Civil War uniforms discussed at Cape Roundtable

Monday, July 16, 2012
Michael Comer holds up a replica of a Union soldiers fatigue coat as he discusses uniforms of Civil War soldiers to the Cape Girardeau Civil War Round Table Sunday, July 15, 2012 at the Cape River Heritage Museum. (LAURA SIMOn)

What a man wears could tell a lot about him. What Civil War soldiers wore certainly has told historians a lot about the war efforts at the time, said Michael Comer, director of the Hunter-Dawson House in New Madrid, Mo.

On Sunday, Comer spoke at the monthly meeting of the Cape Girardeau Civil War Roundtable at the Cape River Heritage Museum, discussing the different challenges faced in outfitting Union and Confederate armies.

Union forces' uniforms were more consistent than Confederate uniforms for a simple reason, the Union already had an existing army when the war started, Comer said.

"The amazing thing about the Confederate Army is that it was well-equipped," Comer said.

However, there were differences from state-to-state in the Confederate uniforms, Comer said. In the early years of the war, in states like Missouri, where there was a lot of guerilla warfare, soldiers wore "battleshirts" outside their other shirts. As the war started, the Confederate States of America used a commutation system, in which soldiers were to buy their own uniforms, but then be reimbursed by the government, Comer said.

Confederate soldiers from Missouri wore a lot of civilian coats, he said. Uniform manufacturers used jean fabrics that were available, he said.

"As a result, you started seeing lots of browns in the Confederate Army. They were called butternut," Comer said. "In the end, you got your uniforms where you could get them."

The Confederacy's emphasis on states' rights might have contributed to the differences in uniforms soldiers wore, possibly contributing to the perception of the "ragged rebel," Comer said.

North Carolina supplied its troops with new uniforms, but the state wouldn't give uniforms to soldiers from other states. The North Carolina unit could look consistent, while a unit from another state could look ragtag, he said.

Items like hats, socks and undergarments were not issued to soldiers, he said. Soldiers had to buy them or have them sent from home.

Jane and Carroll Drake of Sikeston, Mo. drove to Cape Girardeau to hear several speakers over the weekend. They were among about 35 people who listened to Comer's discussion. Carroll Drake said they are intrigued by how television shows portray Confederate soldiers as being really ragged. But they also appreciated explanations about Civil War soldiers' clothes.

"Those details about the shoes and socks and hats were very interesting," Jane Drake said.

Pertinent address:

538 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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