Notes on Confederate Staff Officer Uniforms

“There is a need of an abundance of competent staff officers by the generals in command. Scarcely any of our generals [have] half of what they [need] to keep a constant and close supervision on the execution of important orders.” So Confederate artillery Colonel E. Porter Alexander viewed the essential importance of a having viable command staff organization to manage and maintain a large army in the field. 

While the regulations regarding staff positions were vague in terms of how many and what types of officers should be required, buy viagra there was at least some specificity in terms of how they should be uniformed. Confederate clothing regulations issued in 1861 ideally prescribed staff officers to wear a double-breasted frock coat of cadet gray cloth with buff facings. Rank would be denoted both by collar insignia and sleeve braid. Trousers were to be dark blue in color. Buttons were to be of “bright gilt’ with a raised eagle in the center, surrounded by stars. Appropriate headgear was detailed as a dark blue forage cap “similar in form to a French kepi.” Yet, in truth, there proved to be wide disparity between the desired status versus what staff functionaries actually adopted in the field. Since officers were required to furnish their own clothing until 1864, the myriad of supply sources resulted in a “look” that seldom met CS central government regulations.

Some came mighty close. Major Heros von Borke, on the staff of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry division, described the uniform he purchased in Richmond in 1862 as follows: “A light gray frock-coat with buff facings, dark blue trousers, and a little black cocked hat with sweeping ostrich plume . . . which is as picturesque as it is suitable for active service.” He further validated this as “the regulation dress for staff officers.” Fortunately for posterity, von Borcke had his photograph taken in a variation of above described uniform as shown.

Lt. McHenry Howard of Maryland served on General Charles Wilder's staff in 1862

Lt. McHenry Howard of Maryland served on General Charles Wilder’s staff in 1862

For most new staff officers, acquiring a uniform was more evolution than revolution. McHenry Howard of the 1st Maryland Infantry provides a glimpse of this metamorphosis in his delightful post-war recollections. Howard was serving as 1st Sergeant in the elite border-state unit when he was appointed in March 1862 to the staff of General Charles Winder. His uniform at the time being described as “shabby,” Howard proceeded to Richmond where he “ bought a plain gray [civilian] coat, without sign of rank, to replace my soldier’s jacket.” He wore this through the Valley Campaign. In late May, a Baltimore acquaintance “gave me and sewed on my shoulders a pair of first lieutenant’s epaulets (though Federal) so that while not in regulation Confederate uniform I had now sufficient marks of rank.” Not until after the Seven Days did Lt. Howard obtain finer raiment in which he too had his likeness struck. This surviving photograph shows him resplendent in a gray double-breasted officer’s pattern frock coat, gray trousers, and a dark blue forage cap.

Another young man who received staff appointment at the same time as Howard was fellow-Marylander Randolph W. McKim. Formerly a color sergeant, McKim recalled with some embarrassment having no proper uniform during his early days serving as AAG for General George H. Steuart. Following the Battle of Port Republic McKim repaired to Stanton, VA for the purpose of obtaining a new uniform. This he did, which consisted of a gray six-button shell jacket, dark blue cap with gold braid, and high riding boots. He carried a borrowed Federal staff officer’s sword captured at Manassas with a decorative ”US” on the hilt. McKim averred that said markings stood for “United South.”

Since many staff officers advanced from positions in line units it was only natural that they continued to wear the uniforms made according to the regulations put down by their respective states. The state “Army” regulations for Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina all called for the use of grey single-breasted frock coats with a seven or nine button front. Rank was to be designated by Federal-style shoulder boards or straps. Officers from South Carolina wore similar uniforms of dark blue cloth as prescribed for “Volunteer Forces” of the Palmetto State.

Confederate staff officer Gilbert Moxley Sorrell in regulation uniform.

Confederate staff officer Gilbert Moxley Sorrell in regulation uniform.

Other photos and surviving examples document the frequent wearing of double-breasted frock coats, at least for studio portraits. Cadet gray broadcloth and gray satinette seem to be the most commonly used fabrics but coats made of various colors of jeans cloth are not unknown. This “regulation” uniform is well illustrated in the above photograph of Georgia Colonel G. Moxley Sorrell of General James Longstreet’s staff. Later in the war, stout blue-gray English kersey wool also came into wide usage. In most cases, rank insignia was confined to the collar only since sleeve braid was both expensive and difficult to obtain.

Lt. James B. Washington and friend. Washington served on the staff of general Joseph E. Johnston and was captured at Seven Pines, VA.

Lt. James B. Washington and friend. Washington served on the staff of general Joseph E. Johnston and was captured at Seven Pines, VA.

While the regulation frock was undoubtedly the desired garment for dress occasions, comfort, practicality, and plain old economics drove many staff officers to adopt other forms of dress while in the field. Thus shell jackets, sack coats, single breasted frocks, and even pleated tunics became commonplace among CS staff officers as the war progressed. It is perhaps worthy to note that in the Museum of the Confederacy’s Uniform collection for company and field grade officers, 83% are double breasted frocks, 12% are shell jackets, and 5% are single breasted frocks. Of the frock coats, 73% are of Cadet Grey broadcloth or English kersey while the remaining 27% are of either jeans or satinette. Of course, since dress coats were often reserved for “extra” occasions, their high survivability rate cannot be considered statistically representative.

The wearing of shell jackets in the field was likely much greater than the above sampling would indicate.  There is the surviving 1862 image of Lieutenant James B. Washington of General Joseph Johnston’s staff shown here. His uniform exhibits a decidedly personal flair with large “patch” pockets and dark tape trim around the periphery of his jacket.

Later in the war staff officers were allowed to draw uniform items direct from the CS Central Government clothing depots. As such, their attire reflected what was in general use within the armies they served. One documented late-war staff officers jacket was worn by B. F. Pendleton of the Stonewall Brigade. Pendleton’s jacket is a government issued imported jacket made by Peter Tait & Co. of Limerick, Ireland. Although an infantry command, the blue-grey kersey jacket of English army cloth sports a red collar and a mix of infantry and staff buttons. Two other surviving jackets made of similar material worn by staffers also survive. One has a Trans-Mississippi provenance and the other a Coastal North Carolina affiliation.

Late war Peter Tait jacket worn by B. F. Pendleton as part of the Stonewall Brigade staff. Note absence of rank markings.

Late war Peter Tait jacket worn by B. F. Pendleton as part of the Stonewall Brigade staff. Note absence of rank markings.

Headgear, buttons, and trousers were whatever an officer could readily obtain, and that included liberal use of captured Federal items. Many early war staff officers who had seen previous Federal service wore their blue regulation uniforms into the field. One particular item that saw extensive usage by CS line and staff officers throughout the conflict was the “muffin style” Federal eagle staff button. Confederate manufactured staff buttons are generally found only on late war issued uniforms and sites.

Swords were nearly universally carried by staff officers, more as a symbol of rank and authority than for personal defense. While both the U.S. Army and the Confederacy produced so called “staff officers swords,” edged weapons actually used in the field were of every conceivable type and pattern. By way of research, a listing of Confederate swords by type, manufacturer, and owner currently in the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy:  https://www.ctsi.net/~moc/oldsite2/images/swordlist.pdf.

In closing it should be noted that Confederate staff officers were, in general, men of education, wealth, achievement, influence or all of the above. As such they represented themselves as gentlemen and dressed and behaved accordingly. Even when on extended campaign they sought to maintain a neat, clean, and soldierly appearance.

By Bob Williams