The Confederate Soldier’s Dress & Equipment

In 1862, the U.S. government in Washington had been mobilizing thousands of new troops, while reorganizing and resupplying the massive Federal armies already in the field. President Lincoln ordered an offensive on all fronts. All across the South, camps were abandoned as troops were given marching orders to meet the threats from new Federal forces. The soldiers left in “campaign trim,” having quickly learned to throw away their extra clothing and camp equipment and to keep only what they could easily carry over long marches. Before long the norm for all men on campaign was to carry nothing but the bare essentials: gun and bayonet, cartridge box, haversack, canteen, a blanket rolled up with a ground cloth (or oil cloth), and sometimes a change of underclothes. Instead of living in well-furnished camps, with tents, straw beds, cooking utensils, and extra comforts, they had to quickly adapt to life on the move, sleeping in rain or even snow, with only a thin blanket and ground cloth for cover, or the occasional lean-to of brush or tree bark. The standard ration was 1 lb. of salt pork or beef, 3/4 lbs. of bacon, and a little over 1 lb. of hardtack or cornmeal per day, but constant food shortages meant that soldiers often had to make do with half-rations or no food at all. They took to foraging for any extra food they could find, whether asking civilians or stealing from houses or farm fields, even taking haversacks from the dead. Their appearance changed as well. Hair was cropped short to make it easier to comb out lice, and many let their beards grow. Clothing became soiled to the point of decay, since there was little chance of washing on the march. When Lee’s men marched into Maryland in September, 1862, one observer described them as “the dirtiest men I ever saw, a most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves. Yet there was a dash about them that the northern men lacked.” In spite of shortages of every kind, they still managed to outmarch and outfight many of their opponents. Berry Benson, of a Georgia regiment, wrote of that common bravado in the army when he described a fellow soldier that winter, “a young man, tall and vigorous, but utterly barefoot in the snow, standing in a fence corner, his gun leaning against his shoulder, and of all the proud faces I have ever seen, his was the proudest. It was a pride that seemed to scorn not only the privation and cold, but the exposure of his sufferings to others’ eyes, and even the very pity it called forth.”

At the first battle of Manassas, while awaiting an attacking Federal force, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson told his men: “When you charge, yell like furies.” The wild “rebel yell” that had such a potent psychological effect on Union troops became the trademark of Confederate soldiers. The men issued hair-raising cries as they attacked, anything from the high pitched hip he-yah of West Texas cattlemen to the war whoop of thousands of Native Americans serving in the Confederate forces.

With the start of military campaigns in 1862, the carnage grew on a scale that was unprecedented in American history. In two days of fighting at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, more than 20,000 men were wounded or killed, a grim precedent that would quickly be surpassed as the war continued to escalate. Month after month the massive armies collided all over the South, leaving in their wake tens of thousands of casualties with horrific wounds. In all, of the 1.2 million Confederate men who served throughout the war, 340,000 were killed or wounded.

In the Civil War, combat was nothing like the European tradition of troops in straight lines plodding across open fields in gentlemanly fashion – anything but. Battles were fought and won by rapid maneuvers, using the natural features of the land to shield troop movements. Attacking in large formations meant massing artillery or infantry fire on enemy positions, then deploying quickly to their front, hitting several points at once in an attempt to force their position until they were captured, killed, or routed. Rarely was it prudent to charge in the open in a solid line; rather, each regiment and brigade would move in turn almost at a run, under the covering fire of other units. At full strength an infantry regiment was made of ten companies of 100 men each, organized by state. Four or five regiments formed a brigade and several brigades formed a division, which could number up to 20,000 men.

In such massive formations, an individual soldier felt mostly insignificant. His chances of surviving depended purely on luck and happenstance, causing veteran soldiers to adopt strongly fatalistic outlooks. They were told little of the overall plan, where they were going or what to expect, and the fighting at their level was chaotic and disorienting. The men in the ranks listened for commands over the sound of artillery barrages as violent as a thunderstorm, the constant crashing of thousands of rifles, and the heavy buzzing of countless bullets cutting through the thick, acrid smoke of gunpowder and clouds of dust kicked up by thousands of feet. As Confederate private Sam Watkins wrote, in battle a soldier was “but an automaton, a machine that works by the command of a good, bad or indifferent engineer. His business is to load and shoot, stand picket, vedette, etc., while the officers sleep, or perhaps die on the field of battle and glory, and his obituary and epitaph but ‘one’ remembered among the slain, but to what company, regiment, brigade or corps he belongs, there is no account; he is soon forgotten.”

Although consistently outnumbered in battle, at times facing twice as many well-armed and equipped Union soldiers, Confederate troops showed a dogged fighting spirit that persevered throughout the war and was attested to by many observers, including Union soldiers. Time and again they were able to hold their ground against overwhelming odds. “One thing that shone conspicuous,” gunner William Dame wrote, “was the indomitable spirit of the ‘Army of Northern Virginia,’ their intelligence about military movements; their absolute confidence in General Lee, and their quiet, matter of course, certainty of victory, under him.” As another U.S. soldier put it, “They fight like Devils.”

Before 1862 was out, more than 100,000 men lay wounded in hospitals or buried in mass graves, many of them less than 30 years old. The scale of the carnage made it impossible for either side to back out. It became a war of attrition, the outcome of which, no one could yet imagine.

At the start of the war, equipping Confederate troops was the responsibility of individual states. As a result, appearance and equipment quality varied greatly from one regiment or brigade to another. In 1862, as the conflict escalated into an all-out war, Confederate soldiers were fairly well supplied. Most started out in regulation uniforms, including the standard frock coat, trousers, and forage cap.

1.   Bayonet

2.   Rifle Musket

3.   Forage Cap

4.   Knapsack

5.   Canteen

6.   Haversack

7.   Bayonet Scabbard

8.   Brogans

9.   Blanket

10. Cartridge Box

11. Trousers

12. Frock Coat

13. Cap Pouch

Over the course of the 1862 campaigns, the Confederate soldier’s dress and equipment quickly changed from the fully equipped, parade-ground soldier who resembled his Northern counterpart in many respects, to the iconic “grey-jacket rebel,” an image of economy and practicality that lasted to the end of the war. Men threw away anything that might weigh them down on long marches, often carrying only a change of underclothes, a spare shirt, and socks rolled up in a blanket, along with a gun, ammunition, haversack, and canteen. The uniforms changed too, as men replaced their issue caps with slouch hats, and the newly established army depots supplied them with the more economical shell jacket, and plain, untrimmed clothing. Whatever else they might need as the fighting continued, they picked up on the battlefield.

1.   Slouch Hat

2.   British Enfield Rifle

3.   Army-Issue Shell Jacket

4.   Blanket Roll

5.   Captured U.S. Canteen

6.   Haversack

7.   Gum Blanket

8.   Cartridge Box, worn on the waist belt

9.   Bayonet

10. Army-Issue Trousers

11. Captured U.S. Bayonet Scabbard

Frock Coat

The standard frock coat pattern featured colored facings denoting the branch of service: blue for the infantry, red for artillery, yellow for cavalry, and black for state militias. Almost all were made from what was known as jean cloth, a blend of roughly half wool and half cotton. Frock coats were lined with whatever wool flannel or cotton muslin fabric was available. Sometimes, they were only half lined, or not lined at all.

Great Coat

The heavy winter great coat was large enough to be worn over the uniform, with a cape attached to the collar that could be buttoned up as a hood. The ideal material was a heavy wool cloth, but great coats made in the South varied greatly in color, construction, and material. Although a great coat could be invaluable in the winter, as soon as the weather thawed in the spring, men frequently discarded the bulky garment as it became a burden on the march.

Shirt

Shell Jacket

As the war dragged on, Confederate depots soon replaced the frock coats with jackets to save cost, time, and materials. Like most items produced for the Confederate armies, the jackets varied widely in pattern and material. Southern-made jean cloth was used initially, but starting in 1862 it was often replaced with supplies of grey and blue-grey uniform wool imported from Europe.

Undershirt

Most army-issue shirts were made from coarse materials that were too rough to be worn against the skin. Whenever possible, soldiers were issued undershirts of soft flannel, cotton muslin, or knit cotton jersey. In hot summer months a soldier might choose to wear only an undershirt beneath his coat, and at times the heat was so unbearable that men went in their shirtsleeves, often under orders to do so.

Handkerchief

The handkerchief found many uses. It was commonly tied around the neck to prevent sunburn and chaffing from the coarse jean cloth of the coat collar. It was also useful as a washcloth, and for removing a hot frying pan or tin cup from the fire.

Trousers and Drawers

Most army or state-issued trousers were made of a cotton/wool blend. The fabric was durable and warmer than plain cotton, but too abrasive to be worn against the skin on long marches. For that reason, a pair of cotton drawers was usually worn underneath, even in the heat of the summer.

Mittens

Due to wool shortages Southern armies had a hard time providing their troops with proper winter clothing. Soldiers chiefly relied on mittens sent from home, scavenged from the battlefield, or improvised from whatever material was at hand. The makeshift mittens pictured above are cut from a wool blanket.

Socks

Cotton socks were commonly issued to Southern troops, but pairs of homemade wool socks sent by a wife or mother were always prized because they were ideal for long marches. Without heavy socks, a soldier’s feet could become severely blistered by the rough, ill-fitting army-issue brogans.

Brogans

The common military shoe known as a “brogan” was made of rough leather, with square toes and heavy soles, lacing up over the ankle for support. Shoes wore out faster than any other article of clothing. To keep up with the demand, depots distributed almost any kind of shoes they could find, including civilian patterns and imports from England. As the war progressed, many army-issue shoes were of such poor quality (some were made with undyed leather or even rawhide) that they were barely usable. Soldiers unable to find new shoes were sometimes reduced to going barefoot, even in winter.

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