The Civil War is commonly known as the War of the Blue and the Gray, describing the colors of the uniforms worn by Union and Confederate soldiers. In truth, there was very little conformity of dress on either side, at least during the first months of the war. The regular army had an established uniform, but the majority of participants were volunteers from state militias who often demonstrated their independence and esprit de corps by dressing in flamboyant (albeit impractical) uniforms of their own design. When these units got together, it looked more like a circus show than a fighting force.
The various units fighting for the Confederacy were even more independent in their attire, showing their disdain for the concept of a centralized government by dressing as colorfully and uniquely as they could. Only later in the conflict would both sides establish a standard for military dress, though many units tenaciously continued to flaunt their independence by adding flourishes and various accouterments.
One of the biggest problems during the first months of the war was finding enough uniforms to dress the participants on both sides. In the North, a great many clothing manufacturers received lucrative government contracts to make military uniforms, but in the rush to meet quotas, factory-made uniforms were often of poor quality and design. The system also fostered corruption. Eventually, the government cracked down on manufacturers who pocketed huge profits and churned out inferior clothing, and the quality of uniforms improved dramatically.
The U.S. Quartermaster Department was responsible for dressing the Union's fighting forces, having supervised the design and manufacture of clothing for enlisted men at the Schuylkill Arsenal since the War of 1812. However, the army was hard pressed to adequately dress the huge influx of new soldiers at the beginning of the war, so the War Department asked the various states to dress their own regiments — preferably in the traditional dark blue uniform — and apply to the government for reimbursement. But the states were unable to supply adequate numbers of uniforms on such short notice, so many early volunteer regiments wore uniforms paid for by their local communities, with perhaps a little help from the state.
Several regiments left for Washington without any uniforms at all. The First and Second Ohio, for example, were sent to the nation's capital so soon after they were organized that their leaders decided to pick up uniforms during the trip rather than wait. None were available, so they bought materials and made them as they traveled.
The average Civil War soldier was paid very little for laying his life on the line. Top pay for a Union infantry private was just $16 a month. His Confederate counterpart received $18 a month, but it was worth considerably less due to skyrocketing inflation.
Following the Union defeat at the First Battle of Manassas, Congress immediately authorized a call for 500,000 volunteers to serve for three years, and the states started working overtime to clothe the new recruits. New York, for example, decided to issue all of its new regiments a standard outfit that included a dark blue woolen jacket that closed in front with eight state-seal buttons, light blue pants and overcoat, and a dark blue fatigue cap. Unfortunately, many were made of cheap material, and the soldiers who received them complained bitterly of the poor workmanship.
The uniform situation improved dramatically by the fall of 1861. The government purchased a large number of uniforms from foreign manufacturers, and the high quality of the garments forced American manufacturers to improve the quality of their own product, as well as increase production quotas. On September 13, 1861, the U.S. War Department, in a much needed attempt to stop Union soldiers from accidentally being killed by their own men, asked the officials of Northern states to stop furnishing gray uniforms to their soldiers. By mid-1862, gray uniforms had all but disappeared from Union regiments as Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs assumed the job of contracting and distributing uniforms to Union troops.
The Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia could not keep up with the huge demand for uniforms, so additional manufacturing and purchasing depots were established in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, and elsewhere. Federal inspectors checked every piece of clothing that was produced or purchased, and uniforms were stamped with labels that identified the inspectors and the maker. This greatly increased the quality of the clothing that eventually reached the Union soldiers.
The Confederacy faced similar problems. The newly formed government struggled to find sufficient manufacturers to meet the demand for uniforms, and the civilian population often sewed uniforms for local soldiers. Still, some Confederate soldiers had nothing to wear but their own clothes, and the situation only worsened. In some cases, entire units were forced to march from battle to battle lacking shoes and other garments.
Few Southern states had dress regulations for their militia, which formed the backbone of the Confederate fighting force at the beginning of the war. The troops' uniforms were inspired by everything from Scottish Highlanders and frontiersmen to French chasseurs and Zouaves, and many continued to wear their exotic dress even after they were made a part of the Confederate regular army.
By October 1862, an effective depot system had been established, and the Confederate government assumed the responsibility of supplying all clothing to its troops. The new issue system set annual allotments for articles of clothing. Of course, soldiers who participated in lengthy campaigns went through their allotted clothes in no time. Rather than spend their hard-earned money for replacements, many asked their friends and family to help by buying or making clothes for them.