08/21/13

Comfort from the Enemy

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The timely arrival of A. P. Hill’s division from Harper’s Ferry to bolster Lee’s battered line at Sharpsburg on the afternoon of September 17, 1862 stands as a classic moment in Confederate battle history. Several contemporary accounts claim that considerable numbers of Hill’s men were clad in blue uniforms captured from the Federal garrison, medical thus enabling the surprise element of their assault. Certainly at no point in it’s history was the Army of Northern Virginia in more ragged condition, and one of Hill’s men admitted to capturing at Harper’s Ferry an “immense quantity of stores . . . [including] meat, crackers, sugar, coffee, shoes, blankets, underclothing, &c.”

Yet, all this begs the question: Just how frequently did the average Johnny Reb avail himself of wearing pieces of Federal uniform? Research seems to indicate that, while authorities did not wholly sanction such a practice, the average soldier in the ranks was more driven by necessity and probably did it if he could get away with it. Even as early as the Valley Campaign of 1862, Stonewall Jackson found it necessary to issue an order to his army which stated: “No soldier is permitted to wear any article of the Federal uniform.”

Jessie Peek of the 9th Georgia infantry wearing captured Federal frock coat and "SNY" (State of New York) belt plate.

Jessie Peek of the 9th Georgia infantry wearing captured Federal frock coat and “SNY” (State of New York) belt plate.

While this order caused an almost “universal shedding of blue jackets, new trousers, U. S. belts, and comfortable caps,” such stopgap measures were only temporary.Virginia artilleryman Edward Moore recalled a number of men in his battery wore Union forage caps. Moore, himself, kept a blue sack coat for extra warmth. Likewise, John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade picked up a blue blouse during the Seven Days that he wore until being assigned skirmish duty. He ditched the garment afraid he might be “popped over” by one of his own men as an enemy. The rich larder of Federal stores captured at Manassas Junction gave other Rebs an opportunity to upgrade their wardrobe, and South Carolinian Berry Benson pillaged a pair of sky blue trousers he wore through Antietam.

In the western theater, the story was much the same. After Shiloh, one observer noted: “Unless he knew better, a stranger would mistake our army for first rate Yankees. Fully three-fifths of the men are dressed in federal hats and overcoats.” At Perryville in October, 1862 Confederate General Pat Cleburne reported that his men were shelled by their own artillery: “ I can only account for this blunder from the fact that most of our men had on blue Federal pants.” Cavalryman Bedford Forrest outfitted his command several times at the expense of the Federal government. “Every man had a complete Yankee Suit consisting of hats, coats, pants, jackets, and boots,” a Mississippian recollected. This posed an inherent problem which in 1864 caused Forrest to direct: “All men and officers belonging to this command who have blue Yankee overcoats and clothing and who do not have them dyed by [December] 20th the coats especially will be taken from them.”

Interestingly, a small cottage industry developed around recycled Union clothing. A Texas soldier who admitted that men of his brigade stripped Union dead at Fredericksburg, also noted that much of the scavenging was done by civilians or soldiers in support roles who made a “business” out of it. He further noted: “the [stolen] clothing, when washed, was good stock in second hand stores and its benefit was that it supplied the wanting soldier and the poor citizen at a low price.”

Dead Confederate soldier at Antietam wearing Union issue blouse.

Dead Confederate soldier at Antietam wearing Union issue blouse.

By Bob Williams

08/9/13

The Blue and the White?!

Jacket worn by J. J. Appler of the 1st Missouri Infantry during the Battle of Champion Hill. Photo courtesy Missouri Historical Society.

Jacket worn by J. J. Appler of the 1st Missouri Infantry during the Battle of Champion Hill. Photo courtesy Missouri Historical Society.

Just prior to the Battle of Pea Ridge, sildenafil check Arkansas in March 1862, and 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.”

Cotton jeans jacket worn by Private J. Prentice of the 38th Arkansas.

Cotton jeans jacket worn by Private J. Prentice of the 38th Arkansas.

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