The Civil War Uniform

Updated November 29, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

From blue to gray and many colors in between, the clothing of the Civil War soldier was often far from uniform

By Catherine McNiff
Confederate General Uniform

Confederate general uniform (Atlanta Civil War Museum, By London looks via Wikimedia Commons)

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Although known as the blue (Union) and the gray (Confederate), Civil War combatants were not always easy to tell apart. Volunteers often wore their homespun clothing into battle, or the colors of their local militia. Soon enough, whatever the garb, the wear and tear of war-time exploits left many ragged, worn, and grimy. The uniform standards were as follows:

Union Uniform

Dark blue trousers, jacket, and forage cap (kepi)

In an attempt to distinguish the majority volunteers from the army professionals, volunteers wore dark blue jackets and kepis and light blue trousers. The uniforms were made of wool, which kept the soldiers warm in winter and (theoretically) cool in the summer.

Confederate Uniform

Gray trousers, jacket, and kepi

The uniforms were made of cotton from the southern cotton fields. As the uniforms underwent the rigors of war, they turned a brownish color, which inspired the nickname “Butternuts“ for the Confederate soldiers.

Specialty Uniforms for North and South:

Artillery: red kepis, shell jackets with red trim, and a red stripe on their trousers if required by rank.

Cavalry: yellow trim on trousers and jackets.

Exotic Uniforms

Zouaves: the volunteer regiments wearing red or striped baggy trousers, short jackets, sashes, and fez hats or turbans were inspired by the French Zouaves who fought in North Africa in the middle of the 19th century.

Highland Guard: inspired by the tartan of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Scotland, the New York 79th wore red and black plaid wool, a dark blue jacket with red cording and cuffs, and collars with white piping; a dark blue glengarry, a boat-shaped cap with a plaid band; and low-quarter leather shoes with false buckles.

Garibaldi Guard: The 39th New York Volunteer Infantry was another Union unit that was inspired by international style, wearing puffy red shirts like those worn by Italian soldier who fought under Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Sharpshooters: Hiram Berdan's Union sharpshooters wore distinctive green uniforms with matte buttons (to avoid glare), probably inspired by European elite shooters and certainly helpful in camouflaging.

Army Ranking System

Both armies employed buttons, braids, and insignia to designate rank. Here is the army ranking system, from top to bottom.

  • General
  • Lieutenant General
  • Major General
  • Brigadier General
  • Colonel
  • Lieutenant Colonel
  • Major
  • Captain
  • First Lieutenant
  • Second Lieutenant
  • Sergeant
  • Corporal
  • Private

Soldier's Kit

The rest of the soldiers uniform consisted of his kit, or vital supplies. Considering that the average soldier in the Civil War was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall and weighed 143 1/2 pounds, the thirty pounds of equipment was the equivalent of nearly a third of his body weight.

  • Rifle
  • Bayonet
  • Scabbard
  • Haversack with rations for three days
  • Cartridge box with 40 rounds
  • Blanket roll
  • Canteen
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