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Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

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  • Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

    The following article was originally published in the May 1992 issue of the CompanyWag, the journal of the Mudsills Inc., rewritten and updated for The Authentic Campaigner.

    Soldiers were not known as skilled practitioners of the Feminine Arts. However, a soldier handy with needle and thread was a prized commodity in a company for several reasons.

    Figure 1 and 2

    Either too small or too big: An adequate army fit.

    Figure 3
    Couldn’t be bothered with needle and thread? Better roll up your sleeves! This unidentified 12th or 20th Corps soldier didn’t mind being photographed in a too-large sack coat.

    "...I got an overcoat that was about two sizes too large for me, and the tails loosely flopped about my heels as I walked. I soon remedied that by cutting off about 4 inches of the tail."
    Alfred Bellard 5th New Jersey Infantry

    The army's method for fitting clothing to the soldier was anything but scientific. Clothing was issued from large bales of clothing in a variety of sizes called a Tariff of Sizes; more medium sized clothing in sizes 2 and 3 than the extremes of 1 and 4. Soldiers were issued clothing without regard to size and expected to trade with their comrades and thus redistribute the sizes by trial and error. It was inevitable that some individuals would be left holding the short end of the stick-- or trouser as the case may be.

    During active campaigning, soldiers often put up with a less than perfect fit, cuffing trousers and sleeves that were too long and ignoring unsightly gaps in uniforms too small. However when circumstances permitted, the army generally expected soldiers to alter their clothing in order to present a more soldierly appearance. If these men lacked the skill and patience to alter their clothing themselves, they were sent to a soldier bearing a quasi-official title, the Company Tailor, who would perform these adjustments for a nominal fee. In fact this practice was noted by General August V. Kautz in his “Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers”, 1864:

    “[The soldier] is provided with clothing, which he is expected to adapt to the best advantage to improve his military appearance, by the best means in his power. There is usually a tailor or two in the company or among the recruits who is excused from all duty possible, to fit soldiers’ clothing for a moderate compensation.”

    Although widely accepted as standard procedure in the army, the 1868 Woodhull report decried the practice, saying:

    “Another point [of concern] is the regulation and duties and charges of the company tailors…Inasmuch as the government professes to clothe the soldier, it should do so in a complete manner. It is a species of fraud to adapt his uniform at his own expense.”

    The notion of ready-made clothing in a wide range of sizes was a relatively new concept in the mid-19th century. Alteration of family hand-me-downs would have been familiar to most soldiers as an accepted practice. Generations of mothers and wives were skilled at letting out or taking in seams, moving buttons over, re-hemming sleeves and adding material in strategic areas. Unfortunately, most soldiers would be limited in such skills making the company tailors’ services necessary.

    Figure 4 and 5

    Under arm detail on a Schuylkill Arsenal infantry dress coat showing size alterations to let out the waist on each side. Additional material from another garment was inserted between the front and back panels. The rear pleat in the skirt has been flattened out and resewn to allow more skirt material to match the new waistline. (Mike Fahle collection, photos by Brian White)

    All clothing is bound to eventually wear out. If a soldier was far from a quartermaster or nearly overdrawn on his clothing allowance, he might gamely draw out his "housewife" and resolutely attempt a repair as he had seen his mother do. But many avoided that drudgery by again availing themselves of the Company Tailor.

    Finally, government clothing did not always suit a soldier's sense of style, comfort and utility. Collars were often uncomfortably too high and pockets too few and poorly arranged for many individuals. It was in these alterations that company tailors made a thriving business.

    Neither Sack Nor Shell Nor Frock: 7 Button Sack Coats and Sack Coats Cut to Waist Length

    Figure 6

    Unidentified private that added an additional button between each of the four buttons on his sack coat.

    Figure 7

    Soldier in a 7 button sack coat with breast and waist pockets added. This soldier has also moved the buttons over for a tighter fit to his slender, frame! (Scott Cross Collection)

    A common alteration of issue clothing was to add extra buttons to the 4 button sack coat. The soldier would hack an extra hole between each buttonhole, sew the buttonhole stitch as neatly as his skill would allow and add the extra buttons from some discarded uniform. But why? I have a theory...

    Many of the images of soldiers in 7 button sack coats are from western regiments. Many regiments from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio went to war in state-issued infantry shell jackets. Illinois regiments in particular, were quite proud of their state-issued shells and wore them long after federal quartermasters took over the supplying of clothing in the Spring of 1862. But what if you were among the first in your company to wear out your prized shell jacket and no more could be had? Or what if you were a new recruit in such a regiment and your "newness" was only more evident by your brand new 4 button blouse. Certainly there would be plenty of motivation to alter your clothing to blend in with your comrades!

    In some instances, the skirt would be cut away from the sack coat to make it appear even more like a shell jacket. The shell jacket illusion could be strengthened by the addition of cuff buttons that were removed from some greatcoat's cape. The material from the removed skirt was often used to construct slash pockets or a separate waist band. But despite all these modifications, a close examination of the fold-over collar, tapered facing seams on the front, and every other buttonhole just a little wider and cruder give away the uniform's origin as a common sack coat.

    If the aim was to create a shell jacket, then why not convert a mounted shell jacket or a frock coat? To be certain, some soldiers did. When Colonel J.T. Wilder's infantry brigade was converted to mounted infantry in early 1863, they were obliged to draw cavalry jackets "from which the men removed the distinctive yellow markings so they would not be mistaken for cavalrymen, who were not highly respected by the foot soldiers." A close examination of group photos of Illinois soldiers in state-issue shells turns up soldiers with suspicious jackets bearing 12 tiny buttons instead of the customary 8 or 9 usually found on an Illinois shell. And certainly frockcoats with the skirts cut off are occasionally spotted in period photos, their identity betrayed by the remaining cuff and collar trim.

    But maybe frocks and mounted jackets could not be readily obtained from the local quartermaster depot. Or maybe certain soldiers would rather not mess around with trying to manipulate 12 tiny buttons (which would also have to be polished from time to time), 7 was enough, thank you. Or maybe many soldiers wisely realized that a frockcoat with removed skirts is shorter than a shell jacket at its intended length. The humble sack coat could be cut to any length, was lighter in weight, allowed for conversion to only 7 buttons, was widely available and certainly its low cost put less of a strain on a soldier's clothing allowance.

    Figure 8

    Corporal Louis McKaney, 31st Illinois Infantry. McKaney sports a sack coat that has been cut short with a waist band added. (Courtesy Steve Sullivan)

    Figure 9

    The NCOs of Company G, 31st Illinois sporting sack coats cut down to waist length (Courtesy Steve Sullivan)

    Figure 10 and 11

    Groupings of western federals (note the 4th Corps badge on the standing corporal on the right) wearing shortened sack coats with waistbands added.

    Just a Little Below the Ears, Please...

    There was one common alteration which truly was a concession to comfort rather than style. Frock coats and mounted service jackets were notorious for having high collars that would chafe the neck. If compelled to wear them, some troops would have the collars lowered to a less troublesome height. Numerous original specimens have been examined by the author, and the frequency that they appear in photographs would indicate that this was a very common alteration.

    The easiest method for lowering a collar was simply to fold it in half to the inside of the collar and stitch in place. This method would easily have been within the capabilities of most soldiers. More commonly though, the collar would be cut down about an inch and then the resulting wound across the top of the collar sewn shut as neatly as possible without the piping across the top edge. Occasionally specimens are seen where the piping across the top of the collar was carefully re-inserted and sewn back together on the newly lowered collar…Definitely a trickier procedure requiring a skilled hand.

    Figures 12 and 13

    [Left] A.J. McKee, 116th Illinois Infantry, 1865. The collar of this frock coat has simply been cut short and sewn back together without the top trim. (Paul McKee collection)

    [Right] David Harvill, 96th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Harvill's collar has been lowered in a more careful manner with the top trim replaced on the lowered collar.(Paul McKee collection)

    Figure 14

    Collar on an Schuylkill Arsenal infantry dress coat cut down by the same method as depicted in Figure 11. The top piping is entirely missing and the top of the collar is hand sewn shut. Interestingly, this example retains the hook and eye hardware at the throat. (Mike Fahle collection, photo by Brian White)

    Figure 15

    Private Frank Stanley, Company C, 83rd Illinois Infantry, image taken in Nashville TN while serving in garrison. Stanley wears an unusual modified dress coat with skirts removed, but with velvet collar and waistband extension. The result is a stylish shell jacket that closes with 10 large buttons instead of 9. The jacket’s origin as a dress coat is betrayed by the cuff piping and buttons remaining in their original configuration. (Image Courtesy of Wilsons Creek National Battlefield)

    Pockets, Pockets Everywhere

    Figure 16

    This soldier’s sack coat has not only sprouted extra buttons, but also sports two exterior patch pockets. Still, his rolled collar gives away his garment’s sack coat origin.

    The army was not exactly generous with providing soldiers with plenty of pockets for storing personal effects. Therefore many soldiers sought to relieve this deficiency themselves. The usual method was to cut a slash into the outer garment and construct a pocket on the inside from material cut from a coat lining, an old shirt or canvas scrounged from a discarded tent. Sometimes this same method was applied to coat linings to create additional interior pockets. Exterior pockets are commonly found added to sackcoats and overcoats; interior pockets were added in the breast of enlisted frockcoats and shells.

    Figure 17

    This soldier has opted to have an external patch pocket added to his sack coat with an unusual flap secured with a small button. (Michael McAfee collection)

    Issue trousers feature side-seam pockets, a rather new fashion statement in the 1860's. Most civilian trousers had pockets that opened from the top, similar to the way pockets are made on modern blue jeans. But soldiers found that their valuables would only too easily fall out of the side-seam pockets on issue trousers when lying down. Therefore, company tailors found a steady stream of customers for converting trouser pockets. Usually the side seam would be sewn shut and a new opening slashed into the top of the pocket. Sometimes the top of the pocket was more neatly finished off into a narrow flap called a "french pocket." The french pocket more closely resembled the common styling for civilian trousers and private manufacture officers' trousers.

    The Milwaukee County Historical Society has a pair of trousers identified to a member of the 49th Wisconsin that sport the slash method pocket conversion. The pockets bags on the interior are constructed out of a stout, blue and white striped cotton material. Additionally, these trousers also show further evidence of field alterations. The cuff vents are sewn shut, and the rear waist vent is sewn shut all the way to the top of the waist band.

    Figure 18

    Trousers in the Milwaukee County Historical Society identified to the 49th Wisconsin Infantry. The side-seam pockets have been sewn shut and new opening cut into the top of the pockets through the front of the trouser legs. The cuff and waistband vents have been sewn shut as well. (Photo courtesy of Ken Smith)

    Figure 19

    Interior view of the same trousers showing the striped hickory cloth used to created the new pocket bags. used (Photo courtesy of Ken Smith)

    Figure 20

    Back view of the same trousers showing the vent and waistband sewn completely shut although the tie eyelets remain present. Also note the odd mismatch of the yoke seams. (Photo courtesy of Ken Smith)

    At least some soldiers were able to get their trouser pockets converted by means other than the company tailor. Private John Harper, 113th Illinois Volunteer Infantry wrote the following letter home while at Camp Butler, Illinois:

    "As I have a chance to send by Mrs. Gray, I will send the two shirts I drawed for Aleck and pair of pants which I got myself. I want them lined. Tell Mother to turn down the hem so as to make them as long as she can. They are a good fit, only a little short. I would not have drawed them now but I wanted to have them lined. They last twice as long as they do without being lined...I want the pockets changed in the pants. Sew them up where they are now and put them square across with the belt. The reason I want them changed is whenever I lay down I am always losing something. If they are the other way, it don't lose so easily. I will stick some pins where I want the pocket."

    Other Field Alterations

    Headgear was not immune to the soldier's chronic need to alter and improve. Hardee hats were commonly lowered in height or might have their brims shortened to suit the wearer. The author has seen several original forage caps with ventilation holes cut into the top reinforced with grommets manufactured from percussion caps!

    "Have turned taylor for the last day or two. Been lining the cape of my coat with rubber so that on unbuttoning it off the collar and turning it wrong side out it becomes waterproof"
    Henry Campbell 18th Indiana Artillery

    Original greatcoats were manufactured with the capes merely sewed onto the collar seam. It was a simple and common alteration to clip the threads with a pocket knife._ and remove the cape. If the soldier were more ambitious, he might construct a buttonhole on the rear of the cape so that it could be buttoned back on at his discretion. Or the cape could serve as material to construct pockets in the front of his greatcoat.

    The author owns an original great coat that shows these alterations. The cape has been removed and a single small button has been sewn to the back of the collar presumably for the purpose of re-attaching the cape (now long since missing). Two pockets have been added at the waistline. These pockets were constructed with a sewn facing piece (similar to pockets found on vests) with rather imperfect artfulness. The pocket bags on the interior are constructed of sky-blue kersey. Two additional buttonholes have been added underneath the original five, allowing the soldier to button the skirts together down to the knee.

    Figures 21 and 22

    This greatcoat in the author's collection shows extensive field alterations. The cape has been removed, horizontal pockets added at the waist and two additional buttons have been added to the front closure. A single small cuff size button remains at the back of the collar, perhaps to refasten the removed cape now missing. (Paul McKee Collection)

    Even shoes were subject to alteration by the soldiers:

    “Sunday we started for the river and of all the marches, that beats! We waded through at least eight streams from one to two feet deep and five to ten yards wide. I had shoes, and after wading the first stream, I cut all the upper off to let the water out handier. I made it gay and festive after that…”
    Charles W. Will, 103rd Illinois Infantry

    A Stitch in Time...

    Months of hard use and the frequent unavailability of new clothing to troops on an active campaign made clothing repair a necessity. Modern reenactors may feel it's quaint and colorful to apply a patch of calico to a blown trouser seat or knee. But this practice would have been highly frowned upon in the 19th century, even in the western armies…and particularly in the Army of the Cumberland! Clothing was to be mended in the least conspicuous way possible.

    Original clothing showing field repairs were patched from the inside with the same type of material that the garment was constructed of. The offending hole would be clipped in the corners so all raw edges could be turned under and securely stitched to the patch whose edges would also be turned under and stitched. Making this kind of repair is really not as hard as it seems! The result is a particularly strong and inconspicuous repair.


    In the past few decades, a wealth of knowledge has become available regarding the characteristics of federal issue clothing to the point of developing an accepted typology of clothing from specific arsenals and contractors. Savvy manufacturers have applied this knowledge offering reproductions that can be finely tuned to time and place during the war. Because the price of the best class of reproduction clothing may be dear, it is tempting to order clothing custom manufactured to fit. I suggest a more historically correct approach is to order clothing in the nearest historic size available (if possible) and then try to modify, adapt or simply cuff the lengths to the best of your ability, adding whatever details may be needed as concessions to comfort and utility.

    Hopefully this article may serve to suggest some new dimensions for our impressions as federals, and western federals in particular. I certainly don't advocate that everyone start hacking away at their uniforms. But a sprinkling of these field alterations throughout the companies, as well as correctly mended uniforms, would surely serve to heighten the illusion we have been striving so hard to create for ourselves and the public.


    Alfred Bellard. Gone For A Soldier, Boston, Little, Brown & Company, 1975

    John Harper, Letters of Alex Harper, John Harper, Co. D, 113th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Springfield, Illinois State Historical Society, (Courtesy of Charles G. Kratz, Jr.)

    Robert Huntoon, Historical Notes, Past Patterns, 1990

    Captain August V. Kautz, Customs of Service for Non-commissioned
    Officers and Soldiers, Philadelphia, Lippincott & Co., 1864

    John W. Rowell. Yankee Artillerymen. Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 1975

    Charles W. Will, Army Life of an Illinois Soldier, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 1996.
    Last edited by CompanyWag; 06-10-2019, 06:11 PM.
    Paul McKee

  • #2
    Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

    Very informative, thanks for posting this. I wish there was an accessible library or source of all the research and articles that were put into the CompanyWag. Are the Figure images referenced posted somewhere?
    Mike Barnes

    Blanket Collector (Hoarder)
    44th VA / 25th OH


    • #3
      Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

      Photos will be posted shortly. Thanks!
      Paul McKee


      • #4
        Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

        All photos are posted!
        AC Owner


        • #5
          Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

          One of my personal favorites - altered Greatcoat with waist pockets added.
          Attached Files
          Andrew Kasmar


          • #6
            Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

            Excellent presentation.
            Michael Semann
            AC Staff Member Emeritus.


            • #7
              Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

              I'm curious about Private Harper's lined trousers. Are there examples of those in museums or private collections?
              Michael Denisovich

              Bookkeeper, Indian agent, ethnologist, and clerk out in the Territory
              Museum administrator in New Mexico


              • #8
                Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

                Originally posted by NMVolunteer View Post
                I'm curious about Private Harper's lined trousers. Are there examples of those in museums or private collections?
                If there are, I'd love to study them. One of the problems with items like trousers is they had a practical life after the war as utilitarian surplus clothing and often got used until worn out and discarded.
                Paul McKee


                • #9
                  Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

                  Awesome, awesome stuff here. Thanks for posting!
                  Mike Barnes

                  Blanket Collector (Hoarder)
                  44th VA / 25th OH


                  • #10
                    Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

                    That is a super cool coat! That lining?! Why do we not see things like this represented more in the hobby?
                    I was actually considering modifying my overcoat like this, so.....Gonna get sewing again!
                    Joel Kelley


                    • #11
                      Re: Field Alterations of Government-Issue Clothing in the Federal Army

                      This is great thank you
                      Pvt. Brandon Wheelz
                      Ford Independent Company,
                      2nd Colorado Volunteers.