10/8/13

Some Common “Confederate” Uniform Buttons

On March 13, 1861, the Raleigh North Carolina Standard reported: “O. S. Baldwin, Esq., of Wilmington, N. C., has placed upon our table a specimen of the military button, recently advertised in our paper, having embossed the coat of arms of our State. Knowing little of heraldry, we can not see much in the coat of arms to admire, but as to the mechanical execution of the button itself, we can truly say it is decidedly neat and in good taste.” Indeed, the attractive North Carolina button is among the most commonly found state seal type buttons found on battlefields and in Confederate campsites today.

An even more common button utilized throughout the war by Southern soldiers from all states was the lowly “flower” or “coin” button. In May, 1861, The Wilmington Journal advertised that the firm of Leon and Swarzman was selling military buttons for 66 and 2/3 cents per dozen: “These buttons are perfectly plain, as Messrs. L. & S. inform us that they have not been able to get the dies made yet so as to impress them with the State arms.”

These common flat and "flower" buttons of the mid-19th century were often used on Confederate uniform coats. These are often referred to today as Golden Age buttons. Image courtesy OZ Militaria.

These common flat and “flower” buttons of the mid-19th century were often used on Confederate uniform coats. These are often referred to today as Golden Age buttons. Image courtesy OZ Militaria.

Any brass button in the 1860s was considered a “military button,” and in the rush to clothe troops in the early months of the war, metal buttons of all types adorned early uniforms. They are either one or two piece in construction and range in size from the cuff variety to over an inch in diameter. Many of the buttons were brass or gold plated. They exist in an unending array of designs. Modern collectors refer to them as “flower,” “Golden Age,” or “geometric” pattern buttons. Other buttons of the “coin” or “flat” variety have their origin in Colonial days. Still others of the “Sportsman” variety have dogs, eagles, or bears on them. The late Mac Mason, an ardent Virginia collector, used to travel to various relic shows with a huge display of hundreds of different flower and coin buttons he had found in many years of relic hunting. These are “true” Confederate buttons, and non dug examples can often be found at relic and antique shows if one knows what to look for. “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous old blue forage cap even sports flower buttons on the side, as do many other caps privately made for Confederate officers.

When the 6th NCST went off to war, its early sack coats were adorned with a particular type of domed two-piece with a unique floral display. Buttons of this pattern were unearthed in considerable quantity from the Sixth’s 1861 winter camp around Dumfries, VA. This writer dug one of this type of button, and has found two non dug specimens in pristine condition at antique shows. Most people would never presume these buttons to have CS affiliation. Prices generally range from $2-$5!Usage of these type buttons continued even through Appomattox, as archaeological evidence indicates. They form a unique and part of Confederate material culture.

An even more homely but truly Confederate button that saw extremely wide usage was the plain, ordinary wooden variety. These buttons were produced in large quantities to circumvent the shortage of brass and stamping dies, and saw use in every theater. Their size was generally from ½” to 1” in diameter and they came in both two hole and four hole pattern. They may well be the most common Confederate manufactured uniform button.

As described by Dr. S. H. Stout: “While on an inspecting tour in Columbus, Ga. in the winter of 1862-63, I was informed that wooden, horn and bone buttons were being manufactured there, and I visited the plant. The factory was owned by a former lieutenant of the Confederate army, who had lost an arm in one of the early battles. The motive power of his factory was an engine of moderate horsepower that had been used to run a printing press. So complete were the saws, borers, and drying kilns that in the final process of their manufacture the completed buttons dropped into the hoppers with as much rapidity as nails from a nail making machine.”

These two Southern stalwarts wear Richmond Depot issued jackets closed with plain four-hole wooden buttons.

These two Southern stalwarts wear Richmond Depot issued jackets closed with plain four-hole wooden buttons.

Even as early as 1862 the 1st Missouri Brigade received white wool uniforms with large wooden buttons which appeared quite distinctive when offset with black crossbelts. Numerous photos of North Carolina Troops (and others), particularly those wearing Richmond Depot jackets issued in the late summer of 1862, show four hole wooden buttons. In late 1863, the Savannah garrison reported having on hand: a lot [of 2600 jackets] made of Georgia jeans, from the Richmond factory, with wooden buttons, an inferior article.” Furthermore, a Reb prisoner captured around Richmond in late 1864 had a “jacket [of] dirty white coarse flannel the cuffs and collr dark blue and the buttons, large wooden very rough looking . . .”

Additionally, numerous museum collections house surviving examples of Confederate uniform jackets with crude wooden buttons. The Gettysburg National Park Museum owns two fine examples. While most of these are of coarse woolen jeans with a provenance to Deep South depots, examples of fine English wool kersey jackets with wooden buttons, one identified to a member of the Richmond “Otey” Battery, are also known.

This is not to say that these wooden buttons were popular with the troops. They broke easily and were replaced as quickly as resources permitted with more durable buttons, preferably of brass. Southern hospital matron Phoebe Yates Pember describes how her patients developed a button mania: “Men who had never had a dream or a hope beyond a horn convenience to keep their clothing together, saved up their scanty means to replace them with gilt, and made neat little wooden shelves with a slit through the middle into which the buttons slid, so that they could be cleaned or brightened without taking them off, or soiling the jacket.”

It is no surprise that buttons of Federal origin were very commonly used on Confederate garments. These buttons came from a number of sources.

Large quantities of pre-war stocks were acquired when seceding states seized Federal arsenals. As a result, buttons of the Eagle “I,” “A,” “C,” “R,” and “V” patterns adorned the uniform coats of many young Southern volunteers. They are frequently recovered by relic hunters from Confederate camps. Gravesites attributed to the 8th Louisiana Infantry near Centerville, VA yielded a considerable number of eagle “letter” buttons. In fact, Union buttons are much more commonly found on CS sites than those of Southern manufacture or European import. Additionally, early war photographs of North Carolina soldiers likewise document the usage of Federal buttons well before the North Carolina State seal button came into common usage.

Additional Federal buttons were also gleaned from battlefield captures, particularly at 1st Manassas, Shiloh, and the Seven Days. Not just eagle buttons, but Federal state issue patterns as well, found their way into Confederate ranks. A late war jacket belonging to E. F. Barnes of the Richmond Howitzers, utilized buttons of both the Virginia and New York State types. It is in the Confederate Museum in Richmond The North Carolinia Museum of History houses a “camp uniform” worn by General Robert Hoke that sports New York, eagle, and flower buttons.

Union eagle buttons on the jacket of a dead Confederate soldier, ca. 1865.

Union eagle buttons on the jacket of a dead Confederate soldier, ca. 1865.

Federal buttons were also acquired in trade from Union prisoners. Ezra Hoyt Ripple of the 52nd Pennsylvania, in his fascinating memoir of prison life called Dancing Along the Deadline, describes the button market at Andersonville: “When money and trinkets of varying kinds were exhausted, we had to fall back on something else as a purchasing power. Luckily for us we had buttons, and buttons were in great demand among the rebs. I do not know what the Confederate Army regulations were in regard to buttons, but I do know there seemed to be no limit to the number a Reb would put on his coat if he had them. The buttons were of several grades in value, the lowest being the regulation button, the next the New York State button, and the highest the Officers and Staff buttons . . . I have seen private reb soldiers with four rows of buttons in front and a corresponding number on cuffs and coat-tails.”

Actually, the Federal Staff or Eagle Officer’s button is the most commonly noted button on Confederate officers uniform coats, as is documented by the superb MOC uniform collection. Several officer’s coats in the NCMOH attributed to members of the 26th NCT also use buttons of the Federal staff type.

By Bob Williams