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.”
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.”
By Bob Williams