“What Time Was It?” – A Historian’s Challenge

I glance at the clock. I’m on the west coast of the United States, so I calculate a three hour time difference between my location and the library I need to call on the east coast. That’s not hard: 10am in California is 1pm in Virginia.

1859 Pocket Watch (Photography by suebun, via Wikimedia Commons)

1859 Pocket Watch
(Photography by suebun, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m reading a Gettysburg primary source. The soldier says the fighting began at daybreak. When’s daybreak? Reading on… What time did the Eleventh Corps break lines and retreat? What time did Pickett’s Charge begin? Oh, easy – “Captain Rob Smith” said it was at 3:00. How do you know Captain Rob Smith’s watch was accurate?

Here’s a few things I learned about “time past” during my Gettysburg research for Blue, Gray & CrimsonContinue reading

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Union Blue

Move over, Confederate Gray!

This week we explore some details about Union blue. Before we start, though, let’s clarify – the guys in blue during the American Civil War were almost always from the Northern states. (Unless it was the very beginning of the war when the armies wore whatever they wanted, unless we’re talking about guerrilla fighters, or unless it’s Confederates in captured uniforms…but I digress.)

For details of men’s clothing in the Civil War era, please see this blog post. The same rules of practicality based on job/position and clothing layers apply in the military setting.

Union_uniforms

  1. Blue Ain’t Anything New

Dark blue had been the standardized color of the United States Army for a long time. The more “traditionally uniformed” regiments of the American War For Independence wore blue (often with white and red facings) and it stayed the color of choice for the regular army through the War of 1812, Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and the Conflicts in the West.

2. Union Blue Was Officially Standardized

When the state militias and volunteers organized at the beginning of the Civil War, the soldiers in different units tended to wear whatever they liked (or whatever their moms, wives, or girlfriends had designed)…and it wasn’t always blue. Some Union guys went onto the early battlefields wearing gray, and that was a complete disaster – often involving friendly-fire.

General McClellan was appointed to organize the Union Army in Washington D.C. in the second half of 1861, and he worked vigorously to get all his soldiers in standardized blue uniforms. While McClellan was not a brilliant battlefield fighter, he was a good organizer; he transformed the Union Army from a disorganized, undisciplined group into a modern army…with blue uniforms.

Photo of a New York Zoauve Uniform (Photography by Matthew G. Bisanz - found on Wikicommons Images)

Photo of a New York Zouave Uniform
(Photography by Matthew G. Bisanz – found on Wikicommons Images)

3. Some Units Kept Their Special Uniforms

The 11th New York Regiment (nicknamed “The Fire Zouaves” because they were originally recruited from the city’s fire department) marched to war in unique and flashy uniforms. The outfit was patterned after the garments worn by French soldiers, fighting in North Africa. While it probably wouldn’t win a prize for practicality, it was an iconic uniform and some of the other New York regiments adopted the costume. The jacket was blue, so it passed inspection!

Berdan’s Sharpshooters was another uniquely uniformed regiment – they wore dark green.

It should be noted that while blue was the standardized color, there were plenty of other variations to uniforms – coat patterns, hats, boots/shoes. Some units – like the Iron Brigade – were easily identified by their unique accessories.

4. Corps Badges Were Used Later In The War

As the Union Army continued to advance in organizational skills, the corps system of army organization was adopted. Later in the war, each corps was assigned a special symbol – clover leaf, various types of crosses, and other heraldic emblems. These symbols were used on the brigade, division, and corps flags and soldiers might also wear them on their uniforms. Often the corps insignia might be found on the top of a kepi or on the front of the jacket.

Oh, and as a side note – officers’ rank was usually displayed as shoulder bar insignia. (Different than the Confederates, who tended to put rank insignia on the collar.)

5. Uniforms Were Issued By The Quartermaster Department

Once army supply was organized and semi-standardized, Union uniforms (the basic blue ones) came from the quartermaster department which obtained them from Northern manufacturers. Thus – as a general rule – the uniforms were provided by the federal government. (Quite different than the system adopted in the Confederacy.)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

 

5 Things You Didn’t Know About “Confederate Gray”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve explained the over-simplified rule that during the Civil War the Confederates (AKA – guys from the South, good guys, bad guys depending on your point of view) wore gray and the Union troops (AKA – guys from the North, good guys, bad guys depending on your point of view) wore blue. But…after all that simplification, there are some details about those gray uniforms that are quite interesting.

For details of men’s clothing in the Civil War era, please see this blog post. The same rules of practicality based on job/position and clothing layers apply in the military setting.

Confederate_uniforms

  1. Confederate Gray is a “relative” term.

It might not be gray! It could be butternut, cadet gray (which is like a foggy blue/gray), smoky gray…and probably coated with the brown, sandy, or red dust of the region of marching. The different shades of “gray” was part of the not-so-uniform uniforms of the Confederacy. Each state and each unit could have a say in the design process and then it could also depend on the available materials.

2. Each state could design official uniforms.

Remember the state’s right idea? Well, each state got the privilege of designing uniforms for their troops. To an untrained eye, those uniforms in the museums are just gray jackets, but if examined closely slight differences in the cut of the uniform may be observed. A big clue is the check a jacket’s buttons – many of the gold buttons of Confederate uniforms have a state’s “initials” on them which gives clues about the origin of the uniform and were its original wearer might have been from.

3. There were actually uniform factories – or uniforms were made at home.

Yes, a woman could get a respectable job sewing military uniforms…and get paid by the Confederate government (in Confederate money, of course.) For example, a uniform factory near Richmond cut out the patterns and sent them to local ladies who basted and then stitched the uniforms together.

In the beginning of the war, many uniforms were made by the soldiers’ families or the ladies of the local community. This trend also continued throughout the war – part of the un-centralized supply system in the South.

Notice the bar insignia on this young Confederate officer's uniform.

Notice the bar insignia on this young Confederate officer’s uniform.

4. Insignia (typically) goes on the collar if you’re a rebel.

Ever looked at an old photograph and can’t tell if that uniform was gray or blue? If the guy was an officer, then you’ll have a big clue. If the insignia (bars, stars, wreaths) is on the collar of the uniform, then he’s probably Confederate. (The Yankees preferred shoulder bar insignia).

5. A uniform was a fashion statement for a gentleman.

Last week we talked about civilian gentleman’s clothing and how society status was displayed in garments. Well, the same is true with uniforms.

While the common soldier made do with the basic uniform, a wealthy officer or gentleman of society rank would probably use his uniform to make a patriotic fashion statement. A song written by a common soldier criticizes these uniforms: Walking ’round with gold lace plenty, see the happy “brass button” gentry. Solomon in all his splendors, Was scarce arrayed like these defenders, In the war in Dixie.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

You Mean They Didn’t All Wear Uniforms?

President-Jefferson-Davis

This guy is not wearing a military uniform. Civilian clothes!!!

I’ll admit if I was an internet search engine and you gave me the keywords “Civil War man”, I’d probably send you a bunch of photos, paintings, and sketches of soldiers. It’s just what we tend to think of. You know, war equals soldiers.

Okay, but certainly not every American man enlisted with an army. What did the civilian men wear? What were the Gettysburg men wearing? Well, let’s discuss the basics. (I’ll be honest and admit I’m not expert on the precise patterns for waistcoats and etc., but I’ll tell you what I do know.)

What’s Your Job?

Practical clothing was key during the mid-19th century. A person had to be able to perform their work in the clothes they wore. So you weren’t going to find a middle class farmer  ploughing his muddy fields in a fine waistcoat, wool coat and pants, and silk necktie…but the middle class lawyer might have worn that when he represented his client in court.

The Basics of Men’s Clothing

Shirt and pants. (Okay, that’s oversimplified, so I’ll expound.)

Shirts – There were undershirts. There were outer shirts. There were collared shirts. There were collared shirts that needed cravats. Shirts could be made of white linen or cotton, plaid homespun or other cotton print – it all depends on the man and his work.

A good photo of a gentleman wearing Civil War era reproduction clothing: shirt, vest, hat, dark trousers, and boots.

A good photo of a gentleman wearing Civil War era reproduction clothing: shirt, vest, hat, dark trousers. It was a really hot day when this photo was taken, so the gentleman is relaxing without his coat.

Vests (Waistcoats) – There were plain, practical vests that a farmer or tradesman might have worn. Then there were the fancy waistcoats worn by wealthier gentlemen.

Coats – Again, plain and practical verses fancy status symbol. Coats were tailored and could be buttoned closed in the front. Coattails extended beyond the waist, but the cutaway fronts popular earlier in the century were not in vogue.

Trousers – there were different styles of course, but the regular two-legged, long pants were standard. Buttons instead of zippers, though, and cording in the back helped with sizing to fit the waist; suspenders (or sometimes belts) also helped to keep the trousers fitting properly. (Underpants – typically called “drawers” – were often worn.)

Hat – bowler, top, pork-pie, stovepipe, straw, etc. etc.

Shoes – footgear was made of leather (unless we’re talking about house slippers). Boots or tied shoes came in different styles…for many different purposes.

Paintings and Photos

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so let’s see if these help:

19th Century Farmer

A hard-working farmer is dressed casually while working in the fields. (I particularly like the straw hat.)

This young lad wears simple clothing while fishing. (Good detail of suspenders!)

This young lad wears simple clothing while fishing. (Good detail of suspenders!)

320px-George_Augustus_Henry_Sala

This fellow is wearing some nicer clothing. Notice the waistcoat, watch-chain, and hat.

Again a "properly dressed" gentleman. Notice the cravat and waistcoat.

Again a “properly dressed” gentleman. Notice the cravat and waistcoat. He is holding his gloves and a gentleman’s cane – this guy does not work in the fields and he’s dressed to impress.

Did the pictures help? Hopefully! Now, you know the basics of men’s clothing during the 1860’s.

(Oh, and this knowledge actually makes understanding blue and gray uniforms easier! Don’t believe there’s anything beyond the basics of a blue or gray coat? Stay tuned next Tuesday…)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

 

A New Look At CW Clothing – What Did Betsy Westmore Really Wear?

Well, she didn’t wear this while harvesting the gardening, hauling water, baking, and taking care of the wounded soldiers…

(From "Gone With The Wind")

(From “Gone With The Wind”)

Now, let’s be honest…Melanie’s dress is beautiful (as far as movie costumes go), but to imagine that all ladies and girls of the Civil War era wore such monstrosities of silk, lace, and whatnot is ridiculous. (Just like it’s ridiculous to suppose everybody owned slaves back then…but I digress.) But I will also tell you this…a lady can do many, many things (even household chores) in a hooped skirt and proper underclothes (yes, I’m referring to a corset). I’ve done it. And so did the real ladies of the Civil War times.

Last week we discussed “fashion” and what’s important to remember – read the blog post HERE. And today, we’ll leave Miss Melanie sitting idling in her gorgeous dress and find out what “common folks” wore during the era. Specifically, we’ll talk about the clothing of middle class women and girls. (We’ll talk about guy’s clothing next week.)

Sarah Broadhead, a Gettysburg resident, wears a nice representation of middle class ladies' clothing

Sarah Broadhead, a Gettysburg resident, wears a nice representation of middle class ladies’ clothing

Practical, Practical, Practical…& Modest & Beautiful

For a young woman like Betsy Westmore in Blue, Gray & Crimson: A Story of Civilian Courage at Gettysburg, clothing had to be practical. Betsy is a fictional character but she represents real girls of her era; she works alongside her mother. She kneels in the dirt. She cooks at a wood-fired stove. She helps to sew her own clothes.

Thus, clothing was made to be worn. A ruffled, lacy skirt might have been fashionable according to Godey’s, but it wouldn’t have been practical for Betsy.

Modesty was considered a virtue in the 19th Century. It was said that a person’s character could be reflected by their clothes (listen up, Scarlett O’Hara). So…any respectable lady or girl was going to dress properly – that meant long sleeves, high necklines, and long skirts. (Evening gowns are a different fashion story, and since no one in the story wears such a gown, I’m going to stay with the everyday clothing theme).

But, don’t get the idea that these women and girls dressed in dark, boring colors and made shapeless dresses. Beautiful calicos of many different colors were used in day/work dresses, and the dresses were tailored.

Aprons were worn to help keep dresses clean. The outer garments weren’t washed as frequently as we wash our clothes, but the underclothes were changed and cleansed regularly. The outer dress fabric was more expense and this was practical step to help the clothes last longer.

Blue, Gray & Crimson Cover3

Notice Betsy Wesmore’s simple dress. She is also wearing an apron to help keep her dress clean. This a good representation of working middle class clothing for a young lady.

Getting Dressed For The Day

The following is an excerpt from Blue, Gray & Crimson describing preparing for the day.

Betsy  poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin, washed her face, and then turned toward the small oak vanity table and mirror which Grandfather Westmore had made years ago. She sat down in front of the table and brushed her dark brown hair, parted it, and plaited it into a single long braid. Carefully, she twisted the braid into a knot at the base of her neck and poked hair pins into the coil to hold it in place. She put on her stockings and shoes next; it would be fun to go barefoot all the time in the summer, but that wasn’t proper for a young lady, especially when the Westmores could afford shoes. Glancing in the mirror, she noticed Rachel still lounging in bed. “Come on, get up,” she scolded. “Mother expects us downstairs, and I need help with my stays.”

“Again?”

 “Well, I haven’t yet mastered the stays’ laces in the back.” The corded stays were like a soft corset, but were not intended to be pulled tightly; they helped with good posture and provided comfortable modesty. Slowly, Rachel climbed from bed and began tightening the laces until the stays fit comfortably over the chemise and drawers.

“Thanks,” Betsy said as she pulled two petticoats over her head. Fashionable ladies might wear hooped skirts, but that was not practical on the farm. Sometimes, though, Betsy wished she could try on a hoop, just to see what it was like. She fastened the wooden buttons on her light blue bodice and slid the outer skirt over her head, asking Rachel to clasp it in the back.

“Your collar’s crooked,” Rachel commented and then smoothed the white linen around the bodice neckline. “There, now won’t you help me with my skirt?”

And that’s basically what a middle class girl or lady wore if she had to work around the family farm. If the girl or lady lived in town, she might have worn a corded petticoat or small hoop, but rest of the layers would be the same. (Note: women wore corsets – not stays, like young Betsy does. A corset was not a torture device – it helped with good posture and supported the weight of all the layers of clothing. Also, the underclothes – chemise and drawers – were usually made of cotton, which “breathes.” I have worn these layers of clothes on days over 100 degrees and survived in comfort.)

Re-thinking Our Ideas

Thanks to Hollywood productions we imagine all ladies of Civil War era wore large, fashionable dresses. But studies of original photographs (check Who Wore What? for lots of details) reveal that most women and girls dressed practically, keeping in mind their situation and social class. Certainly, the Westmore ladies dressed quite simply because they worked hard in their home and garden. Other ladies would’ve paired their calico work dresses with hoop skirts.

One of the most important things to remember when considering Civil War ladies’ clothing is: could they accomplish their tasks in the clothes? They loved pretty things, but they were also smart and practical…not just heedless followers of “fashion.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

Fashion: The Ideals & Realities of the Civil War Era

Godey's Lady's Book, 1863Betsy re-wrapped the calico in a piece of brown paper to keep it clean and glanced at a couple of sketches in a copy of Godey’s Ladies Magazine; she still had to decide what style of day dress she wanted…something practical and pretty since this would be her Sunday dress for several years.

            Rachel leaned on the table, gazing longingly at the sketches of elaborate hooped gowns crafted of delicate fabrics and trimmed with lace. “I wish I had a beautiful dress like that,” she murmured.  (Blue, Gray & Crimson: A Story of Civilian Courage at Gettysburg, page 51)

Godey’s Lady’s Book? What was it? This blog post introduces one of the most influential publications of the mid-19th Century and starts the discussion of Civil War era clothing, explaining what the Westmores and their Gettysburg friends would’ve been wearing.

A Magazine

Started in the 1840’s by publisher Louis Godey, Godey’s Lady’s Book (sometimes called Godey’s Magazine) had the largest circulation of any publication in the antebellum period. The magazine was written just for women, and each issue included articles, poetry, full-color fashion plates, homemaking tips, a sewing pattern, and sheet music.

Some of the articles were written by ladies – a breakthrough in American literature publication history. Also Sarah Josepha Hale was the magazine’s editor for forty years and under her direction the readership numbers reached 150,000 in 1860.

Interestingly, Godey’s refused to publish war news during the Civil War. Perhaps the editors felt women didn’t need to be concerned with the war, but obviously the ladies felt differently. Readership numbers dropped.

Influential Fashion Authority

While Godey’s articles, poetry, and other cultural commentary were enjoyed by the ladies (and by historians today!), fashion was the magazine’s forte. The beautifully illustrated, full-color fashion plates set the trends for ladies’ clothing in America.

Ladies would examine the sketches in the magazine, read the fashion advice, and recreate (or order their dressmakers to recreate) what they saw.

Click on a photo and enjoy some of these fashion sketches from an 1863 edition. (Note: not every fashion sketch was in color, but many were.)

What We Must Remember

If you like historic, Civil War era clothing, you might be green with envy (or dashing to your fabric closet and sewing machine) after looking at those sketches. However, there is something very important we must remember when viewing the fashion magazine and uncovering (or re-creating) reality.

Let me ask you a question. Do you or your friends dress like the models in fashion magazines of the modern era?

I’m going to guess your answer is: no. But you might copy certain things that you see and like. For example, I’ll look at winter fashion photos on Pinterest. I’m not a fan of the short skirts and leggings, but I love scarves. So I’ll add to my scarf collection and try the new way of twisting and tying the sparkly fabrics. There’s a lot of fashion that just doesn’t agree with folks’ personal preference or budget, but we do what we like and what we can.

Ah…now you discovered the reality of the Civil War era fashion too! Certainly not every lady could afford to wear the “elaborate hooped gowns crafted of delicate fabrics and trimmed with lace.” (And as Betsy points out later in the scene, those dresses weren’t practical!)

Yet, ladies like to know what was popular…fashionable. So they would look at the magazines and recreate what they could. (Exactly what Betsy is planning to do with her new dress.)

So What Did “The Common People” Really Wear?

I can’t answer that today, or I’ll really exceed my word limit. But I promise you that in the next four weeks, we’ll explore exactly what the Westmores of Gettysburg (common, respectable folks) were wearing. And we’ll also talk about military uniforms!

Until next week…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Did you know Godey’s introduced the Christmas tree to American readers? Queen Victoria of England had started the trend, Godey’s reported it, and Christmas trees were eventually adopted into American holiday culture. Here’s the engraving to prove it!

Godey's Lady's Book, 1850, Christmas Tree