The Civil War lingers in our contemporary American memory in shades of Union blue and Confederate gray.
However, gray was the color of pomp and circumstance, of Lee, Jackson, and Johnston, and the plantation aristocracy. A Confederate foot soldier actually wearing the gray uniform and matching kepi at was something of a rarity, even before the invading Federals and the Union blockade made Southern life a nightmare.
With very few factories to supply uniforms or even yard goods, the Southern soldier relied on the Southern woman’s ingenuity. From mid-1862 onward, the homespun “butternut” uniform was the more common choice.
With little access to imported dyes and the manufactured cloth of Europe or New England, the rural Southern army relied on an unofficial uniform of butternut. It took its name from a community of pro-Southern farmers living in the midwestern states, who dyed their garments in walnut or butternut oil. Walnut dyes were simple to produce, requiring only a thicket of American’s common tree. Two bushels of bark colored twenty yards of cloth when heated and steeped.
Butternut dyes all-natural fibers—wool, cotton, and linen, as well as silk. Butternut homespun uniforms were undoubtedly wool rather than cotton, but cotton-wool combinations, called linsey, jeans, hickory cloth, or Kentucky cloth, were also popular.
What color was butternut? We can see this shade of brown in the work clothes of today’s carpenter, bricklayer, farmer, and the cowboy. Although dyed with synthetic rather than natural dyes, the Carhartt
brand of work clothing is similar to the traditional light brown butternut of the 19th century. With little access to imported dyes and the manufactured cloth of Europe or New England, the rural Southern army relied on an unofficial uniform of butternut. It took its name from a community of pro-Southern farmers living in the midwestern states, who dyed their garments in walnut or butternut oil. Walnut dyes were simple to produce, requiring only a thicket of American’s common tree. Two bushels of bark colored twenty yards of cloth when heated and steeped.
The crudely-made but durable “butternut” uniform was cheaply manufactured across the South by sympathetic civilians, and came to represent the face, in practice if not ideal, of the Confederate soldier up to the end of the war.
In 1863, William Quantrill, the most famous bushwhacker or “irregular” Confederate guerrilla fighter led his men on a raid of the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, burning many of the buildings and killing nearly 200 men and boys. Many of the raiders wore butternut. Years later, if a man appeared in town wearing such a suit he would have been shot—the older residents would at once recall “the hated clothes of the men who dealt death wherever they struck”.
In Book One of my Mended Hearts series, Marrying the Major, part of the plot revolves around U.S. Major Will Chandler trailing one of the raiders who is reportedly planning to ambush General Sherman and General Kilpatrick with the hope of delaying the surrender of North Carolina, thus prolonging the war. While the facts about the surrender of North Carolina at Durham Station are true, the story about the raider is purely a figment of my own overactive imagination!
The Federals, or Union uniform was far more consistent than the Rebels’ outfits. The North had factories that manufactured cloth and clothing, access to wool, and most importantly, imported indigo and Prussian blue dyes to color it.
Two of the most popular dyes of the era, Prussian blue, a mineral dye, was given the name because of its reputation in dyeing military uniforms, while indigo, a vegetable dye derived from the roots of the indigo plant was more expensive.
Bluecoats identified the hated Federals, or “Yankees”, or “blue bellies” throughout the South. Long after the conflict ended, the shade evoked high emotions. There is a story about a South Carolina girl who pointed out a hitchhiker. Her mother berated him as Yankee, refusing to offer him a ride in her carriage. When he hastened to say he was not, she gave him this advice…
“If you wish much kindness shown to you, don’t travel this portion of the country wearing blue pants".
By the time the war ended, most rank and file Confederate and Union soldiers had very little which could be called “a uniform” left. The rigors of campaigning wore out clothing and shoes fairly quickly, and although the “rag-tag, barefoot Confederate” remains a prominent Civil War image, in truth, Union soldiers could also be found barefoot in threadbare uniforms as they, too, made their way home.