At South Mountain State Battlefield during our interpretive programs, I always receive questions regarding the uniformity and hardships of the average Union soldier. Just as the Confederate soldier posting, this post may not answer all of your questions as it is only meant to be a teaser for those interested in the subject to explore the topic more on their own.
To me, Civil War uniforms are a topic that often gets overlooked including the uniforms of the Union army, unless you’re a living historian. Many times, the soldiers of the Union army went through shortages just as their Confederate counterparts did. During the hard campaigning season, one may find it interesting that the Union soldiers’ uniforms would be as tattered as that of a Confederate soldier. Take into consideration the long marches along dusty roads one day, and possibly a muddy mess the next, the uniform of a Union soldier will take on a different appearance. You hear more about this topic in 1863, during the Union soldiers’ forced march from around Fredericksburg, Virginia to Gettysburg and back to Virginia. But I want to briefly cover the Maryland Campaign with this posting.
After a crushing blow to the Union army during the Battle of Second Manassas in August of 1862, General John Pope had no choice but to retire back to the defenses of Washington D.C. As the soldiers from Pope’s army entered the defenses of Washington they were dirty and ragged. As a result, many of Pope’s men had not changed their clothing or bathed in almost a month, and it would be a few days later before the men were given that opportunity. One Union soldier wrote: “We looked very bad being lousey, dutry and almost naked.”
Many of McClellan’s own troops were able to pull new uniforms from their hard campaigning down along the Peninsula after arriving in Washington. However, General Pope’s Army of Virginia was a different story. In his memoirs “Military Reminiscences of the Civil War” General Jacob Cox noted that “About four o’clock McClellan rode forward, and I accompanied him. We halted at the brow of the hill looking down the Fairfax road. The head of the column was in sight, and rising dust showed its position far beyond. Pope and McDowell, with the staff, rode at the head. Their uniform and that of all the party was covered with dust, their beards were powdered with it; they looked worn and serious, but alert and self-possessed.” As a result of the disaster of Manassas, General John Pope was relieved of command of the Army of Virginia. General George McClellan, who, at that time, was in charge of the defenses of Washington, was given command and quickly reorganized the army.
McClellan took the Army of the Potomac, the Army of Virginia, the Kanawha Division, and Burnside’s force, combined them into a single fighting force, and managed to get them moving. Moral was very low for the Union soldier and most of them would rather not go after Lee’s army, who was concentrating at Frederick. However, General McClellan wasted no time leaving Washington trailing after General Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate army. The soldier’s individual stories are very similiar and according to George Stevens of the 77th New York, packing up for the new campaign was effortless considering that the soldiers had little more than themselves and a few personal belongings. As for those units already stationed at Washington, many of them received new clothing and knapsacks. For many others that arrived in Washington, they had to move out no sooner than they had arrived. But the forced march would prove tiresome on the footman of the Union army.
Many first hand accounts told of the havoc caused by the extreme humid weather during the day and the coolness that the night provided. By nightfall, a combination of the march itself, weather conditions, and the weight from the knapsack on the soldier’s back caused many soldiers to collapse, sleeping where they fell. Some accounts from soldiers serving in the First, Second and Sixth Corps stated that their generals never issued light marching orders.
Private Uberto A. Burnham of the 76th New York recalled receiving marching orders on September 6th. “We commenced marching about 7p.m. and about 2a.m. reached the river and crossed at Long Bridge. We then marched through the city of Washington and along Pennsylvania Avenue. When morning came we thought we would halt and rest, but we did not. The day was very hot and the dust four inches deep. The word was always “Forward! Forward!” During the whole day we did not stop long enough to take a real meal or make a cup of coffee. It seemed necessary to put as many troops as possible between Lee and Washington in as short a time as possible. We did not halt until 7p.m., having marched 24 hours. When the marching columns halted, not half the men were in line. Many had fallen, exhausted, but by morning most of them were again with their comrades at the front. The next day we resumed our march, but moved more deliberately.”
On September 7th, the colonel of the 96th Pennsylvania recognized that conditions of a forced march in the overwhelming weather, was not a good combination and he sent orders to his regiment to get rid of the excess baggage. Many of the soldiers just packed away their new uniforms and greatcoats. Then a riot nearly started when the quartermaster tried to gather their knapsacks as well. When General McClellan was near Rockville, a by standard noted that their uniforms didn’t fit and that their blouses and caps were torn and faded. Edwin Marvin a member of the 5th Connecticut recalled while bivouacked near Rockville for the night that the quartermaster wagon containing their knapsacks had arrived. They were wearing the same clothing for the last four weeks and this was the first time since then that they were able to change their clothes.
By September 11th, 1862, the hot, dusty roads, and the dust that covered the soldiers’ uniform would change with a much needed rain. After arriving in Washington many soldiers from the 155th Pennsylvania Regiment volunteered to head out with General Humphreys’ Division, who was ordered out to protect the roads leading into Pennsylvania. Soon after problems for the weary soldiers began. After being equipped with knapsacks and carrying everything upon their backs, fatigue quickly sat in.
They packed their knapsacks and were marching along the road quickly trying to join McClellan’s army who was two days away. After bivouacing at Rockville, orders again were issued and another forced march commenced. For several days, the men began pitching their knapsacks along the side of the road, as well as their newly issued blankets and overcoats. Wagoneers who lagged behind often picked up the items that were thrown away. As fatigue set in, many men broke down from exhaustion or from footsore. Others just fell further behind in the columns. The next morning, those who had knapsacks would again pack and begin marching.
By the time 155th Pennsylvania arrived at Monocacy, they could hear the cannon in the distance that was engaged at South Mountain. While at Monocacy, many men managed to quickly get in a bath, cleaning themselves for the first time since arriving in Washington. Again the daily task was picked up where it had left off and now they would be marching to Antietam.
During the Battle of South Mountain, many of the Union soldiers were wearing a combination of state issued jackets from New York or Ohio, while many others were wearing their fatigue blouses, or what most people call a sack coat today. However, there are two units at South Mountain that wore a complete dress uniform. The first group was the 17th Michigan Infantry. They had been in service for only a few weeks. When they fought at South Mountain at Fox’s Gap, they were wearing their frock coats with shoulder scales, their dress hats and white gloves. This was their first engagement. The second unit was that of the Iron Brigade. They too, were wearing dress uniforms similar to that of the 17th Michigan Infantry.
To the north of Turner’s Gap, many New Yorkers of Hatch’s Division would have been wearing their state jackets. Some of the men were ordered to drop their knapsacks before moving up the spur of the mountain. Others like the 76th New York marched up the mountain wearing their knapsacks, and upon reaching the summit, wear ordered to drop their knapsack and engage the enemy. After the battle, some of the men who had left their knapsacks near the base of the mountain were allowed to get them, providing that their brigade or regiment was ordered to fall back and allow the reserves to take position.
In the book entitled “Three Years in the Army, the official history of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers” by Charles E. Davis wrote about the shape his unit was in during the Maryland Campaign. On September 14th he wrote: “The unexpected often happens in the army. When we retreated from Manassas, the afternoon of August 30, we gave up all hope of seeing our knapsacks again, as the grove where they were deposited had been taken possession of by the enemy. During our advance up the mountain to-day, the dead body of a rebel belonging to a Georgia regiment was seen lying on the ground near the road, where he was killed. One of our boys, regretting the loss of his knapsack, and noticing the Reb had one, concluded to make good his loss by transferring it to his own back. Now the most astonishing thing about this was the discovery, upon removing the knapsack, that it was his own property, which had been toted from Manassas to South Mountain by a rebel soldier. He was still more amazed on opening it to find the contents had been undisturbed.”
After the Battle of South Mountain, many Union troops went to sleep that night under arms upon the battlefield. The next day, the Union army was put into motion marching toward Sharpsburg. Small details were left behind on the South Mountain battlefield to collect and pile accouterments and arms that were scattered, and to bury the dead.
Private Edward King Wightman of the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry wrote about the march toward South Mountain on September 15th. Near Frederick, Maryland he wrote: “In the small hours of the morning our rascally recruits had stolen a suckling pig from a secessionist and roasted him. Our boys are, like most privates in the army, disgustingly unprincipled and profane… They eat pies and drink cider ad lib and walk off with them in their stummuts without a thought of paying… The officers just look the other way, to obtain the reputation of being good fellows.” He continued: “They took rations of crackers and salt pork and started marching toward Frederick. They overtook an ammunition train and put their haversacks in the donkey bins strapped behind the wagon, continued our journey with relieved backs and lighter spirits.”
Arriving at Middletown, Maryland, Private Wightman rode in the regimental ambulance and spent the night at Middletown. He recalled seeing the old South Mountain battlefield as it laid in ruin. “It was obvious that an army had been there fences torn down, old ladies bewailing the ruin of their cabbage plants, the scarcity of food at hotels and in private houses… and the sight of wounded men, bullet holes in walls and trees, fences shattered by shells, dead horses, etc.”
The Second US Sharpshooters during the Maryland Campaign were documented as wearing their famous green uniform. In the book “Berdan’s United States sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865” by Charles Augustus Stevens, he wrote about a conversation that took place in Sharpsburg after the Battle of Antietam. He wrote “As Surgeon Reynolds and myself were riding along the Sharpsburg pike, arriving at the very place where the adjutant fell, we raet a carriage containing a lady. She spoke to us and wanted to be directed to the Second U. S. Sharpshooters, and recognizing our green uniforms, said: “Perhaps you belong to that regiment,” to which we replied affirmatively.”
After the Battle of Antietam and Confederate General JEB Stuart’s Chambersburg Raid, the Union army still laid in waiting. On October 3rd, Private Robert Cruikshank of the 123rd New York Infantry wrote from Pleasant Valley: ““I am very well but have hard fare now. The rations are very bad and we have cold nights and do not have clothing enough as our knapsacks were left at Washington with nearly all our clothing. We hope to get them soon.”
Stephen Minot Weld, Jr. wrote about the condition of the Union soldier on October 16th, “We have been waiting for clothing, shoes, etc., for the men, many of whom are in a very destitute condition” He then wrote on the 31st of October from Sandy Hook “The men are now all provided with shoes and clothing, which they were very much in need of after the battle Antietam.”
On October 17th, while encamped at Pleasant Valley, Private Wightman noted the lack of provisions that his unit had. Their knapsacks had been stored in a warehouse while at Frederick on September 15 and a month later the knapsacks were delivered to the soldier’s in Pleasant Valley. The men were looking forward to receiving blankets, overcoats as well as new socks, clean shirt and a toothbrush.
Private Henry Ropes of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry wrote on October 28th from Bolivar Heights near Harper’s Ferry: “We have had a very heavy rain and I find that my rubber tent let in water in the seams which fasten the canvas to the top of the tent.” He continued: “Last night we had ½ inch of ice. Rather tough for shelter tents and an insufficient supply of blankets. It is awfully cold and I have suffered very much for want of warm clothing for the night.”
Private Ropes sent a letter home to Massachusettes asking his family for vairous items that he needed. On October 30th, he wrote to his family stating that he recieved a trunk that contained buffalo, two blue blankets, knapsack, India rubber blanket, two bottles of wine, gingerbread, coffee, tea, sugar, lanteran, cup saucer, plate and hatchet. By November 1st, Private Ropes wrote home again thanking his family for the knapsack because the army was on the march.
Not only did the infantry suffer during the Maryland Campaign, but so did the cavalry. Listed on a company muster roll for Company F, of the 6th New York Cavalry, it states; “The men were compelled to throw away some of their clothing away in order to lighten their horses and consequently have largely overdrawn their accounts.”
The artillery seemed to fair better than the other branches in the Army of the Potomac. According to the history of 5th Massachusetts Battery written in 1902, a portion of Chase’s Dairy for September 12th states that their knapsacks were fully stocked with clean clothing since stripped to light marching orders on August 10th. The History of Battery E, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery by George Lewis states upon arriving in Washington, they received much needed clothing.
There are many photographs of Union soldiers in the LOC collection. If you are a reenactor, I would highly suggest that you study these photographs to develop you impression. For the Civil War buff, I would also urge you to do the same. Photographs have a large amount of detail in them that is not always written about by an author unless they are uniform experts. I have been honored to work with, and to be associated with some of the early researchers of Civil War uniforms. Their work is the foundation of what many living historians base their impressions on, and what many park historians interpret to the public, showing Civil War enthusiasts an example of the common Civil War soldier.
Photographs: LOC Collection