Uniform of the Union Army

Uniform of the Union Army
A plate showing the Union uniform of 1858, influenced by the French army

The Uniform of the Union Army was widely varied and, due to limitations on supply of wool and other materials, based on availability and cost of materials during the United States Civil War.[1]



The standard U.S. army uniform at the outbreak of the war had acquired its definitive form in the 1858 regulations.

It consisted of a campaign uniform, a parade uniform, and a fatigue uniform.

Described in general terms this uniform consisted of:

Service and campaign

The Service and Campaign Uniform consisted of the following:

A) Headgear: A black felt slouch hat with one brim being hold up and secured by means of a metallic eagle after the U.S. coat of arms of the day. Non-regulation kepis were also widely used.

B) Coat: In Prussian blue, tight fitting and almost knee length, trimmed in arm of service piping for NCOs and other ranks. Cavalry and mounted artillery used a short jacket instead, more practical for riding. General officers wore a double breasted version with black velvet collar and cuffs.

C) Greatcoat: In sky blue, with standing collar and french cuffs and a fixed short cape. Officers could wear this or a dark blue variant.

D) Trousers for enlisted men were sky blue. NCOs had a vertical stripe in arm of service colors. Officers wore the sky blue trousers with or without piping or a dark blue one for Staff Officers and generals.

Parade order

The Parade uniform consisted of the following:

A) Headgear: The hat described with trimmings in the arm of service colors. Some units as marines and mounted artillery retained shakos for ceremonial purposes.

B) Coat: The same described (frock or short shell-jacket) with metallic epaulets resembling scales. Officers wore french-type epaulets and a sash.

C) Greatcoat: As described.

D) Trousers: As described.


The Fatigue uniform consisted of the following:

A) Headgear: A forage cap with a floppy crown. Officers tended to privately purchase more elaborate versions after the french army model subsequently known as chasseur caps. Generals wore a variant having a black velvet band. Insignia was pinned on top of the crown or -in officers- in front of the cap.

B) Coat: A cheaply made dark blue sack-coat of a simple and unsophisticated design, having a loose cut, fall collar and no pockets.

C) Greatcoat: As described.

D) Trousers: As described.

In general terms, as the war went on, the service uniform tended to be replaced by the cheaper and more practical fatigue uniform. Anyway it is not uncommon to see pictures of soldiers combining items of all orders (i.e. frock coats and forage caps, elaborate tailor made versions of the sack-coat...).

National Guard/Militias

The state militias (the modern National Guard) usually wore versions of the aforementioned uniform in medium grey, which was gradually replaced by the standard blue uniform. As a general rule, Union soldiers wore some sort of blue, usually a dark blue with the following items:


Uniform coat

Marines with their leather shakos, 1864. This is the full dress uniform consisting of a double breasted coat with red piping, epaulettes and inverted yellow rank stripes for NCOs. In the field a single-breasted coat similar to the type used by the infantry was worn, with red rather than sky blue piping
10th Veteran Reserve Corps bandsmen in sky blue jackets April 1865
Officers of the USS Monitor
  • Single-breasted dark blue frock coat with sky blue piping for infantry or red piping for US Marines and heavy artillery.
  • An identical coat in rifle green was issued to Berdan's Sharpshooters as an early form of camouflage. These had black rubber Goodyear buttons that would not reflect the light and give away the sniper's position.
  • The cavalry, artillery and troops from Ohio or New York were equipped with dark blue shell jackets with shoulder straps and 12 small brass buttons down the front and colored tape around edges denoting their branch of service. The Veteran Reserve Corps were issued a similar pattern but in sky blue with navy blue tape. Wealthier soldiers especially NCOs would have shell jackets custom made for them by local tailors. The number of buttons on these coats varied between 12 and 8. Some had shoulder straps, belt loops and piping while others did not. One of the more unusual shell jackets was worn by the 79th New York. It resembled the doublet worn by the 79th Highlanders in the British army and was worn with a Glengarry cap, sporran and kilt for full dress or tartan trews and a kepi when on campaign.
  • Buttons featured the US eagle and originally had letters denoting the soldier's branch of service: I for infantry, C or D for Cavalry and A for artillery but due to the size of the army this was done away with early in the war to cut costs, although officers in the artillery, infantry and cavalry continued to use them well after the Spanish-American war.
  • Later in the war soldiers of all branches were issued loose-fitting blue sack coats with 4 brass buttons, based on the civilian work jacket, which remained in service during the Indian Wars. By mid-war volunteers were issued a lined version of the sack-coat.
  • Officers - as it was customary with all armies of the era- had to purchase their own equipment, and thus tended to wear tailor-made uniforms. The frock coat had epaulettes (nicknamed sardine boxes by the men) and was first issued during the Mexican War when they replaced the War of 1812 era tail coat (relegated to full dress by 1861). These coats were single breasted for lieutenants and captains and had between seven and nine buttons. It was double breasted for senior officers and generals with black velvet facings and buttons placed in orders of twos and threes according to rank. On campaign many officers, including Ulysses S Grant wore sack coats, either private purchase or of the type issued to enlisted men with shoulder boards from the frock coat added to show rank. This was to make it more difficult for enemy snipers to pick off the officers as well as being cheaper to replace after the harsh campaign conditions.
  • High-ranking mounted officers would sometimes wear double-breasted shell jackets in dark blue. These had the same domed buttons and velvet collar and cuffs as the frock coat.
  • The regimental padre wore a long black military-style frock coat with cloth buttons and epaulettes with a cross. Chaplains often carried a sabre and revolver for self-defence. When conducting Mass they wore a cassock, vestments and Biretta.
  • Sailors in the US Navy wore short double breasted blue peacoats, based on a Napoleonic-era design. These were worn with matching flared trousers, striped shirts and neckerchiefs. In tropical weather a white jumper and canvas trousers were worn. Headwear consisted of a peakless cap or straw hat. Officers wore double-breasted frock coats with an open collar, buttons featuring an anchor, epaulettes and rank insignia on the cuff.
  • Shirt - The most common color for the army-issue shirt was grey, followed by navy blue or white. The shirt was made of coarse wool and was a pullover style with 3 buttons. It was often replaced with civilian clothing such as a white linen or plaid flannel shirt sewn by the soldier's wife, mother or sister. Bright red overshirts were often worn as uniforms by volunteer regiments early in the war, modeled on the shield-front shirt worn by Victorian firefighters.
  • Overcoat - Single breasted for infantry, double breasted for cavalry with a rain cape. On campaign this was sometimes replaced with a rubber poncho that doubled as a groundsheet. Officers' greatcoats were made of dark blue wool and had black braid on front and on the cuffs.


1866 picture of Model showing correct uniform of a Company "A" 1st US Cavalry Sgt wearing Hardee hat
  • Hardee hat - Aka "Jeff Davis Hat". Black with eagle badge keeping the left side of the brim pinned up. For parades an eagle feather was added, with brass designating the soldier's regiment, company and branch of service (bugle for infantry, cannons for artillery or sabres for cavalry).[2] Western units like the Iron Brigade preferred the Hardee hat as its wide brim provided protection from the sun and rain. These hats were personalised by the men, usually shaped into civilian styles like the centercrease, which was the precursor of the cowboy hat.
  • Kepis were worn on campaign and for fatigue duty. The design varied from a tight-fitting cap resembling the one adopted by the French in the 1840s to a tall floppy "bummer's cap" described by the troops as resembling a feed bag. The leather peak could be stiff and rectangular or crescent shaped (known as the McDowell pattern). The hat band was sometimes a contrasting color to the normal blue: yellow for cavalry, red for artillery or green for medics and soldiers belonging to the Irish Brigade. Officers' kepis might have black or gold braid to display their rank. Early in the war kepis were supplied with a waterproof cover. Other troops purchased a "havelock" which, like the contemporary Foreign Legion cap had a neck flap to protect the wearer from the sun. The havelock was made of a greyish-blue cotton mesh and was not liked by the troops, who usually used them to filter tea or coffee. So their issue was discontinued in the later years.
  • Many troops would replace their regulation kepis with civilian hats (normally in black). Popular styles included the slouch hat with either a flat or round top (the latter was issued to the Garibaldi Guard with black feathers added to resemble the Italian bersaglieri hat), pork pie hat, telescope crown hat, flat cap, bowler hat or smoking cap (worn in camp when off-duty)
  • Marines were issued tall leather shakos before the war but in the field these were replaced with kepis (often with the red enamelled brass M badge from the shako added)
  • Early in the war the M1839 forage cap which was officially phased out in 1858 was still in use among some regular soldiers.
  • General officers could also wear for undress order a cocked hat with black ostrich plumes and a black rossette surmounted with the U.S. eagle either metallic or embroidered.


  • These were sky blue with tin buttons. NCOs had a dark blue (infantry), red (artillery) or yellow (cavalry) stripe down the leg. However, junior NCOs which included corporals, wore a French blue stripe down the seam of the trousers.
  • Officers wore navy blue trousers with a black or gold stripe.


  • Jefferson Davis Boots - Black, rough side out with hobnails and heel irons resembling modern-day dress boots. Recent research suggests smooth side out boots were equally common for volunteer regiments.
  • Cavalry and artillery were issued calf-high riding boots, originally designed for the drivers of artillery limbers. Some also wore thigh-high trooper boots as protection from the elements and in imitation of European cavalry.
  • Gaiters were issued to regular troops, sharpshooters, zouaves and the Iron Brigade but were quickly discarded as impractical.

The enlisted infantry uniform was completed with a black leather belt and oval buckle with the letters US. Troops from Ohio and New York had belts marked with OVM (Ohio Volunteer Militia) or SNY (State of New York) and their particular state seal on the brass plate of their cartridge box rather than the US eagle used by the rest of the army. Officers, NCOs and cavalry troopers were equipped with a sword belt with a rectangular buckle with eagle motif.

Rank insignia

Officers' rank was displayed on their epaulettes (dress occasions) or shoulder boards (other occasions): no bars for a second lieutenant, one bar for a first lieutenant, two for a captain, gold oak leaf for a major, silver oak leaf for a lieutenant colonel, a silver eagle for a colonel and one, two or three stars for a general, depending on his seniority.

The colors of the fields of shoulder boards were as follows (trims were inside the gold braid):[3]

  • Dark blue: general officers
  • Dark blue: general staff
  • Sky blue: infantry
  • Yellow: cavalry
  • Orange: dragoons
  • Scarlet: artillery
  • Dark green: sharpshooters
  • Buff: aides-de-camp
  • Buff with white trim: adjutants
  • Buff with black trim: engineers
  • Buff with scarlet trim: inspector
  • Buff with sky blue trim: quartermaster
  • White: judge advocate
  • Emerald green: medical corps
  • Crimson: ordnance
  • Olive green: pay corps

Individual officers would sometimes add gold braid Austrian knots on their sleeves but this practice was uncommon as it made them easy targets and risked friendly fire as this was the standard insignia for Confederate officers.

Officer Rank Structure of the Union Army
Lieutenant General Major General Brigadier General Colonel Lieutenant Colonel Major Captain First Lieutenant Second Lieutenant
Union army lt gen rank insignia.jpg Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Union army brig gen rank insignia.jpg Union army col rank insignia.jpg Union army lt col rank insignia.jpg Union army maj rank insignia.jpg Union army cpt rank insignia.jpg Union army 1st lt rank insignia.jpg Union 2nd lt rank insignia.svg

Enlisted Rank Structure
Sergeant Major Quartermaster Sergeant Ordnance Sergeant First Sergeant
CSASergeantMajor.jpg Chevron - Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant.jpg CSAOrdSergeant.jpg CSA1Sergeant.jpg
Sergeant Corporal Musician Private
CSASergeant.svg CSACorporal.jpg no insignia no insignia

Other points

Color plate from the War of the Rebellion Atlas depicting the eagle motif on Union rank insignia


While blue dominated, it was not unusual for some units to wear other colors:

  • Marine bandsmen wore red. Infantry musicians had braid on the front of their uniforms, known as a birdcage, in the same color as the facings.
  • Quartermasters issued the Veteran Reserve Corps light rather than dark blue uniforms as light blue wool was much cheaper in the 1860s.
  • The 1st and 2nd Sharpshooter Regiments wore a Dark Green.
  • Cadets and the National Guard wore grey.
  • Camouflage - blue was a poor choice as a camouflage, however at the time the notion of camouflage was unknown, with many commanders refusing to allow the construction of field fortifications in fear that it would turn their men into cowards. It was not until the Spanish-American War that the United States Army instituted a khaki uniform.


Regrettably, the use of wool meant that the uniforms were not suited to warm summer climates, and manners of the day meant that many soldiers wore them even on hot days. As a result, many Union soldiers suffered from heatstroke on long marches.


Unscrupulous contractors, looking to make a quick profit from the war, would sometimes turn in uniforms of sub-par or shoddy workmanship. This resulted in some unfortunate troops seeing their uniforms fall apart after the first rain.


A Union officer sporting the "Jeff Davis" hat adopted in 1858. Note the eagle motifs.

Another distinguishing feature was the use of eagles throughout - the "Jeff Davis" hat being pinned back by eagle badges, cavalry officers being adorned with eagles, belts with eagle motifs, all based on the Great Seal of the United States.

European and civilian influence

The uniform itself was influenced by many things, both officers' and soldiers' coats being originally civilian designs.

Leather stocks based on the type issued to the Napoleonic-era British army were issued to the regular army before the war. These were uncomfortable, especially in hot weather, and were thrown away by the men at the first opportunity to be replaced with cotton neckerchiefs, bandanas or (in the case of officers) neckties or cravats.

As many of the upper echelons were War of 1812 veterans, many were keen to avoid British influence on the uniform. However, during the US War of Independence, the French Army had aided American forces. As such, it was decided that the uniform would be based on French uniforms.

The basic cut of the uniform, adopted in 1851 was French, as was the forage cap worn by some men and the frock coat was a French invention. However, some parts of the French uniform were ignored, such as enlisted men wearing epaulettes and collar ornaments.

The Army went even further than simply having a French-influenced uniform, with some regiments wearing French Imperial Guard voltigeur uniforms, or even some wearing zouave uniforms, such as the 62nd and 63rd Pennsylvania, New York Fire Zouaves as well as the 18th Massachusetts. These consisted of a short blue jacket with red facings, fez, red or blue pants, a red sash and a blue waistcoat with brass buttons or alternatively a red overshirt.

The late-war sack coat was copied from the fatigue jacket worn by the 19th century Prussian army.

The Hardee hat was inspired by the headgear of the Danish army.



See also

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