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.


  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