Brassey’s History of Uniforms: American Civil War, Union Army, by Robin Smith, and Brassey’s Historyof Uniforms: American Civil War, Confederate Army, by Ron Field, Brassey’s Inc., McLean, Va., $31.95 each.
When President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to fight the South in April 1861, he placed a heavy burden on an unprepared quartermaster department. Supplies of good-quality cheap cloth for uniforms were lacking. Some states were asked to provide their own uniforms for their recruits, and the quality and variety seemed limitless. Many early Union militia units adopted gray as their dress color, while the quality of material ranged from superior to poor.
The South, likewise, faced numerous problems in providing uniforms for its troops. States issued jackets, shirts and trousers sewed by womens’ volunteer aid societies. A shortage of material meant that a mixture of shades and hues was commonplace. While imported cloth was smuggled through the Union blockade and sewn in newly created workshops, the lack of an adequate transportation system left warehouses of uniforms virtually untouched by war’s end.
In both these volumes of Brassey’s History of Uniforms, Union and Confederate uniforms are examined in terms of style, quality and color. What emerges is a fascinating glimpse at both governments’ “make do” efforts, ranging from the exotic to the hilarious. Among the more colorful uniforms of the South was one consisting of jaguar-skin trousers with concho side seams worn by a Texas cavalry officer. Federal troops often sported uniforms with strong European ties, including chasseur-style coats and the famous French Zouave outfit. The 39th New York Volunteers wore colorful uniforms copied from the Italian bersaglieri.
Ron Field’s description of the Confederate uniforms is arranged by state, detailing uniform variations and how each state met the challenge of clothing its soldiers. Mississippi, for instance, was virtually destitute of cloth supplies by February 1861. But the state took over the textile industry and had its prisoners work making uniforms.
Each of these oversized volumes is highlighted with haunting photographs of the soldiers in the numerous uniform styles they wore. Color plates by artists Chris Collingwood (Union) and Richard Hook (Confederate) further accent the text. While neither volume delves into the minutiae of the subject, they both provide an excellent introduction to the variations of uniforms worn in the Civil War.
Kenneth P. Czech