New York State jacket, 1861, The

New York State jacket, 1861, The

McAfee, Michael J

When New York began mobilizing its citizens for war in April of 1861, state authorities let contracts for complete uniforms “sufficient for 12,000 men” in late April. New advertisements for an additional 15,000 uniforms began to appear in the beginning of May.

The form this uniform was to take had been specified by April 22nd. The main garment, the jacket, was described as: “… a jacket of dark army blue cloth cut to flow from the waist and to fall about four inches below the belt. The coat to be buttoned with eight buttons … a low standing collar… buttons to be those of the state militia. Four sizes of jackets will be required.” The trousers and overcoat for the uniform were specified only as “light army blue” and the forage cap was of “dark blue.” This general description omitted several significant details of the jacket’s design.

Immediately the state ran into procurement troubles with a shortage of appropriate cloth in the marketplace. As a result, one contractor, the famed “Messrs.. Brooks Brothers,” who were to make over 12,000 uniforms, asked permission to substitute gray cloth for unavailable blue on 7,300 of their uniforms. Because the militia regulations of 1858 already described a gray nine-button jacket for the volunteer militia and gray was a popular color for uniforms in the North, permission was granted. Unfortunately, the substituted cloth was shoddy and the uniforms began to fall apart within weeks. Four regiments received these gray uniforms: 12th, 13th, 19th and 26th Infantry. The historian of the 19th New York remembered them with bitterness:

“…Stripes of dark gray ran through them, with streaks of butternut intermingled. Patches of green, spots of brown, and splashes of other colors, dotted their surface, and no less than eighteen different hues were counted in them by an inquiring volunteer. Shabby in color, uncomfortable from the gritty dust in them, flabby to texture, they were also ungainly in cut. Few were able to get a suit that fitted them… Two men could button around them one overcoat.” These horrors were replaced quickly with proper blue versions of stouter substance.

The other contractors, and there were more than half a dozen who manufactured the first lots of 1861 jackets, did better than Brooks Brothers’ initial efforts. Their jackets also had eight-button fronts, shoulder straps, a belt loop on the left side, and a breast pocket. Details varied, depending on the source. The pocket, for instance, could be on the right or left side. It was made by cutting open the jacket front and sewing additional pieces into it. The pocket could be completed in one of two styles: one tended to gap open, while the other had an additional cloth panel sewn over it to give a more finished look.

The trim on the edges of the jacket collar, shoulder straps and belt loop also varied widely in both shade and size. Some trim was true welting — actual cloth formed into a tube and sewn between the edges of the collar and straps. Other trim was simply colored cord sewn to the edges. Sometimes this trim is readily seen in photographs while other trim is nearly invisible. In addition, a varied number of buttons were placed on the rear of the nonfunctional cuffs.

The jacket was meant to extend four inches below the waist but some were made considerably shorter. Rarely does one see a jacket so inadequately proportioned as the example worn by the soldier above. Other examples accompanying this article show better-fitted jackets.

New York was not the only state to issue jackets to its troops, especially early in the war. However, the 1861 New York jacket was the only one to be so widely associated with the soldiers of a particular state. It proved to be very popular and was worn throughout the war. It was a way to declare “I’m a New Yorker!”

Copyright Military Images Mar/Apr 2000

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