Failed objects: Bullet proof vests and design in the American Civil War

Scholar Sarah Weicksel continues her exploration of Civil War clothing with a look at the bullet proof vest.

In late March 1862, Illinois officer John Cheney wrote home to his wife Mary about recent happenings in camp. "Lew Smith is here selling those bulletproof vests," he relayed. "I think they are a good thing and may buy one" (quoted in Gordon Armstrong, ed., Illinois Artillery Officer's Civil War, 24).

 

This regular, non-bullet proof vest was worn by a colonel in the Confederate Army Infantry.
This regular, non-bullet proof vest was worn by a colonel in the Confederate Army Infantry.

 

John Cheney was one of many Union soldiers who were tempted by advertisers' promises of the merits of bullet proof vests. Such protective battle garments were not, of course, altogether new—armor had been used for centuries. But, continued advances in weaponry—and ballistics technology in particular—far outpaced the technology used in the design of such protective garments, posing a serious dilemma for military men in the mid-nineteenth century.

Multiple styles of bullet proof vests were commercially available and advertised during the Civil War. Although they were not issued by the army, soldiers or their families with disposable income could purchase vests by mail, in stores, or from camp peddlers like Lew Smith for between $5.00 and $8.00 (approximately $115.00 to $147.00 in today's currency)—the equivalent of roughly one-third to one-half of a private's monthly pay.

Advertisers made great claims about the effectiveness of these vests, touting them as having "saved the lives of Generals, Colonels, Captains, and thousands of soldiers" and asserted that the vests would continue to save the lives of thousands more. Wearing such a vest, they explained, would "double the value and the power of the soldier," presumably suggesting that, with the appropriate battle garments, a Union soldier could achieve an even more glorious victory.

The most widely available vest seems to have been "The Soldiers' Bullet-proof Vest" that was advertised in Harper's Weekly, a widely-circulated New York City-based newspaper.

The Soldiers’ Bullet Proof Vest, “Harper’s Weekly,” March 15, 1862, p. 176
The Soldiers' Bullet Proof Vest, "Harper's Weekly," March 15, 1862, p. 176

These vests, as one soldier aptly described, "were nothing more than ordinary vests with metal plates between the lining and the outside of the front of the vest" (DeVelling, History of the Seventeenth Regiment, 119). Sheet-iron or cast iron plates were formed to fit the general curvature of a man's torso before being inserted between layers of cotton and wool fabric. The vests, however, were far from custom-made. Instead, they could be purchased in sizes "Nos. 1, 2, and 3." According to the pictured advertisement, No. 2 would fit nearly all men. Potential purchasers were also assured that the vests were "repeatedly and thoroughly tested" and would repel rifle bullets at 40 rods (220 yards) and pistol bullets at 10 paces.

In theory, the vests were appealing. As one soldier wrote: "To be 'iron clad' when the bullets should fly as thick as hail! What more could a soldier ask?" (Walker, History of the Eighteenth Regiment Conn. Volunteers, 21). In actuality, however, the vests proved to be failed objects on multiple levels, ranging from ease of use to their effectiveness. Although advertisers claimed that the vests were "simple" and "light," soldiers found them extremely cumbersome due to their inflexibility and weight. Colonel Charles F. Johnson of New Jersey explained to his wife: "the only objection that I have to them is that they are so confounded heavy for this season of the year" (quoted in Pelka, ed., The Civil War Letters of Colonel Charles F. Johnson, 112). Many soldiers' letters and memoirs recounted the abandonment of bullet proof vests along the march, where they littered the side of the road along with other unwanted gear.

With no oversight to ensure the reliability of manufacturers' claims, it was the soldier's prerogative as to whether or not to accept assurances that the vests had been "repeatedly and thoroughly tested." While some soldiers wore the vests into battle, others opted to first test the effectiveness of the garments themselves. Colonel Johnson, for instance, sat down one morning in May 1862 to write a letter to his wife, telling her that he and his fellow field officers were just about to test their newly arrived bullet proof vests with muskets, rifles, and pistols. He resumed his letter a few hours later, reporting that they had "just returned with the great, mighty, powerful 'bullit proof' vest and the result is that a common musket put a ball clear through it at 50 yards, through yes, and carried some four or five inches of the stuff with it." The metal and cloth fragments carried by the bullet into a man's body, he surmised, "would have killed the devil himself if it all had entered his body" (Pelka, 112-113).

The vests did provide some degree of protection, judging from the bullet-shaped dents in surviving vests. But they were ineffective in close combat, and, as Johnson rightly pointed out, wearing a vest could have resulted in an even more deadly wound if a man was shot at close range, whether from immediate impact, or an infection festering around the bits of cloth and metal that the bullet pushed into his body.

While it is difficult to calculate how many bullet proof vests were actually sold, most soldiers who did purchase these vests seem to have abandoned them relatively quickly, although not always prior to battle. Men were occasionally discovered to be wearing the vests as they lay on the battlefield, wounded or dead.

American manufacturers continued to experiment with bullet proof technology after the Civil War. However, it was not until one hundred years later, in the 1960s, that chemist Stephanie Kwolek developed Kevlar, the first technology to successfully repel bullets with any consistency.

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." She has also blogged about other types of clothing in the Civil War

Posted at 9:00 am EDT in Civil War 150