Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Frock coats: Style or practicality of 19th century U.S. Army?

A history resource article by originally written in 2011 but totally rewritten in 2013.

19th century Union frock coat once worn by
George Armstrong Custer
.  Photographed at
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Visitors' Center, Crow Agency, Montana
Back in Feb 19, 2011, I posted a notice of an auction that offered a selection of military outerwear including a circa-1860 U.S. New York Regiment militia frock coat, enlisted man's gray with seven large New York state buttons down the front; a New York State 71st Regiment swallow-tailed full-dress dark blue jacket with a row of nine eagle buttons down the front; and a U.S. Louisville Legion-style wool frock coat, dark blue, with five Ohio buttons.  Auction notices have such a short shelf life that I probably shouldn't have created a blog post for that.  But, before deleting my original post, I thought about the variety of frock coats that had been sold and wondered about military decisions around uniform style during this period. So I decided to rewrite this post to provide some historical background on the military frock coat worn by officers in the 19th century and why this unform change was ultimately adopted.

"The first military frock coats were issued late in the Napoleonic Wars to French line infantry and Prussian Landwehr troops. Unwilling to soil the expensive tail coats on campaign, the French adopted a loose fitting single-breasted coat with contrasting collar and cuffs. The Germans, having been devastated by years of war, were unable to afford elaborate uniforms like the British line infantry and chose a peaked cap and double-breasted blue coat, again with contrasting collar and cuffs, as these were cheaper to produce for the large numbers of recruits, smart enough for full dress, and more practical for campaigns." Wikipedia

So, the Wikipedia article points first to an unwillingness by the fastidious French to soil their tail coats as the reason for the adoption of the frock coat during the Napoleonic Wars.  Then it says the Germans followed suit because the frock coat was cheaper to produce in large numbers.

And I actually thought it was just a matter of staying in fashion with the civilian population!  So, thinking like the old budget officer I used to be, I had to find out whether such military decisions were actually a matter of style or practicality!  

First I had to back up a bit and look at the evolution of uniforms during this "revolutionary" period. Backing up to the colonial period, we find European armies wearing a justacorps-style coat.  The justacorps coat was a long knee-length coat introduced by the French in the late 17th century and worn throughout the 18th century.
Justacorps military coats worn during the 18th century.
Photograph courtesy of   via Wikimedia Commons

 The justacorps featured a generous skirt. So economy of fabric could have been an issue if uniforms had evolved directly from the justacorps coat to the frock coat but that was not the case. During the Napoleonic Wars, a tight-fitting tailed coat was introduced, hence the reference to the French not wanting to soil their tailed coats.  The Americans followed suit during the War of 1812, introducing what was termed a coatee or shell jacket.  But here's where there appears to be a bit of confusion over the definition of a frock coat, despite the Wikpedia article's excellent references. 

"By the 1840s frock coats were regulation for the American, Prussian, Russian and French armies, although the British did not adopt them until after the Indian MutinyUS army officers were first issued navy blue frocks during the Mexican War with gold epaulets and peaked caps of the German pattern. Enlisted USMC personnel received a double breasted version with red piping worn with a leather stock and shako to reflect their status as an elite unit, although infantry soldiers continued to be issued the 1833 pattern shell jacket until the M1858 uniform, complete with French style kepi, entered service shortly before the US Civil War." - Wikipedia
Image of 19th century coatee courtesy of the
According to the U.S. Army's own "Survey of Uniforms, Weapons, and Accoutrements", the uniform of the United States Army featured the short-tailed tight-fitting coatee until it was replaced by the frock coat in 1851.  These regulations were further reinforced in 1858 and 1860, establishing the frock coat as the regulation attire for Union soldiers.
"The regulations of 1858 and 1860 establish the uniform that defined the Union soldier in the American Civil War. The Army Hat in black felt with appropriate branch insignia; the frock coat with branch piping for foot troops, uniform jackets with branch colored lace for mounted troops, and sky-blue trousers." -  David Cole, Survey of U. S. Army Uniforms, Weapons, and Accoutrements.
So, getting back to the statement that frock coats were more economical, the amount of fabric does not appear to be the crux of the decision.  The coatee would have used less overall fabric than a frock coat.  But perhaps the expense of tailoring such a close-fitting uniform coupled with the body restriction and logistics of supplying large numbers in a variety of sizes offset fabric savings, especially since the cost of fabric dropped dramatically after the invention of the power loom by Edmund Cartwright in 1785 and its widespread adoption by the 1830s.  
But the frock coat was not without its detractors.  Shortly after the Civil War, Assistant Surgeon Alfred Woodhull conducted a study of army clothing with an eye to what improvements could be made to enhance the health and well being of each soldier.  Woodhull recommended a "Swiss blouse", a coat with four pleats running full length down the front of the coat to accomodate up to three wool shirts and a waistcoat in cold weather without hampering the freedom of movement.
But, alas, although this concept of layering was quite revolutionary, the coat was almost universally despised, especially by soldiers in the west. 
"The new uniform had not even been fully fielded before the Army began to make changes. Issue of the pleated blouse was stopped and the pattern 1874 sack coat was issued in its place. The new coat single breasted with five brass buttons in front and one on each cuff; it was made of dark blue wool with branch colored piping on each cuff and on the edge of the fall collar. 
The new coat was well received, but a new difficulty arose. On June 16, 1874 Congress, upon hearing that the Army was selling large quantities of surplus material, passed legislation that prohibited the expenditure of  appropriated money to purchase “hats, uniform caps, forage caps, uniform coats, uniform jackets, sack coats, and unlined coats…until those on hand known as the old pattern… were exhausted.” -  David Cole, Survey of U. S. Army Uniforms, Weapons, and Accoutrements.
So, it looks like uniform regulation was not a definitive decision based on style or practicality but a pendulum that swung periodically somewhere between the two with Congress stepping in from time to time when Washington watchdogs wanted to use government funding for something else.
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