What the Average Soldier Wore
Standard uniforms included all major forms of clothing, from shoes to underwear. Both Union and Confederate forces found ways to show rank and affiliation in their uniforms. Neither side was preoccupied with comfort.
What the Average Union Soldier Wore
The typical Union infantryman wore a dark blue, loose flannel sackcoat that hung at midthigh, blue trousers made of wool or jersey, a light blouse, heavy leather shoes that were derisively known as “gunboats,” and a blue forage cap (also known as a slouch cap). Additional clothing and protective gear included an overcoat with a blue cape, a thick wool blanket (which weighed approximately five pounds), a gum blanket that served as a tent floor or a poncho, a thick flannel pullover shirt, and a pair of wool socks.
D. W. C. Arnold, private in the Union army Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-B-5435)
Affiliation with a specific branch of the service was indicated by stripes down the outer seam of the uniform — yellow for cavalry, red for artillery, light blue for infantry, emerald green for mounted rifleman, and crimson for ordnance and hospital personnel. Distinctions in rank were denoted by the type of frock coat worn — majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels, and all general officers wore double-breasted coats; lower ranking officers wore single-breasted coats. Additional rank distinctions included the number and placement of buttons and shoulder boards or sleeve chevrons.
What the Average Southern Soldier Wore
The uniforms worn by Confederate troops were quite similar to their Union counterparts, except the color was gray or yellow-brown. The standard infantryman wore a gray or yellow-brown wool shell jacket; gray, yellow-brown, or blue pants; low-heeled leather shoes; and a gray or yellow-brown forage cap. Frock coats similar to those worn by Union infantry were also part of the uniform, but supplies were limited and not all soldiers received them. Additional garments traditionally included a homemade coverlet, a cotton shirt, a wool vest, and wool socks. All officers and enlisted men on both sides also received ankle-high boots.
Private Edmund Ruffin, Confederate soldier who fired the first shot against Fort Sumter Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-BA-1226)
In the Confederate army, affiliation with a particular branch of service was indicated by the colored facing on a man's coat — yellow for cavalry, red for artillery, light blue for infantry, and black for medical personnel. Variations in rank within each branch was designated by colored stripes on outer trouser seams — regimental officers had a ¼-inch stripe; generals wore a 2⅝-inch stripe; adjutant, quartermaster, commissary, and engineer officers wore one gold ¼-inch stripe.
Rank was also indicated by buttons and insignias. Soldiers on both sides were expected to carry all of their provisions, including clothing, equipment, personal effects, and weapons, on their backs, and a fully equipped infantryman might carry a load of fifty pounds or more.
The Issue of Comfort
While the quality of the uniforms received by Union and Confederate soldiers gradually improved as the war progressed, their comfort did not. When the clothing arrived at training camps, it was placed in piles, and the soldiers lined up and took what was on top. The issue of fit was not a big concern, and it wasn't uncommon for soldiers to receive clothing that was much too big or small for them. The lucky ones were able to trade with someone else.
Even if a soldier received a uniform that was a perfect fit, he still experienced great discomfort. Northern mills, following orders from the War Department, used wool to make almost everything — including underwear. The material was stiff, scratchy, and often unbearable against the skin, but unless a soldier had brought underclothes from home, he was stuck with what he got.
During the First Battle of Manassas, soldiers on both sides dressed in a wide variety of colorful uniforms that sometimes made it difficult to differentiate friend from foe. Some Southern units wore blue, and some Northern soldiers were decked out in gray. More than one soldier was accidentally killed by friendly fire.
During the thick of the war, when soldiers were marching, skirmishing, and fighting for their lives, the majority of fighting men tried to lighten their load to the bare necessities. When spring came, many soldiers discarded their heavy winter coats and other clothing. When soldiers were engaged in a major campaign, very often the only clothes they carried were those they were wearing. Speed on the battlefield meant much more than a wardrobe.