Six questions with a Civil War material culture scholar

Editor's note: At a recent symposium about the Civil War, Sarah Weicksel, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago, spoke about clothing during the war. Her talk was so interesting that we had to learn more. In today's post, Weicksel answers our questions about what Civil War soldiers wore and why—and yes, we did ask her about underwear. You can see the video of her talk at the symposium. 

 

The patterned shirt worn by Private David C. Colbert (Company C, 46th Virginia Infantry) is similar to many that would have been sent from home. He also wears a secession badge on his chest. (Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress
The patterned shirt worn by Private David C. Colbert (Company C, 46th Virginia Infantry) is similar to many that would have been sent from home. He also wears a secession badge on his chest. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress.

In your talk at the museum, we were surprised that certain items (like rain coats) weren't initially supplied by the military, but had to be sent from home or purchased by individual soldiers. What types of items were soldiers likely to write home and ask for or purchase at stores?

According to the Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861 (1863), during their first year of service, enlisted soldiers in the United States Army had a clothing allowance of: two caps; one hat; one fatigue forage cap; one pompon; one eagle and ring; one cover; two coats; three pairs of "trowsers;" three flannel shirts; three pairs of flannel drawers; four pairs of bootees; four pairs of stockings; one great coat; and one blanket. Cavalryman also received a stable-frock, while those who served as engineers or in ordnance were issued a pair of fatigue overalls. Records indicate that Confederate soldiers were issued similar types of garments.

If soldiers' clothing was lost or damaged, they could pay for and draw additional clothing. Alternatively, they could purchase articles of clothing from stores, hire a seamstress or tailor, or ask family members to send them a box. Soldiers could request that their clothing be made to match military styles. This list is by no means exhaustive, but some of the items men purchased, or asked their family to procure,included: boots and shoes; woolen, flannel and calico shirts; pants; hats and caps; drawers; socks; uniform insignia and trimmings; paper collars; great coats; and a variety of waterproofed garments, including ponchos, capes, leggings, gaiters, havelocks, and blankets (which could be converted to ponchos). Soldiers also requested various items that could be used to repair their clothing, including cloth, thread, and buttons.


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You can watch the video of Weicksel's talk here or on UStream

 

 

Many soldiers carried a “housewife,” or sewing kit, containing needles, thread, thimbles and other items for mending clothing. Repairs made by soldiers in camp could include sewing on buttons and insignia, mending tears, and even replacing the lining of jackets. This object is in the museum’s collection.
Many soldiers carried a "housewife," or sewing kit, containing needles, thread, thimbles and other items for mending clothing. Repairs made by soldiers in camp could include sewing on buttons and insignia, mending tears, and even replacing the lining of jackets. This kit is in the museum's collection.

This 1861 advertisement for Bennett, Griffin & Company suggests the range of ready-made men’s clothing available in stores. (Printed Ephemera Collection, Portfolio 67, Folder 21, Library of Congress
This 1861 advertisement for Bennett, Griffin & Company suggests the range of ready-made men’s clothing available in stores. Printed Ephemera Collection, Portfolio 67, Folder 21, Library of Congress.

Why was weight such an important factor in soldiers' clothing? What items were the heaviest?
The weight of an infantryman's gear—including his clothing—was important, quite simply, because he had to carry it when marching. As one Union soldier aptly described, "It is my intention to carry as light a knapsack as possible. I know what it is to tramp with a heavy one. [M]y shoulders and back suffered enough when we left Baltimore" (John D. Babb Family Papers, 1862-1865, Emory University).

 

Union Mounted Great Coat (1858-1865). Union Cavalry and Mounted Artillery soldiers were issued double-breasted great coats to be worn over their uniforms during the winter. All other soldiers were issued single-breasted great coats. This is in the museum’s collection.
Union Mounted Great Coat (1858-1865). Union Cavalry and Mounted Artillery soldiers were issued double-breasted great coats to be worn over their uniforms during the winter. All other soldiers were issued single-breasted great coats. This is in the museum's collection.

From a commanding officer's perspective, heavy knapsacks filled with extra clothing were not only uncomfortable—they also slowed down troop movements. Recently, I have been working with military records that recount the U.S. Army's efforts to deal with the very practical problem of moving soldiers' belongings from camp to camp. In some instances, knapsacks and extra clothing were loaded into government transports and sent closer to the site of the next encampment, allowing soldiers to move more quickly. In other instances, soldiers were ordered to abandon their excess clothing altogether. Such was the case for one Pennsylvania man, who was ordered to "throw away all our Cloathing and Blankets except one change of under shirts one blanket, which we use for a Saddle Blanket. Our Over Coat and Gum Coat" (Quoted in Smith and Wittenberg, We Have it Damn Hard Out Here, p. 36).

At times, soldiers themselves decided that some of their belongings were not worth their weight and abandoned them voluntarily. Letters and diaries note that it was not uncommon to find objects, including clothing, strewn along the path of the army's march. Those who could afford to might send unwanted items home to their families.The heaviest article of clothing was the great coat, or over coat, which was issued to soldiers to protect them during winter weather.

This photograph shows Private Albert H. Davis of Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry in his uniform, equipped with a knapsack, bedroll, canteen, and haversack. (Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress
This photograph shows Private Albert H. Davis of Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry in his uniform, equipped with a knapsack, bedroll, canteen, and haversack. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress.

It is sometimes said that Confederates were less well-dressed than the Union. Would you say that both sides had the same clothing woes or if one side had an advantage in clothing?
The Union army had the advantage in terms of clothing production. Not only were there more textile manufactories in the North, but Northern manufacturers also had better access to equipment and materials throughout the war. Still, the Union supply system did have problems of its own. At times, soldiers found it difficult to acquire new clothing, and some experienced frustration with ill-fitting pants and shoes, as well as clothing manufactured from "shoddy," an inferior fabric made from shredded cloth (rather than new, raw wool).

Despite such problems, the U.S. army's clothing supply was more reliable than that of the Confederacy. Many Union soldiers wrote home describing the "ragget" rebels, and numerous letters written by Confederates attest to problems of undersupply. There were certainly southern soldiers who wore tattered clothing and went without shoes. However, others seem to have been adequately supplied. I have also encountered Confederate officers who were purchasing trimmings for their uniforms well into the war, suggesting that, depending on who a man was and where he was located, appearances could be maintained. In my research, I am attempting to better understand Confederate clothing supply, and particularly the link between the material circumstances of war and the image of the ragged southern soldier who became such a central, compelling image in Lost Cause ideology.

Did the military issue undergarments during the Civil War? Or was that something a solider had to provide himself?
Undergarments were issued to both Union and Confederate soldiers. However, because these garments, including socks, drawers, and shirts, were worn closest to the body, they were easily soiled and needed to be replaced more frequently. As such, many soldiers supplemented issued undergarments with their own shirts, socks and drawers.

Have you found a Civil War clothing item or story that makes you laugh?
I have encountered a number of humorous stories related to clothing, ranging from jokes about flea infestations, to a deserter who was caught because his pants showed below the hemline of the woman's dress in which he had attempted to disguise himself.

 

Advertisement for Costar’s Vermin Exterminator (“Harper’s Weekly,” April 23, 1864, p. 271)
Advertisement for Costar's Vermin Exterminator ("Harper's Weekly," April 23, 1864, p. 271)

One of the most amusing stories I have encountered is about a Union soldier who was growing increasingly frustrated with the rats that shared his quarters and attempted to use his shoes to remedy the situation. He and his tent mate, he wrote, "took turns... throwing our boots at the rats," but to no avail. "Only last night," he continued, "a great big fellow with immense whiskers (did you know rats wore whiskers?) poked his head out from a hole whilst I sat writing, and when my eye fell upon him then the audacious wretch came boldly out and looked me in the face with a villainous look which had in it the concentration of a thousand murders. Even now, under the floor, the small fry of them (for they marry and are given in marriage) are beginning to make the night hideous with their sharp and petulant cries. O for some of Costar's 'Rat Exterminator,'" he wished, for throwing boots proved far from effective (Richard Realf Letters and Poems, 1864-65, The Newberry Library).

How did you get interested in this topic? What inspired you to research it?
My work as a historian is in part motivated by an effort to understand the ways in which material culture constructs and mediates conflict, experiences, identities, and meanings in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My current project arose from my interest in the intersection between material culture, gender, and war—and it initially began as a study of looting. However, as I began to delve into the historical sources it became very clear that clothing was one of the most consistently contested material objects during the Civil War. The narratives I encountered prompted me to ask, just what was it about clothing that made it so fraught with tension? Could the conflicts surrounding clothing production and consumption reveal something about the nature and conduct of war, or about wartime society itself? My research on soldiers' clothing is just one piece of that broader puzzle.

Sarah Weicksel is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at The University of Chicago, and a Graduate Scholar-in-Residence at The Newberry Library. She is currently at work on her dissertation project: "The Fabric of War: Clothing, Culture and Violence in the American Civil War Era." If you can't get enough of Civil War history, enjoy these other Civil War blog posts

Posted at 7:33 am EST in Civil War 150,From the Collections

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