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Insignia Of The Common Union Soldier

By Kurt Holman

(Originally Published in the Camp Chase Gazette; March, 1991)

   When a person looks at a photo of a Civil War soldier, somehow they can always tell if he is a real 19th century soldier or a Reenactor. How? The answer is easy: look at the hat. If the man is wearing a brass bugle on his kepi or forage cap, chances are that it is a photo of a Reenactor. If the kepi or forage cap has a corps badge, a company letter, a regimental number, and a brass bugle, it is surely a Reenactor.

   What did the common Union Infantryman look like? One would expect to find the most insignia on the "Band Box” Army of the Potomac. In Philip Katcher's article in the September-October (1984) issue of Military Images, he studied photos of Eastern soldiers with six or more field soldiers in each image. His sources were: Military Images, Divided We Fought, The Photographic History of the Civil War, They Who Fought Here, and Hunt & Embleton's The American Civil War. Of a total of 156 enlisted men Katcher examined, 93 men were photographed in such a way that their headgear could be clearly seen. His results were: 63.4%, plain caps. (NO INSIGNIA AT ALL!) Insignia was worn by only 19.3% and of that, only 18.2% wore corps badges. Mr. Katcher's conclusions were: "Based on the photographs studied, we can describe the "typical" infantryman of the Army of the Potomac from 1863 to 1865. He wears an unadorned issue-type forage cap. His coat is either a frockcoat or a fatigue blouse, but it covers only a shirt and not a vest. His accoutrements are complete and worn as issued. It is a very plain but serviceable garb".  In the west, I looked at 404 western hats and caps out of the Image of War in 6 volumes.

   82.7% of the men wore plain unadorned. "slouch" or civilian hats. 7.4% of the men wore plain forage caps or kepis. The ONLY insignia I found on western head gear was on the "Hardee” hats which comprised 9.4%. The average western company would have looked much the same as Mr. Katcher's description of Easterners except that there would be many more hats in a company formation. Even photos of Regular army troops fit the above patterns. They wore no more insignia than the volunteers. A serious study of photographs also quickly dispels the "early war vs. late war" myth. A soldier's length of time away from his quartermaster had more to do with a soldier's appearance than any other consideration: no matter if it was 1861 or 1865.

   The common, average, Union soldier wore NO insignia. If anyone would feel uncomfortable with the above figures, I would ask them not to take my word for it. I would ask them to look it up for themselves. The facts are there and the pictures don't lie.

   Why, then, almost without exception, do Reenactors insist on wearing insignia? The 1861 U.S. Army Regulations state that the brass bugle, regimental number, and company letter are only to be worn on the Hardee hat. For forage caps, enlisted men are only to have “. . . yellow metal letters in front to designated companies".  If a brass bugle on a forage cap is non-regulation and it shows up in less than 1% of available photographs, why do Reenactors insist on wearing them?  Maybe the answer lies in the exceptions. Maybe everyone is trying to portray the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment or the 4th U.S.C.T.s. The photos of these troops almost could be taken for photos of Reenactors. (Except for the fact that they aren't wearing gaitors.) It is hard to believe that most Reenactors are looking at these few pictures and ignoring the rest of the Union Army.

   Another photograph that comes to mind is the image of the 110th Pennsylvania at Falmouth Virginia in 1863. This is the one image of original soldiers that looks the most like an image of Reenactors. The corporal on the left of the front rank is not wearing chevrons and the man on his left is wearing black gaitors. In fact 5 of 13 of them are wearing gaitors (mostly white). They have a mixture of Enfields and Springfields and they are almost all wearing corps badges. The only thing that gives them away as real Civil War soldiers is the fact that they are not wearing brass bugles on their caps.

   If you were to look at volume 5, page 440 of the Image of War, you would find a portrait of a Confederate captain named Richardson.  He is wearing 1epard skin trousers and pistol holders. If everyone chose that impression it may be historically correct, but would it be ethical? When John Q. Public sees a Reenactor, he thinks that the Reenactor represents EVERY Civil War soldier (as well he should!). This is why it is the duty of every living historian to be average. If you chose Captain Richardson as an impression, then you are implying to everyone who sees you that every Civil War soldier wore leopard skin! This is a drastic example of any impression that isn't "normal" but the same concept applies to any impression that doesn't fit a picture of the average, normal, generic 19th century soldier. I'm surely not discouraging anyone who wants to do a special impression as long as it is secondary. Every living historian should at least be able to be average, no matter how many impressions he does.

   Then what force is it that possesses Reenactors to put corps badges, brass bugles, regimental numbers AND a company , letter on their caps? Since it can't be for historical reasons, it must be modem vanity; an "esprit de corps" of a MODERN reenactment organization. It seems that many units are so caught up in their modem vanity that they seem to be unknowingly saying, "to hell with history". The idea of the "plain hats" approach is very beneficial to the hobby itself. Not only is it a more accurate impression for each unit, but when small units band together, it makes a more realistic battalion. What can be more ridiculous than 50 men in a line of battle wearing 25 different arrangements of multicolored corps badges, brass bugles, company letters, and regimental numbers? On the other hand, picture a line of 200 or so average infantrymen that look as if they could belong to the same regiment. That's what I'd like to see; and more importantly, that's what I would like the public to see.


Behind the byline: Kurt started reenacting at Perryville on October 11, 1981 and has been at it ever since. He is a member of the 7th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry U.S. (reactivated) and the Mudsills, Inc. Kurt was formerly of the 5th New York Zouaves and is still somewhat active in the Camp Chase Fife and Drums. He is currently the Manager of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site.

pvillebrand Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site 
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Perryville, KY 40468

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