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TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL:
Or Upgrading Your Uniform and Kit to a Higher Standard
Part I--The Sack Coat
by (Bvt. Sgt.) Pvt. Mike Palada
Friends, enemies, or otherwise acquaintances, happy new year! With the 2004 living history campaign season around the bend, several Turner members-this esteemed publication's editor among them-have requested that your humble correspondent offer some advice and insight into upgrading one's uniform and kit to a higher standard of authenticity. Past articles in the Campaigners' Corner have offered descriptions on authentic methods of soldiering as well as attempts at first-person, or the man under the uniform. However as the reader shall see, minutiae (or the basic uniform) will be the focus of this installment. It should be noted though that this author is not hell-bent on forcing his views upon the readership. Rather the following information is offered to veteran and fresh fish alike that wish to improve the accuracy and authenticity of their uniform and overall living history experience. So come on in boys; the water is fine...
It is the common view in the authentic/hardcore circles that the Holy Trinity of any uniform is the coat, hat, and blanket. Although other items cannot be ignored in the overall picture, these three stand out the most to the eye and thereby make for a good place to begin an upgrade.
The sack coat, or more correctly termed fatigue blouse, was issued in the millions to Federal troops. Despite its abundant use throughout the war, many of the so-called reproductions sold today on sutler row are a far cry from what the men of '61-'65 were wearing. At the risk of sounding brash and harsh, the difference in these sutler row coats to those being produced by a handful of authentic craftsmen and tailors (who are listed at the end of this article) is that of a costume versus a faithful copy to exacting standards.
The 1865 Quartermaster's Manual illustrates the sack coat thusly: "Blouses, unlined:--3 yards 4 inches of ¾ dark blue flannel; 4 brass coat buttons[medium]; 61/4 skeins of dark blue linen thread, No. 35; 3-36 of a yard of ¾ drilling; and 1-36 a yard of brown linen. Add, for lined blouses, 11/4 yards of ¾ linsey or gray flannel, and 7/8 of a yard of 4-4 unbleached muslin." [Authors note, materials for linings and thread often differed under civilian contractors.]
Surely, many readers are by now relating, "Okay, so what? That sounds like my sack coat--dark blue wool, 4 brass buttons, etc., etc." Well friends, in order to better describe the glaring inaccuracies of the sutler row garb and the details of the authentically copied sack coat, we must look at several aspects, to include: weight, weave, and color of the materials; construction techniques; and "patterns."
Wool flannel used in the construction of civil war sack coats is described again in the 1865 Q.M. manual as a twill woven, indigo-dyed material. Flannel should be a loosely woven material, loose enough that when held up, light will pass through it. Because it is twill woven, a distinctive wale or diagonal pattern should be visible. It should also be lightweight. Flannel used in sutler row coats is far too heavy. Surviving originals show several shades of color, as at the time it was nearly impossible to control the indigo dyeing process. Colors seen range from medium to dark rich blues, some even with a greenish tinge to them. As indigo is light-fast, it will not fade in sunlight or when exposed to oxygen after it is dried. Therefore it is safe to say that the colors seen on surviving originals are much the same as they were 140 years ago. It is also extremely important to note that the indigo dye used on these original coats cannot produce a navy blue, nor fade to a purple as is seen extensively in the run-of-the-mill sutler row coats! To sum up the issue of weight, weave, and color of the typical sutler row sack coat, they have it all wrong-wrong color, wrong weave of material, and far too heavy. [Incidentally, this same material sutlers are using on shell jackets and frock coats is also wrong for these garments.]
Construction techniques are also a major inaccuracy in the typical sutler row coat. Period techniques differed accordingly as to who made the coat. Civilian contractors, like J.T. Martin, often produced coats with a mixture of machine sewn bodies with hand sewn lining and buttonholes, while most U.S. arsenals (with the exception of St. Louis) like that of the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia produced coats entirely hand sewn. At any rate, all lined bloused should be lined with flannel or jean. Moreover unlined coats actually require more labor to construct, as all seams must be flat-felled, since there is no lining to protect the raw edges--remember flannel is loosely woven. Again, sutler row blouses get it wrong every time, with such inaccuracies as being completely machine sewn including buttonholes, wrong lining if they have one, and incorrectly sewing the seams in unlined coats.
The pattern too is a problem in the typical "reproduction." Over the years, vendors have adopted so called "Frankenstein Patterns." This is a result of producing a coat with every feature considered common. In essence they have mixed, matched, and borrowed from several variations of sack coats. For instance a coat from Sutler X may have a collar from a Schuylkill Arsenal (SA) coat, J.T. Martin contract coat cuffs, and a James Boylan body. Rather than chose this "Frankenstein" blouse that is not accurate or authentic, one's best option is to choose a reproduction based on an original, surviving garment and faithfully reproduced detail for detail. Friends, it's the difference between a costume and a true reproduction.
For further reading and for details that space here did not allow, consider picking up a copy of For Fatigue Purposes…the Army Sack Coat of 1857-1872, by Patrick Brown (also an authentic tailor of coats!) and The Columbia Rifles Research Compendium, 1st Ed., both available at www.skilletlicker.com. Also check out John Wedeward's page at www2.inxpress.net/jwedeward for his extensive surveys of sack coats. You can also pick up a Wedeward made coat at the .
Ready to take the plunge and upgrade your sack coat? Look no further than the following Authentic/Hardcore makers that are tops in the authentic movement as well as Barleycorn tested and approved. These gentlemen spare no detail and are doing it right with regards to weight, weave, color, construction, and patterns:
www.cjdaley.com. Tailor Chris Daley offers both a contract and SA sack coat. And until the end of January you can get his Contract Sack Coat, J.T. Martin trousers, and a gray flannel issue shirt for the sum of $400. Check out his site for other authentic goods, as well as a great research page! Questions? Give Chris a call, he's only too happy to walk you through the process.
www.skilletlicker.com. Joe Hofmann serves as the exclusive dealer of several authentic tailors and craftsmen. You cannot go wrong with the wares he offers. Be sure to check out his research page as well. Questions? Give Joe a call, his customer service is second to none.
Questions, comments, concerns? Have a question about a particular sutler or what coat is best for your impression? Email it to me at TheBarleycornBoys@military.com, or bend my ear at the next event. Stay tuned, in Part II, your humble correspondent will cover hats and caps. And remember just because a sutler advertises his gear as "authentic" doesn't make it is so; most of it is balderdash. Do your homework before you buy. As always, the devil is in the details. Bully!
This article was originally published in the January-February 2004 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.