or on the contrary being wrapped up in a uniform that was too tight. For this reason, we ended up experimenting for the first time with a system of standardized sizes, similar to that in use today in ready-to-wear. More generally, the Civil War would greatly contribute to the rise of the textile industry in the North, an expansion that would spill over into the entire American economy after the conflict.

Until they could distribute regulatory uniforms, the northern army had to rely on the goodwill of the states as to the clothing of the recruits they raised. All had militias, but their own regulatory uniforms were not necessarily similar. The dominant colors were blue, as in the regular army, and gray, due to its low cost. To make matters worse, these regulations were not always imperative, when they did exist - which was not always the case, far from it.

As a result, the regiments of certain states were free to choose their uniform according to the whim of their commander. It resultedvery large disparities in clothing troops, and even today, many historians more readily compare the armies of 1861 to a circus parade than to a real military force.

Visual cacophony

This diversity was too great to be explored here exhaustively, and would require endless research. At best, we will limit ourselves to a few examples, because the volunteers of 1861 used almost every color imaginable to dress. In the aftermath of the Crimean War and the Italian War, French influence was stronger than ever, and the interest of recruits in clothing was mainly directed towards one particular corps: thezouaves. Created practically at the start of the conquest of Algeria in 1831, the Zouaves were initially recruited from a rallied Berber tribe, the Zouaoua, but in 1838 became a body of troops recruited exclusively from France - often Parisian volunteers, who greatly contributed to forge their colorful reputation.

Under the Second Empire, the Zouaves wear an oriental-inspired uniform, more suited to the conditions they encounter in Algeria: wide pants, white or red depending on the season, without crotch separation (sarouel); blue jacket cut "à la turque"; and of course the famous red cap with tassel (chechia). The feeling of belonging to an elite corps and the attraction of the exotic were all factors explaining the popularity of Zouave uniforms among the volunteers of the Civil War. There was also a question of comfort. Ideal for hot climates, such as the southern and eastern United States in summer, the Zouave outfit was therefore much more bearable. This was particularly the case with the harem pants, deemed more comfortable than the tight-fitting pants of the Federal Army's regular dress - although most Civil War Zouaves wore baggy pants rather than real harem pants.

For all these reasons, more than 70 regiments of Northerners volunteers adopted a Zouave uniform, a peculiarity that was reflected in the nickname they attributed to themselves. Several thousand such uniforms were imported from France and Europe during the year 1861. Few of them were similar from regiment to regiment. Holding the 5th The New York regiment, the "Duryee Zouaves," was the closest to the original. The 11thth from New York, Colonel Ellsworth's “Fire Zouaves” wore a predominantly gray outfit over their scarlet shirts. Generally,uniforms varied according to taste and availability, and many actually had "zouave" only in name. The 14thth Brooklyn Regiment (later renamed 84th of New York) wore an outfit more resembling that of the French line infantry, their bright madder pants earning them the nickname "Red-legged Devils" (Red-legged Devils). Others were given light blue uniforms with yellow facings reminiscent of those of the "Turcos" - the skirmishers.

The South also gave in to thisfashion, and over 20 Zouave units were recruited, although these were often modest in size - companies or battalions rather than regiments. Perhaps the best known is the Louisiana Infantry Battalion sent to Virginia at the start of the war: red chechia and shirt, dark blue jacket, blue belt, and white pants with red and blue stripes. This last peculiarity will be worth to them - it seems - to be nicknamed later the "Tigers of Louisiana", a nickname which will then apply to the whole of the brigade to which they belonged, although the other regiments of this one would never have worn this kind of outfit.

The French army was not the only inspiration when it came to uniforms. For example, the 39th New York regiment borrowed its from the Bersagliers of the Kingdom of Sardinia. They notably took back the round hat decorated with capercaillie feathers. Although it had only one company of Italians in its ranks, this unit, open to New Yorkers of all origins, was dubbed "Guard Garibaldi". The famous Italian revolutionary and nationalist inspired another fashionable accessory of 1861: the red shirt. A reference to the Thousand Expedition, at the head of which Garibaldi had just brought down the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and whose soldiers wore this same garment. It was therefore taken over by many regiments of volunteers and this,in both camps.

Other uniforms were based less on fashion effects and more on the ethnicity or nationality of the volunteers. As a nation of immigrants, the United States before the war had many militia companies organized according to the origin of their members. This was especially true in the North, and even more so in New York. These companies often haduniforms corresponding to the native country of their members, which they retained when they changed into volunteer regiments in 1861. Thus, the 79th New York Regiment, made up of soldiers of Scottish origin, resumed the dress of the Highlanders of the British Army, except that dark blue replaced red. Capglengarryand tartan pants in the colors of the Cameron clan (hence their nickname ofCameron Highlanders) were therefore de rigueur, not to mention the parade dress, where the pants were replaced by a kilt.

Standardization required

The equipment of the volunteers was done in chaos. Neither the central government nor the states still managed to deliver uniforms to the newly created regiments on time. In many cases, officers lastorder uniforms themselves where the regiment had gathered, forcing more than one to adapt to what was available. Other units even had to march in when they had not yet been equipped, and buy their uniforms en route, at their expense. The poorest did not even wear uniforms at all, contenting themselves with more or less martial-style civilian clothes. In this regard, the South was much more disadvantaged than the North.

When large-scale military operations began approaching the summer of 1861, the diversity of uniforms was to generate calamitous situations. In both camps, regiments with similar uniforms served. The preponderance of blue and gray did not settle anything, since the troops of the two belligerents wore these colors. The beginning of the war was marked by loopholesmistakessometimes with major consequences. In the visual and sound confusion of the battlefield (smoke, din), it was very difficult to know if the regiment we were facing was friend or foe, even though the uniforms were of similar colors. To make matters worse, the flags of both camps used the same colors and looked very similar.

The best known of these errors is that which took place during the Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861): advanced to bombard the Confederate positions, one of the Northern batteries suspended its fire when it saw a regiment dressed in blue approaching. It was actually 33th Virginia Regiment, a Southern unit that used the windfall to shoot down most of the gunners before they could resume fire. The incident did much to change the tide of the battle. In other instances, soldiers were shot in error by fighters from their own side. To clarify the situation, the secretariat for the Northerner War ended up asking the States, on September 13, 1861,to stop providing gray uniforms to their volunteer regiments.

This measure was the first step towardsstandardization of uniforms in the Union army, progressively carried out until 1862. The typical Northerner soldier will therefore wear, in essence, the uniform of the regular army: dark blue cap, short jacket of the same color, sky blue pants and the usual studded shoes, worn without gaiters (and most often, for comfort, with the pants over). To this will be added a heavy coat in winter, a sky blue color, as well as, if possible, a rubber poncho to protect the soldiers from the rain. The often unimportant quality of the uniforms distributed at the start of the war, synonymous with premature wear, will facilitate their gradual replacement by regular dress.

Despite everything, this standardization will not be never complete. Several regiments would maintain their own dress until the end of the war, although this would always be the exception rather than the rule. The two regiments ofSharpshootersraised by Hiram Berdan would thus keep their characteristic green uniform. Several regiments of "Zouaves" also obtained the privilege of continuing to wear their eccentric outfits, from the moment when the dominant color remained blue. This favor was generally accorded them as a privilege if the regiment had behaved well in fire. Later in the war, the award of uniforms or unit specific items was used to reward the most deserving formations and to mark their status as elite troops.

Several regiments thus received Zouave outfits although they had not previously worn any. The "Jeff Davis" hat was also a highly regarded honor, although it was no longer called that for obvious reasons. Quite despised by the soldiers of the regular army, who found him unarmy and above all very uncomfortable, he was, on the other hand, appreciated by those armed civilians who were, at the base, the volunteers. Much more expensive to manufacture than the corvée kepi, it was distributed sparingly to elite army units. He thus equipped the famous "Iron Brigade" of the Army of the Potomac, adistinctive signwhich earned him his other nickname "Black Hats" (Black Hats). In the West, this is theHighland Brigade of John McArthur who will keep his Scottish beretsBalmoral.

While uniforms were never completely standardized in the Federal Army, so were the Southern Army - but for different reasons. When the Confederation had equipped itself with an army, the choice quickly fell ongrey. The main reason was both economical and practical ...

In the absence of artificial dyes, the color of the clothes came from natural dyes that were sometimes difficult to find locally, and which were more expensive if they had to be imported. Gray dye, for its part, had the double advantage of being easily accessible and inexpensive. Partly for these reasons, it was not without ties to US military tradition. On several occasions, the Federal Army had substituted gray for blue to dress some of its regiments, especially during the War of 1812. Also because of its low cost, gray was the color of the cadet uniform in most military academies across the country, starting with West Point.

Difficulties for the Confederation

The Southern War Department formalized the adoption of gray in June 1861. It is, moreover, another officer school,the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, who would serve as a model for the regulation uniform cut. Undoubtedly, this was another way of "rewarding" Virginia for joining the Southern camp after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Except for the color, the uniform, for the most part, remained very similar to that of the Federal Army: gray frock coat and sky blue pants. The headgear was limited to a kepi, the color of which - like the facings of the uniform - varied according to the weapon to which the soldier belonged: sky blue for the infantry, yellow for the cavalry, red for artillery and black for the health service. Generals and staff officers, for their part, were given a gray cap, but pink facings. In addition, all officers had their sleeves embroidered with an "Austrian knot," a decoration later abandoned because it made them too obvious targets for enemy shooters.Few of these outfits were actually distributed to southern soldiers.

The modest Confederate regular army had priority in their attribution, and the history of their use merges with that, little known, of this troop. The Provisional Confederation Army, which formed the bulk of the Southern forces, was theoretically required to wear the same uniform. In practice, this was never the case. If the South produced enough raw material, cotton and wool, to make clothes,he lacked the necessary textile industry to clothe an army of several hundred thousand men. Importing was a possible solution, but it had its limits. Although its effectiveness only increased gradually during the war, the blockade imposed by the Union Navy limited the possibilities. Other items - arms and ammunition, but also shoes - were given priority. Not to mention the fact that it was often more lucrative for blockade breakers to import luxury clothes that were then resold at exorbitant prices rather than uniforms.

The southern soldiers therefore had to resort to other expedients. The outfits worn in 1861, obtained with even greater difficulty than those of their northern counterparts and just as disparate, were quickly worn to the cord. The Confederates often had no other choice but to have their outfits made by their families, when they did not have to get them by themselves by any means imaginable. The choice of gray proved to be successful here: it was easy to obtain a gray tint byartisanal means. Or, at least, something that came close. The most common way was to use the husk of the butternut fruit (Juglans cinerea). The vernacular name of this tree,butternut, was used to designate the resulting color, a gray-brown of varying intensity. By extension, we came to nickname the southern soldiersButternutsbecause of the color of their uniforms.

In such conditions, even talking about a uniform becomes quite an exaggeration. The regiments of the Confederate Army presented a vaguely homogeneous visual appearance at best, but certainly not uniform. To make matters worse, Southern soldiers, unlike their enemies, could not count on their poor stewardship to replace their uniforms once they were worn out. As a result, the vision of Confederate troops oftenragged, even barefoot, became recurrent. Under these conditions, any opportunity to get new clothes and shoes was taken advantage of. Each victory saw the systematic looting of the captured northern depots, the blue uniforms being then rubbed off with the means at hand. Likewise, robbing a prisoner could prove to be very profitable. As victories grew rarer, refreshing his uniform became more and more complex for the Southerner.

Officers and generals

Unlike their men, theofficershad their uniforms to pay: they had to bear the cost themselves, which could prove to be a heavy burden for a lieutenant fresh out of the academy, still in modest pay. All the more so since the quality of an officer added to the regulatory dress a few accessories that would increase the cost: braids, epaulettes, or even a red scarf worn around the waist. These elements, like the "Austrian knots" of the Southern officers, made their carriers easily identifiable from afar and therefore made them ideal targets for snipers. For this reason, many officers ended up wearing only the most discreet elements reminiscent of their rank, when they were not simply ordered by their superiors.

Although in principle they were required to observe strict regulatory dress, their status as officers allowed them somevariationsthat the necessities of the conflict, by relegating to the background the respect for the smallest details of the settlement, facilitated all the more. This latitude for sartorial eccentricity increased as one climbed in the hierarchy, a general having much less risk than a lieutenant of being reproached that his dress is not necessarily in line with that provided for by the regulations. on field service. George Custer was as famous in the Northern Army for his reckless cavalry charges as he was for the eccentricity of his uniforms, a taste that remained with him throughout his career. The future legend of the Wild West never parted with his very showy red tie. When he was promoted to brigadier-general in 1863, he was able to give free rein to his imagination: striped shirt, black velvet hussar dolman adorned with silver “Austrian knots” and olive green pants. This is just one example among a lot, JEB Stuart and others being renowned for their more or less flamboyant uniforms.

Many of the officers who entered the Civil War, on one side or the other, had been out of the Federal Army more or less long ago. Rather than getting a new one, many pulled out their old - sometimes outdated clothes from the closet. For this reason, and also because the very first regulations of the Confederate army prescribed the wearing of the regulatory federal uniform, several Southern officers and generals took part in the first fights of the war wearing a blue uniform, which they had hastily changed the stripes - which we can occasionally see in some reconstructions. The gradual application of the regulations of June 1861 made it possible to replace these outfits. Other generals had never served in the military before and some went into battle simply plain clothes.

In the North as in the South, the generals' frock coats were distinguished mainly from those of other officers by their double row of buttons. Some of them, however, were never big fans of these uniforms and preferred more understated outfits. Robert Lee is a well-known example: in the field, he usually replaced him with a gray civilian frock coat on which he had had a colonel's badge embroidered, the rank he held when he left the Federal Army. Others became famous for their sloppy attire. Stonewall Jackson thus hardly ever parted with an old tattered private soldier's condom. Ulysses Grant himself paid little attention to his dress, most often walking around in a mud-stained country outfit. In both camps a great variety ofheadwear, ranging from the Jeff Davis parade hat to the simple kepi through the large and comfortable round hat (slouch hat).

Sailors and Marines

Si la guerre de Sécession est souvent perçue comme un conflit essentiellement terrestre, elle n’en fit pas moins une large part aux opérations navales, notamment combinées, et le Nord doit à ses marins une part non négligeable dans la victoire finale. Theuniformes navals méritent donc qu’on s’y attarde quelque peu. L’U.S. Navy avait hérité de sa contrepartie britannique l’usage du bleu marine et celui-ci n’avait pas été remis en cause. Les premières régulations concernant les uniformes n’avaient pas été appliquées avec une grande rigueur, et c’est seulement à partir de 1841 que les officiers obligèrent réellement leurs hommes à porter la tenue réglementaire. Celle-ci consistait en un pantalon bleu, une veste bleue marine à parements blancs, un foulard noir et un chapeau rond verni de couleur noire.

La mécanisation croissante de la marine, dans les années 1850, rendit le service sur les navires – désormais de plus en plus souvent à vapeur – toujours plus salissant, ce qui poussa à rendre les tenues plus pratiques. En 1852, le chapeau verni fut remplacé par un bonnet de marin souple et en 1859, les parements disparurent. Seule concession au confort : l’adjonction d’un surcot blanc qui se portait par-dessus le bonnet, dans le but de permettre au matelot de mieux supporter le soleil estival. Les uniformes changèrent peu durant la guerre, hormis l’adoption par les aspirants et les quartiers-maîtres d’une veste à double rangée de boutons, similaire à celle portée par les officiers. Ces derniers portaient pour leur part une casquette au lieu du bonnet de marin, remplacée dans la tenue d’apparat par un bicorne. Ils troquèrent souvent la casquette contre un canotier en période estivale ou dans les eaux subtropicales du golfe du Mexique.Initialement, la marine confédérée ne fit qu’imiter celle des États-Unis en prescrivant le port d’uniformes bleus marine, seuls les grades et insignes différant.

Ce n’est qu’en 1862 que le secrétariat sudiste à la Marine s’aligna sur l’armée en adoptant des uniformes gris. La coupe, pour sa part, demeurait assez similaire à celle de la flotte nordiste. La marine confédérée étant soumise aux mêmes restrictions que le reste des forces armées en matière d’habillement, elle ne fut généralement pas très regardante sur la tenue des simples matelots. Il existait également un corps des fusiliers marins confédérés (Confederate States Marine Corps), calqué sur le modèle de l’U.S. Marine Corps fédéral. Les marines sudistes portaient (théoriquement) un uniforme assez similaire à celui des soldats : gris avec un pantalon et des parements bleus marine.

Leurs homologues nordistes, pour leur part, avaient connu jusque-là une histoire vestimentaire un peu plus originale. Les premiers fusiliers marins américains, les Continental Marines créés en 1775, portaient un uniforme vert. Dissouts en 1783, reformés en 1798, les marines portèrent alternativement le bleu et le vert avant d’adopter une tenue entièrement bleue foncée en 1841. À l’instar de l’armée, ils adoptèrent en 1859 un uniforme de coupe française : redingote longue et shako à pompon pour la tenue de service, vareuse et képi pour celle de corvée. Les différences les plus visibles concernaient le pantalon, bleu marine et non bleu ciel, et les larges bandoulières blanches croisées sur la poitrine.


- David COLE, Survey of U.S. Army Uniforms, Weapons and Accoutrements, en ligne.
- Oscar LONG, Changes in the uniform of the army, 1895.
- Deux articles de Brooke Stoddard et Daniel Murphy sur les uniformes de la guerre de Sécession et l’habillement quotidien des combattants.
- James McPHERSON, La guerre de Sécession, Paris, Robert Laffont, collection Bouquins, 1991.
- Michael VAROLHA, Blue, gray, and everything in between, 2011, en ligne.
- Biographie de Simon Cameron.

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