This topic should be of interest to any living historian or re-enactor who has to have multiple uniforms to be able to galvanize and who wants to make the best impression. The first and foremost thing to understand is that the US Regulations for uniforms are not the same and they are specifically designed to make the Officers, NCO’s and Privates look different for the purpose of easy identification. These differences do, however, continue to cause some problems on the field due to misinterpretation of the 1862 regulations and the changes that followed, which are quite detailed.
The fastest way to make sure you don’t make mistakes selecting Federal Officer uniform parts and equipment is to take the time to read the regulations or at least those that apply to your branch and if you do, you won’t go wrong. Once you have done that, then look at period photos which show the men in their uniforms, so can identify the correct items you want to purchase.
To get started, let’s talk about the coat designs assigned specifically to Federal Officers and note, that the material used in them is normally heavier that what is used for Enlisted coats, has a tighter weft in the wool fabric and the coats are lined. These uniform designs include:
THE FROCK COAT
The Frock coat was the primary dress uniform coat used by Officers in all branches during the war. It was identical in appearance to the coat used by Enlisted personnel, except no branch trim was placed on the collar or sleeves. It differed in that the tail was longer, the button placement was different and it was made of better quality materials. Many times, Subaltern Officers choose to add the dark blue-black velvet collar and cuffs and the coat was easily converted to dress use, by removing the gilt shoulder boards and replacing them with gilt dress epaulettes that attached to the coat, using the some of the same fasteners that held the boards.
Many photographs of Officers show them wearing a vest, in either dark blue or off white. Photographs of Gen. W.T. Sherman show him with his frock coat not buttoned and wearing his white vest; this appears to be the proper fashion for senior Officers of the time. None of them should have been photographed with the coat unbuttoned, as the regulations required the top button to be fastened. This was a violation of the 1861 uniform regulations, which both Sherman and Grant loathed and generally disregarded in their own dress, opting for maximum simplicity. After all, who would dare say anything?
The sash and sword were always used by the Officers with this coat, when it was worn on duty to any official function, morning parade or in the field, in battle. The Frock coat remained popular with many Officers through the Spanish American War. It was dropped during the reorganization period in 1902-1904, when numerous new uniform regulations, colors, equipment, training practices and procedures were approved.
The Roundabout is a name derived from the British and French Dragoons who wore a short, waist length jacket, designed specifically for mounted Troopers and Officers. The design proved to be far easier for the rider to handle his pistol or sword and they offered less chance of getting snagged on the brush. The Federal Roundabout is a jacket used by Officers from all branches. They were not authorized to wear and did not use the standard shell jacket, found in the pattern approved for Enlisted personnel of the Light Artillery or Cavalry. I have never seen a period photograph of an Enlisted shell jack, converted to Officers use, by adding gilt shoulder boards.
The Federal roundabout is a waist length, multi-button jacket, devoid of ornamentation and branch trim and it is navy blue in color. It was not always issued just to mounted Officers and there are photographs showing Infantry Officers wearing this jacket. When it’s used by Infantry or Cavalry Officers, they wear standard Officers gilt shoulder boards to denote rank. If it’s being used by Light Artillery or Marine Officers, they wear the rare Russian knot to denote rank. There are photographs that show Officers with these devices on their jackets, along with a few showing gilt shoulder boards. In addition, the button placement on the Roundabout follows standard US Regulations using single and double rows, denoting Junior and Senior Officers. The variations of this design have the addition of a dark blue-black velvet collar and cuffs and the sash and sword would be worn with this jacket, according to Regulation.
This jacket was issued by the New York State Militia and it was a favorite coat of both Enlisted men and Officers in many of the other state Militias.
THE SACK COAT
The Sack coat was offered to Officers for the same reasons that it was originally developed for the Enlisted men. The Officers version of the coat differed from the Enlisted version, as follows: It had a five (5) button front in a single row; each sleeve had three (3) small buttons at the cuff; it was lined to the waist; had three (3) external pockets; had one (1) inside pocket and the tail length came to the hip. It was usually 18 oz. wool, but some coats are made of heavier wool and better quality fabrics by private tailors. To denote rank, standard Officers gilt shoulder boards are added and many Subaltern Officers opted to include a black velvet collar and cuffs.
While this coat was popular with Officers, it never replaced the Frock coat as the dress uniform coat and it was not made by the hundreds of thousands, like the Enlisted version. I am sure that part of the popularity of this coat with the younger Officers, lay in the fact they had to pay for their uniforms (unlike Enlisted men) and it was considerably cheaper that a Frock coat. If you look at period photos, focusing on those of General Officers with their staff, you see a lot of Sack coats, especially on the Company grade Officers.
The Sack coat was worn by several notable Officers, including Brig. Gen. John Buford at McPherson’s Barn, on the first day of Gettysburg and it was favored by Gen. U.S. Grant. Many newspapers of the day, incorrectly reported that Grant wore “a mud spattered Enlisted man’s sack coat, with Officers shoulder boards sewn on it”, during the famous surrender at Appomattox. This was in stark contrast to Gen. R.E. Lee who wore his best uniform and carried his presentation sword, for fear he would become a prisoner.
If you carefully examine the drawings and photographs of Grant taken at Appomattox, you can clearly see his coat has five (5) buttons and the three (3) buttons on the sleeves, not four (4) buttons down the front, with no sleeve buttons. This makes it a standard Officers Sack coat, not an Enlisted man’s Sack coat. The newspapers reporters got it wrong back then, just like they often do today.
ZOUAVE’S, SHARPSHOOTER’S & MARINE’S
Many Zouave Officers used the Frock coats, as prescribed by regulation and essentially looked like Infantry Officers. They used red or red/ blue color for their kepis and some units wore red trousers, but they used the same gilt shoulder boards to denote rank and carried similar equipment and accoutrements, as did Infantry Officers. I have never seen a photograph of a Zouave Officer in a Sack coat, but I will not go so far as to say this never happened.
Col. Hiram Berdan’s famed Sharpshooters wore the same type uniform as the regular Infantry, except it is dark green in color (coat & trousers), which is unique to their organization. The same gilt shoulder boards are used to denote rank and their equipment and accoutrements, except for the rifle, are identical to what an Infantryman received. I have been told by re-enactors of this famous unit, that everyone (Enlisted men and Officers) wore a Frock type coat according to pattern and that they did not use the Roundabout or the Sack coat. Perhaps, some of the readers who know this unit better than I, will elaborate on this point.
Officers of the US Marine Corps had a distinctive uniform, colors, equipment and accoutrements and their rank is denoted by the gilt Russian knot, affixed to the shoulders, not the more common gilt shoulder boards. Their trousers, leather, insignias, belt plate and sword are different from those carried by the regular Infantry Officer. These uniform differences are carried over today in the unique and illustrious traditions held by the Corp and form part of its mystique. The study of Naval and Marine Officers uniforms is a separate story in of itself and it will discussed in later publications.
SPECIFIC DIFFERENCES IN UNIFORMS BY RANK
I have divided up the Officers section to include the difference between Company, Field and General grade Officers uniforms, with minimum emphasis on the latter category, because most of us will never get the stars, except when our wives hit us with a #8 iron skillet.
SUBALTERN AND COMPANY OFFICERS
This rank category includes: All Subaltern (Junior) including the Medical Cadets, Brevet 2nd. Lieutenant, 2nd. Lieutenant and the Senior Officers which included the 1st. Lieutenant and Captain and they commanded the Companies, Batteries and Troops that made up the Federal Army. Coats used by Company grade officers had one (1) row of buttons centered and standard gilt shoulder boards denoting the prescribed rank. These coats were not supplied with the dark blue-black velvet collars and cuffs and the bottom edge was left unhemmed; it had to be finished in the field. Company grade Officers wore the regulation black leather belt with the Officers belt plate.
FIELD AND STAFF OFFICERS
This rank category includes: Major, Lt. Colonel and Colonel and they commanded the Battalions, served as Executive Officers and Aides to Generals and as Regimental Commanders. Coats used by Field grade Officers had two (2) rows of buttons, equally spaced and include standard gilt shoulder boards denoting the rank. These coats often had the dark blue-black velvet collar and cuffs, which was an option for Company grade Officers and the bottom edge was unhemmed and it had to be finished in the field. Field grade Officers wore the regulation black leather belt and Officers belt plate.
This rank category includes: Brig. General, Maj. General and Lt. General and they Commanded Brigades, Divisions, Corps and the Army. Coats used by General Officers had two rows of buttons spaced in groups of two (2) or three (3) to denote rank and they also used gilt shoulder boards or epaulettes to denote rank. The collar and cuffs were always trimmed in black velvet and some officers did have custom tailored uniforms made. General grade Officers usually wore the regulation gilt bullion and Russian leather belt and Officers belt plate, but some had custom made belts. Many Generals opted to not carry a pistol or sword on the field and there are photos showing this; they relied on the protection of their staff. General grade Officers had a dark blue color saddle cover called a sarbruche, that was trimmed in gold and it denoted rank on the left and right rear, using and eagle and stars. One star (1) for Brig. Gen, two (2) for Maj. Gen. and three (3) for Lt. Gen.
Officers of all ranks had to pay for their uniforms and an allowance system provided them specific subsistence money to maintain the uniforms during the term of their service. For this reason, we see independence in the design and embellishment of uniforms among some Federal Officers. Brig. Gen George A. Custer was one of the most flamboyant young Officers who sought to enhance his appearance, through his uniform. In addition, Gen. Francis Meghar of the 69th. New York (the Irish Brigade) had custom uniforms made of green velvet and wore them on the field, with considerable additional embellishments. For the most part, Officers complied with the US Regulations and this helped to maintain discipline and gave a uniform appearance, among the Troops.
Officers wore a silk sash as part of the identification process in uniform. Regulations detail the tying process and the position of the knot on the left hip, behind the hilt of the sword. All Company & Field grade Officers wore a Maroon, Green or Crimson color sash only. The Quartermaster Department did not issue a yellow (Cavalry) color sash, but many Cavalry Officers purchased them from sutlers. General grade Officers wore a buff colored sash, regardless of the branch they represented.
HATS AND HEADGEAR
Federal Officers had a more limited selection of hats than the Enlisted man and most Officers wanted to follow the regulations to help set a standard of compliance to them. This is good for morale and the overall appearance of the unit in the field. Their hat selections included: The Chapeau for dress only; the Burnside pattern slouch hat; the Hardee hat; the Kepi and McDowell (Bummer) hat and a variety of straw hats that were locally made for Officers in hot climates. The standard Kepi hat color is dark blue and the material is high quality wool; the chin strap is adjustable and the visor was sometimes lined and is always trimmed on the edge.
Kepi hats used black piping around the base and a quatrefoil type design on top to indicate rank, based on how many rows of piping were added. General Officers only, are authorized to use gold bullion or gold color piping in place of the black piping, to denote rank on their caps. Some Dragoon & Cavalry Officers used orange or yellow piping to denote branch and rank on their Kepi hats.
The branch insignia and items attached to Officers hats were made of gilt bullion and they did not use the Enlisted type stamped brass insignia, except for the seal used on the Hardee hat. These insignias are sewn on and they looked different, so they were not mistaken for Enlisted personnel. Some Officers added feathers and plumes to their Hardee hat, which looked a bit outlandish, but was authorized by the regulations and for the most part they refrained from adding extra decoration to their hats.
Federal Zouave Officers used a distinct all RED and or RED & BLUE color Kepis only. To my knowledge, these were not contracted by the Ordnance Department for issue to any other branches, especially the Federal Heavy and Light Artillery.
LEATHER, BELT PLATES AND TRIMMINGS
The leather belts used by Officers was the same in appearance and description to that used by Enlisted personnel. Officers carried pistols and swords in lieu of rifles and many opted to use the old Dragoon and new Cavalry style belt, with the shoulder strap.
The belt plates covered a wide plethora of choices for Officers, like the Enlisted men had and many wore single and two (2) piece belt plates. There were different buckles for Enlisted personnel that were all brass and Officers belt plates had a silver wreath added. Changes to the Uniform Regulation sin 1864, stopped this practice and the same buckle was issued to all personnel, in the name of simplicity in contracting and expediency for replacement issue.
BUTTONS AND PLACEMENT
Uniform buttons are unique and distinctive by branch and they include numerous branch designs and letters to identify them as specific buttons for Enlisted personnel and or Officers. All uniform coat buttons issued by the Quartermaster Department are pressed brass, pewter or tin and they have an eye to thread or holes punched in the center of the button. Materials such as wood, shell, antler, copper etc. were not contracted for, but they are seen on uniforms and trousers in museum collections; these most likely came from Regimental sutlers or were a field replacement.
PISTOLS, SWORDS AND ACCUTREMENTS
A number of choices for pistols were available to the Federal Officer and this is another story in itself, however, some clarification points need to be made and these are listed below:
• The most common pistols used by Officers include the M1851 Colt Navy in .36 cal.; the M1860 Colt Army in .44 cal.; the Remington M1858 Army in .44 cal. and the Starr revolver in .44 cal. There are dozens of other choices, assuming you want to carry original items.
• DO NOT carry the M1864 Spencer revolver in .44 cal., because these were never issued to any of the Troops in the field, during the war.
• All holsters were black leather and had a flap secured by a finial and strap; they were always worn on the right hip with the butt forward. These holsters were of the approved pattern according to regulations.
• No holsters were ever placed on the left hip with the butt forward or on the right hip with the butt to the rear. All pistol marksmanship training was done with the right hand, with no consideration for left handed Officers.
• Swords carried by Officers, are required to be of the approved pattern for the branch, on file at the Quartermaster Department (dated 1850 or 1860), but this is not the case. If you peruse period photos, you will see every design imaginable and a lot of mixing between branches. Contrary to popular belief, sword blades were not sharpened to provide a keen cutting edge. They are, however, quite effective when thrusting on foot and slashing while riding a horse, although the number of recorded injuries due to sword wounds is relatively small. Presentation type swords were not allowed while on duty and are usually kept safe for dress and special occasion wear.
• No swords were carried on the belt except on the left hip. This is so the free left hand can grasp the sword when walking to control it, leaving the right hand free to salute with. No training was ever developed for the sword, when it’s carried in any other position.
• Officer accoutrements included the Meacham pattern 1862 black, tarred haversack and a canteen. In addition, the pistol cartridge box was worn in the small of the back and cap pouch for the percussion caps was in the front, to the right of the belt plate.
• Some Officers who were fortunate to own them, carry a set of field glasses (binoculars) around their neck or in a military type pouch on a shoulder strap. They are usually 2 to 4 power, made of brass and some are covered with black leather or painted, to reduce their sparkle in the sunlight. Most of the best optics of the day were made in England, France or Germany and these are most commonly seen in photographs of Officers of Infantry, Artillery and Cavalry, but they would be a period correct item for most Officer impressions, exempting Doctors, who were on the field of battle.
• Federal Officers had a limited number of medals available and these are worn for dress parade, special occasions and for photographs; they were not normally worn in the field. DO NOT wear modern medals; this is an incorrect, modern re-enactorism.
The re-enactor who portrays a Federal Officer, regardless of rank, has a great deal of uniform information at his disposal. He must take the time to read the regulations first and understand exactly what uniform he intends to purchase and wear, so no mistakes occur when selecting equipment. This simple process will save you head aches and money, so long as you always remember, that the Commander of your unit has the final say. As stated earlier, DO NOT buy anything until you know exactly what you are supposed to wear. The Federal Army, like the Confederate Army leaves some latitude to the Officers when they purchase their uniforms and this will have a tendency to carry over to you also.
If you can identify the original uniforms used by the unit you portray, purchase them and wear them proudly. If you can’t do that in a cost effective manner, fall back to the original uniform regulations and use what’s described for your service branch. If you do this, you will not be singled out as being incorrect, by your peers. Remember in the beginning of this set of commentaries, the reason we have provided this information in the first place, was to help you select authentic uniform parts and accoutrements, so you give a better impression.
In my opinion, it is our duty and obligation to help every re-enactor and living historian make the balance of the 150th. anniversary events, the very best experience for the spectators and re-enactors, that we can possibly provide.
For my part, in this larger story, I was fortunate to be invited to attend the 150th Battle of Gettysburg (GAC) event with Hexamer’s Battery of the 1st. New Jersey Light Artillery. I have purchased some new and different uniform items, concentrating on small and more personal stuff, like match safes, straight razors, identity tags, spectacles, pipes etc. All of these items will help me to look more authentic (nothing will make me look better, because there is not much to work with) and I am honored to be able to take part in this event. Photographs from this great adventure will be made available for future publications.
As an older re-enactor, I view this event as being a “once in a lifetime opportunity” that will not repeat itself. My son, who is 22 years old will accompany me and he got a complete new set of Federal uniforms for the event; he may have the ability when he is 72 years old, to return and attend the 200th anniversary event. Hopefully, he will remember the good times that we had.
I sincerely hope, that you have enjoyed and will benefit from these commentaries, with supporting material and my observations, as you complete the series of 150th anniversary events.
-By Hubbard G. Clapper