05/5/14

“Cross Dressing” Rebs

Nothing is more grating to us armchair historians than watching an old “Grade B” Civil War movie and noting all the glaring inaccuracies contained therein. Here comes a column of Federals carrying M1873 Trapdoor Springfields! And yonder comes the Reb artillery clad in dirty gray jackets with blue collar and cuffs, while the infantrymen have yellow bands on their caps. Jeez! I mean anybody knows that infantry trim was blue, cavalry yellow, and artillery red. Right?!

Confederate Army of Tennessee artilleryman wearing blue-trimmed Columbus pattern shell jacket

Confederate Army of Tennessee artilleryman wearing blue-trimmed Columbus pattern shell jacket

Well, while the regulations did indeed specify such a branch of service color designation, the excengencies of war which the CS Quartermasters faced often produced an entirely different outcome not unlike the Hollywood portrayals. Take for instance the comments of the inspecting officer for the Army of Tennessee’s artillery batteries in August, 1864: “On very few occasions have I seen articles of clothing issued to the artillery with the proper (red) trimmings for that branch of the service. In nearly every instance it has been the uniform of the infantry, although occasionally I have seen jackets with artillery trimmings in the infantry.”

Just how common was this disregard of conformity to branch of service trim regulations in the issuance of clothing? Research seems to indicate that necessity generally prevailed over fashion in this regard. Geoff Walden’s excellent research on the so called Columbus Depot pattern shell jacket provides some interesting insight into this subject. The Columbus Depot was a principal supplier to the Confederacy’s western armies, and jackets attributed to that facility are noted for their blue collar and straight line blue cuff trim. Walden documents thru photographic evidence as well as extant museum examples that these blue trimmed jackets were indeed commonly issued to artillerymen and cavalrymen, along with their infantry bretheren. Such jackets are identified to members of the 1st Mississippi Artillery and 6th Louisiana Cavalry, among others. In addition, the Virginia Historical Society has in it’s collection the jacket of artilleryman Thomas Jefferson Beck of Fenner’s (LA) Battery. Thought to be a product of the Demopolis, Alabama depot, this jacket also has a collar trimmed with blue jeans material. So in the Army of Tennessee at least, the artillery inspector’s observation cited above does appear to ring true.

This red-trimmed kepi worn by a member of the Richmond Howitzers utilizes block "I" style infantry buttons

This red-trimmed kepi worn by a member of the Richmond Howitzers utilizes block “I” style infantry buttons

In the eastern theatre, the Richmond Depot seemed to circumvent this intrinsic identification problem by making “generic” jackets that generally had no branch of service trim after mid 1862. However, many of these jackets did include brass “Richmond pattern” buttons marked with a block style “I,” “A,” or “C” for the appropriate service arm. Once again, “the material evidence” indicates no real adherance to regulations. A surviving Richmond style jacket attributed to Joseph P. Lyle of the 63rd Tennessee Infantry sports “Block A” artillery buttons. Cavalry Brigadier General William Fitzhugh Payne wore an English grey jacket with “Block I” infantry buttons. A surviving red artillery kepi worn by a member of the Richmond (VA) Howitzers is adorned with regulation block “I” infantry buttons. Most interestingly, archeological evidence by relic hunters of a Confederate winter camp in the Fredericksburg, VA area found sets of buttons from the same “dropped jacket” which included “Block I’s” and “Block A’s” mixed together.

State seal buttons and buckles also saw indiscriminate use regardless of the wearer’s affiliation. Officers of the 1st Florida Infantry Battalion purchased South Carolina State seal buttons for their new uniform coats while stationed near Savannah in 1863. Artifacts in various museum collections document that Captain Edward Owen of the Washington (LA) Artillery wore a two piece Virginia belt plate, while Frank Hume of the 21st Mississippi Infantry wore a Maryland rectangular pattern sword belt plate. And a great photo in Bill Turner’s Even More Confederate Faces depicts Private R. N. Read of Tiller’s (GA) Light Artillery wearing a Georgia seal oval belt plate and a frock coat with South Carolina buttons!

This late war jacket with Script "I" buttons was worn by Confederate artillery officer William Blakemore. The red trim was added post-war.

This late war jacket with Script “I” buttons was worn by Confederate artillery officer William Blakemore. The red trim was added post-war.

By now you get the picture. The point of all this is not to encourage a gross non-conformity to uniform regulations when portraying a typical Confederate soldier, but rather to illustrate how the rigors of war often forced Johnny Reb to “make do” with whatever he could get in the clothing/equipment line. So, the next time you feel like critiquing the accuracy of some cheesy Hollywood Civil War flik, just remember that it could be unwittingly correct!

By Bob Williams