Just prior to the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March 1862, the 1st Missouri Regiment of Sterling Price’s Southern army received its first government-issue uniforms. “The cloth was of rough and coarse texture,” one member recalled, “and the cutting and style would have produced a sensation in fashionable circles: the stuff was white, never having been colored . . . [and] the wool had not been purified by any application of water since it was taken from the back of the sheep. In pulling off and putting on the clothes, the olfactories were constantly exercised by the strong odor of that animal. . Our clothes, however, were strong and serviceable, even if we did look somewhat sheepish in them.” These drab jackets came with large wooden buttons which appeared quite distinctive when offset with black cartridge box belts.
Undyed uniforms of this type seem to have been quite commonly furnished to Confederate troops, particularly those serving in the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters of operation. The 2nd Texas Infantry wore similar white uniforms into the fight at Shiloh, prompting one Federal prisoner to ask: “Who were those hellcats that went into the battle with their grave clothes on?”
The elite 3rd Louisiana nearly rebelled when they received an issue of uniforms “made of coarse white jeans” in March 1863. At first they refused to wear them, except by special order. Later when the regiment was ordered on a forced march, “some of the men suggested the propriety of wearing the new white uniforms on the approaching expedition, which would be among the swamps of the Yazoo valley. The suggestion was universally adopted, affording a rare opportunity to give the new clothes a thorough initiation into the mysteries of a soldier’s life. Thus the regiment assembled the next morning arrayed as if for a summer’s day festival.” The Third continued to wear these garments thru the Vicksburg Campaign, and fought valiantly.
Undyed clothing also saw some usage in the eastern Confederate armies as well. One Federal soldier viewing the battlefield of South Mountain in 1862 observed: “All around lay the Confederate dead – undersized men mostly, from the coast district of North Carolina, with sallow hatchet faces, and clad in “butternut” – a color running all the way from a deep, coffee brown up to the whitish brown of ordinary dust.”
While surely not the only source, one supplier of undyed cloth was the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. There, inmates were put to work looming and weaving millions of yards of jeans cloth for indigent Texans and the Confederacy as a whole. Most of the material was not dyed after manufacture in order speed production and reduce the cost of manufacture. Large quantities of this durable “stuff” were made into jackets and trousers. Its inherent light weight made such clothing extremely suitable for wear in the heat and humidity of the Deep South. Much of Bragg’s army was said to have been attired in this “penitentiary clothing” at Chickamauga.
While not positively identified examples of the Huntsville output, several excellent specimens of undyed Confederate jackets survive today. One is attributed to Private James Prentice of the 38th Arkansas Infantry. Another, worn by J. J. Appler of the 1st Missouri Infantry, is in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society. Appler was wearing this jacket when severely wounded at Champion Hill in May 1863.
This distinctive clothing proves, once again, that the Civil War was more than the “Blue” vs. the “Gray.”
By Bob Williams