Sew What?

By Adam Pantaze

    After participating in the filming of a Sharpsburg documentary in 1997 I developed a greater interest in the quality of my impression.  As a result I began researching period materials and sewing garments for myself.  Several members of the unit have asked me for information, advice, or opinions about uniform materials and colors over the past few months.  Those conversations prompted me to write this article in the behalf that what I have learned may be useful to many in the 47th.
    I will discuss the subject of uniforms in two parts.  In part 1 I will examine period fabrics, colors, and clothing styles to see what they tell us about Confederate uniforms.  In the second part I will use photographs, paintings, and contemporaneous descriptions of Confederate troops to see how these can be used to improve a historical impression.  I will end this article by drawing a few conclusions based on the information from Parts 1 and 2.

Part 1

    In my opinion some understanding of period fabrics and dyeing methods is required when trying to make or acquire historically accurate uniforms.  Some fabric terms used generally by reenactors and sutlers had a specific meaning in the 19th century.  For example, the terms jeans, twill, kersey, and broadcloth denote weave only.  The terms have no relation to fiber content or color.  Thus, jeans could be red, or blue, or grey and woven using wool-wool, wool-cotton, or cotton-cotton fibers.  The same is true for the other fabrics mentioned.  Surviving garments confirm that most jeans material for uniforms was a wool-cotton blend and most uniform kersys were all wool fabrics.
    There is a widely held but erroneous belief that in the 19th century jeans cloths was considered to be inferior and that it was cheaper to produce that all wool fabrics.  In fact, jeans woven goods had been known for centuries to be sturdy and long wearing.  The Confederate government and state quartermaster operations ordered jeans for uniform cloth as much for its durability as for any other reason.  Some manufacturers may have turned out poor quality material, but the jeans weave was not inherently inferior to other fabrics.  jeans cloth has telltale "right" and "wrong" sides.  This trait can be used to identify jeans in period photographs by observing the wrong side on turned up trouser cuffs, for example.
    Fabric weave nomenclature is one of the few things that can be used with some precision when examining Confederate uniforms.  When questions of uniform color, cut, quality, and distribution arise definitive answers are harder to come by.  Here the researcher must rely on types, trends, and probabilities rather than specifics.  Sometimes, as with uniform colors, there can be wide variations.
    During the war rebs and yanks both spoke of Confederate troops as "butternuts" and "greybacks" in reference to their uniforms.  In my opinion, neither term applies to a specific color but to a range of hues and shades.  Of the two "butternut" is open to the widest interpretation, and it encompassed a variety of earth tones from greyish brown to coffee-with-cream (Confederate Ersatz Latte?) to dusty white.  Much of this variety is directly attributable to the use of natural dye materials and to weak mordants which did not make many fabrics colorfast.  Some reenactors, I think, associate butternut colors with jeans woven goods and medium, blue-grey, and dark grey with kersey material.  I have not found any evidence that a link between color and weave existed in the 19th century.  Color was a function or malfunction of dyes not of weave.
    As Arnie and Connie Krochmal point out in their The Complete Illustrated Book of Dyes from Natural Sources, "...a variety of shades and sometimes different colors may be obtained from one dye."  They also state that natural dyes are subject to severe fading and bleeding unless effective mordant are combined with the dyes.  Extracts from the Butternut (Juglans cinerea) tree can be used to produce either grey or brown dye, and the Krochmals note that it was used extensively in the Confederacy to dye uniform materials.  It is therefore easy to understand how so many different colors and shades of cloth could be produced just in the dyeing process.  Careful examination of brownish uniform jackets in the Museum of the Confederacy has shown that some of those garments were originally grey and faded during the war or in the 135 years since.  The effects of sunlight, rain, and dirt on naturally dyed cloth with indifferent mordants would result in all kinds of greys and browns and produce the well know "butternut" appearance.
    The color we think of as "cadet grey" is also open to interpretation.  I believe that this color could be used to describe any medium-to-dark grey cloth especially if there is a bluish or even greenish cast to the material.  I counted twenty-two different shades of grey fabric in the pages of Time-Life's Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy, and any of them could be called cadet grey.  This shows not only a variation in shade, but it also shows that much of the fabric obtained by the Confederacy was of very good quality which held its color.
    Uniform styles were every bit as variable as uniform color.  Everyone researching period uniforms should realize that the system devised to categorize depot issue uniforms is a modern one and was unknown in the 1860's.  In 1987 a former curator of the Museum of the Confederacy organized Confederate uniforms into broad types based on style, place of issue, and time of issue to establish point of reference for modern scholars.  Designations such as "Richmond Type 1" or "Richmond Type 2" were not used during the war.  Confederate uniforms were not even made to official patterns or distributed specifications, according to the Museum of the Confederacy.  The Confederate government purchased uniform fabrics from whomever could supply the goods and had uniforms made by whomever could cut and sew them.  Obviously manufacturers produced uniform garments based on recognized contemporary styles.  The "roundabout" or shell type jacket, for example, was known in the War of 1812.  Ultimately, the Confederate government was able to satisfactorily clothe most of its troops, and did manage a uniformity.  This explains why garments issued from the same depot differ in color, fabric, number of buttons, shape of collar, stitching and so forth.
    In Part 1 I have shown how terminology commonly used in the reenacting community has a different meaning or was unknown in the 19th century.  The separation of period usage from modern usage is important in the quest for historical accuracy.  Understanding how Confederate uniforms were produced and procured and how variable these garments tended to be aids the historical impressionist.  Within certain strict limits almost anything goes.  I will present historical evidence that underscores that point in Part 2.

Part 2

    Source materials such as period photographs, contemporaneous descriptions, illustrations, and paintings are invaluable guides to anyone trying to recreate 19th century appearance.  These materials show Confederate soldiers wearing the kinds of garments discussed in Part 1 and provide a graphic reference for those interested in rebel uniforms.
    The Confederate government's struggle to field an army and simultaneously create the facilities needed to maintain that army is well known.  The system of reimbursement called "commutation" rapidly proved to be a failure, and uniform procurement in the spring of 1862 was at best uncertain.  The arduous Seven Days, Second Manassas, and Sharpsburg campaigns took their toll on already worn garments and equipment.  By October 1862 Lee had marched his army away from the suburbs of Richmond to western Maryland and back.  It was not until all of this grand maneuvering had stopped that quartermasters had any hope of adequately resupplying their men.  The Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) in the summer and fall of 1862 was as ragged as it would ever be in the war.  The living historian should take this into account when developing an 1862 impression.  The "Rosenstock" photograph is an excellent reference source.  It shows weary looking Confederates on the march through Frederick, Maryland, very likely in 1862.  The troops wear frock coats and various shell jackets.  Almost all of them wear slouch hats, and many have bedrolls or knapsacks.
    In three views of the battle of Sharpsburg, Union veteran Captain James Hope painted rebel infantry and artillerists in butternut uniforms as discussed in Part 1.
    Military efficiency improved as the ANV got a well earned rest between Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg.  The Confederate government abandoned commutation and instituted the depot system for central uniform issue at this time.  By the spring of 1863 most units in the ANV received replacement garments from the Richmond depot, and British Col. Arthur Fremantle's description of Pender's brigade would be valid for most of the army.  Seeing those troops just before Gettysburg he wrote, "...their clothing is servicable, so also are their boots.  But there is the usual utter absence of uniformity as to color and shape of their garments and hats; grey of all shades, and brown clothing, with felt hats predominate."
    The majority of Lee's men would maintain the appearance noted by Freemantle until the final months of the war.  This generic impression is found in period photographs such as the often reproduced picture of the three soldiers captured at Gettysburg, and in a superb image of rebs captured at Cold Harbor.  Les Jensen analyzes the Cold Harbor photograph on pages 74 and 75 of his book about Confederate uniforms.  The troops are seen in frock coats, sack coats, and jackets in many styles, colors, and materials.
    Evidence related more directly to the units of Field's (Virginia) brigade shows that the appearance of the 47th and it's sister regiments conforms to the rest of Lee's army.  Photographs of soldiers in the 40th and 55th Virginia Regiments show everything from over shirts and civilian sack coats (early war?), to light or medium grey or butternut jackets with or without darker collars.  Allen Redwood, who served in the 55th, left a fine Richmond depot, cadet grey kersey jacket and blue trousers in the Museum of the Confederacy.  Redwood became a well known artist after the war.  His drawings of the Confederate fighting man found in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War are worth careful study by anyone seeking to perfect his impression.
    Photographs of original members of the 47th exhibit the same variety found generally in the ANV and in Field's brigade.  Pictures of four men show four different uniform styles.  Privates G. Newton, W. Hart, and J. Watson served at least through May, 1864, but there is no indication as to when their photographs were taken.  Newton wears a medium grey or butternut jacket and vest.  Hart appears in a dark, tight fitting, long waisted jacket or coat and light trousers.  Watson wears a medium colored, grey or brown jacket with a darker collar.  His trousers resemble the jacket in color and fabric.  Private Wiley Schools' photograph shows him in a loose jacket of light cloth with darker collar and cuffs.  His trousers seem to match the jacket.
    Reverend Wayland Dunaway wrote about his war service with the 47th and the 40th Virginia Regiments in Reminiscences of a Rebel published in 1913.  He made only one comment about uniforms in his short, but interesting book.  Early in the work, prior to the Seven Days battles, he refers to his company's "neat grey suits."  Incidentally, Dunaway states that his company, L of the 47th, was issued .69 caliber muskets early in the war, and he mentions the use of knapsacks at least twice in the book.
    The mass of source material shows that the ANV and most of its regiments were variously clothed during the course of the war.  The information provided in Parts 1 and 2 is mutually supportive.  Surviving uniform examples exist in a variety of materials and colors.  We find Confederate soldiers wearing exactly those types of garments in period photographs or in contemporaneous descriptions.


    Based on the information provided in Parts 1 and 2 it is reasonable to state that the men of the 47th Virginia, like most of the ANV, wore a great variety of clothing during the course of the war.  Many formed with the regiment in civilian attire until they obtained more military looking garments for which they were to be reimbursed under commutation.  Broadly speaking, as usual, from summer 1861 to spring 1863 the men of the 47th would likely be outfitted in uniforms of various materials including jeans, kersey, and satinette.  Probably most of these garments were intended to be grey but much of the fabric would have faded to shades of butternut.  With the advent of the depot system, the burden of clothing himself was lifted from the average infantryman and shifted to the government.  Chris Sacash's research has uncovered regular clothing distribution records for the regiment starting in the spring of 1863.  The regiment probably began to assume a more standard appearance at about this time, but as has been shown, Confederate standardization allowed for a whole lot of variety.
    The variety, however, should be maintained in a historical context.  Synthetically dyed, poorly cut, modern weave garments do not stand up well when compared to uniforms made from period materials and patterns.  In my opinion, period style is more important than color or fabric.  This stands out more than any other factor in the period photographs I discussed in Part 2.  It is not the color but the cut of 19th century cloths that defines Confederate uniform types.  As we have seen, just about any period fabric and color could be used for an individual impression.  A final note on color.  I have found no 19th century references to specific colors such as "Richmond," "Tuscaloosa," or "Confederate," grey.  These sound to me like modern designations hatched when the first reenactors wiggled from under a rock and began to roam the earth.  See y'all round the fire.


Part 1

1. The Watchdog Vol. 7  No. 2 1999, "Jeans? Satinette? Cassimere? What kind of Cloth is It?"  Chris White

2. Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy.  Time-Life Books.  Alexandria, VA  1998

3. Museum of the Confederacy - Uniform Seminar, March 1999

4. The Complete Illustrated Book of Dyes from Natural Sources.  A and C Krochmal.  Doubleday and Co. 1974

5. Johnny Reb: The Uniform of the Confederate Army.  Leslie Jensen.  Stockpole Books.  1996

Part 2

1. Johnny Reb: The Uniform of the Confederate Army. 1861-1865. Les Jensen. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg,
    PA. 1996

2. "Dirty, Ragged, and Ill-provided For", K. Bohannon. The Antietam Campaign. G. Gallagher, ed. UNC Press,
    Chapel Hill. 1999.

3. The Army of Robert E. Lee. Philip Katcher. Arms and Armour Press. London

4. Echoes of Glory, Time Life

5. The Fremantle Diary. A.J.L. Fremantle. New York. 1954

6. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War - vols 2 and 3. R. Johson and C. Buel eds. Thomas Yoseloff. New York.

7. The Virginia Regimental History Series. 40th, 55th, 47th Infantries.  H.E. Howard Inc. Lynchburg. VA.

8. Reminiscences of a Rebel. Rev. W. Dunaway. The Neale Publishing Co. New York. 1913.


1. "47th VA Inf. Co. I Uniform Jackets", Chris Sacash. The Wisdom of Sacash Press. whenever.