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Basics for beginners: How to pick a good Union Army sack coat

Posted on Friday, September 5, 2014 at 7:33 am

While it is true, as Edward Quigley wrote in “The Issue Fatigue Blouse” chapter in The Columbia Rifles Research Compendium, that “there is always a danger when describing ‘what to look for in a reproduction’ by detailing the various parts of originals,” there are some things for which a reenactor can look and some prudent things he can do when shopping for a sack coat.

Following are some suggestions that might help a “fresh fish” spend his money wisely and obtain a coat more likely to be an accurately made reproduction

1. Learn about original coats. At the very least, read Mr. Quigley’s article mentioned above (“The Issue Fatigue Blouse” in The Columbia Rifles Research Compendium; Columbia Rifles, 2001) as well as Mike Cunningham’s Trying to Bag a Decent Sack Coat in the Spring, 1994 edition of “The Watchdog.” Even better- obtain a copy of “For Fatigue Purposes …” The Army Sack Coat of 1857-1872 by Patrick Brown (The Watchdog Quarterly, Inc., Warren, Michigan, 2003). Mr. Brown’s carefully researched, lavishly illustrated volume is essential reading for every Civil War Union Army reenactor – and it won’t hurt Confederates to read it either! If possible, look at original coats either in museums or in the hands of private collectors. Good luck – they are extremely scarce and financially valuable today, and tend to be kept under tight security in either public or private hands.

2. Make certain that you really do want a sack coat. If you are joining an established reenacting unit, check to see what kind of coat is required of its members by the unit. The sack coat is not the only alternative available – some units prefer frock coats, some wear jackets, and some permit a mix of styles or encourage wear of different coat types on different occasions. If you plan to remain “independent” for a while, the sack coat is a good choice. Sack coats tend to cost less than frocks or jackets, and they are generally acceptable with most of the groups that you are likely to form up with at events.

3. Remember that while all sack coats have the same general appearance, there are many, many variations among surviving original examples. Doubtless, there were many, many more variations that have disappeared completely, and about which we know nothing. In general, though, try to match your coat to the unit, theater of the war, and time period during the war that you expect to be portraying. Scholars who have studied these coats have learned that some variations are based upon the sources from which the Army obtained the coats as well as the time and place in which the coats were issued and used. There is no such thing as a “generic” sack coat suitable to every time and place from 1861 through 1865.

4. Bearing in mind all of the above, there are nevertheless some physical characteristics that were universal – or nearly enough universal to suit the historical accuracy requirements of most modern-day reenactors. Look for the following characteristics when shopping for your sack coat:

While there is considerable color shade and hue variation among surviving original sack coats, the color should be a rich, dark blue, like that which resulted from use of indigo dyes – not blue/black navy blue, not electric blue, and not purplish blue.

The fabric must be 100 percent wool flannel – relatively loosely woven. It must have a definite, diagonal twill wale. The fabric should be of medium weight- avoid heavy, fuzzy coat weight fabric. While the reenactment shopper is unlikely to count the threads or ascertain the weight of the fabric, be aware that an 1865 manual described the desired fabric as having forty-eight threads to the inch and weighing five and a half ounces to the yard.

Both lined and unlined coats were issued to the Union Army. Lined coats outnumbered unlined ones by about three to one. If you decide that a lined coat is what you want, be sure that the lining in the body of the coat is of linen, a cotton/wool blend, or light wool flannel. Coat body linings were usually gray or brown, but often light blue. Some surviving examples have checked flannel linings. The body lining should stop two or three inches above the bottom hem of the coat, and the bottom edge of the lining was not usually sewn down to the coat fabric. Sleeves were usually lined with lightweight material such as cotton muslin.

The collars on many reproduction sack coats appear to be too large. Collars on original coats tended to be only between 1 ¼ and 1 ¾ inches high at the back when raised upright.

The buttonholes on all existing Civil War sack coats known to students of these garments are hand sewn, and so should be the ones on reproduction coats. As to the stitching elsewhere in the coat – there is considerable variation among surviving originals. If you are concerned about machine versus hand stitching, you will be well served to study Mr. Brown’s book in detail.

Original coats had indentations at the cuff like that shown in this photograph of a reproduction coat. The size of this feature varies considerably among surviving original Civil War sack coats.

Sack coats typically had two-piece sleeves, normally slightly curved forward a bit. The wide elbow that characterized Civil War era garments is visible even on many original sack coats – hardly the most fashionable articles of clothing being worn in the 1860s

Don’t look for a perfect fit when trying on sack coats. In theory, most issued coats were made to only four standard sizes, and soldiers got a coat of a size somewhere close to what they really needed. In theory, that is – in fact, there are so many variations in sizes among surviving originals that the four-size numbering system may have been meaningless. In any event, it is unlikely that anybody in all of history ever put on one of these coats and said to himself, “Gosh, I look really sharp in this!”

Remember- be sure to determine whether a sack coat is what you really need. You might be better off with a frock coat or a jacket – especially if you are portraying a cavalryman or an artilleryman – and you may well end up with one of each. This photograph shows an infantry enlisted man’s frock coat, complete with brass shoulder scales. Long skirts characterize frock coats. As many Civil War soldiers observed, frock coats do have a distinctly “military” look about them when compared to sack coats.

Sources:

Brown, Patrick. The Army Sack Coat of 1859-1872. MI: The Watchdog Quarterly, Inc., 2003. Cunningham, Michael. Trying to Bag A Decent Sack Coat in “The Watchdog,” Volume 2, No.2; Spring, 1994. Quigley, Edward. “The Issue Fatigue Blouse” in The Columbia Rifles Research Compendium. Boxborough, MA: Columbia Rifles, 2001.

-By Nicky Hughes