Uniform of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored)

Bryan_C

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#1
I just picked up the Osprey book African American Soldier in the Civil War, USCT 1862-66. I got it for the chapter on "Appearance and Dress" because I've been interested in finding out more about the sack coat vs. frock coat debate re Black soldiers. Someone pointed out to me a while back that all the pictures he saw of USCTs, they are wearing frock coats. Of course, I have seen plenty in sacks as well.

The book includes this illustration of a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts. Obviously, his uniform is different than as depicted in the movie Glory. But from original pictures I've seen, I believe the 54th wore the 9-button frock coat rather than the shorter length, four button sack coat with smaller size buttons.

This book points out that because USCT units were organized later than White units, many were actually uniformed and equipped better. By 1863-64, many of the shoddy manufacturers and older weapons were long gone, either distributed to White units or weeded out. So any unit- Black or White- had the luxury of coming to the war later and receiving better uniforms, shoes and weapons.

Interestingly enough, the book also mentions that some Whites- albeit well-intentioned- wanted to see the 54th in canary yellow and scarlet colors because they believed Blacks, being child-like, would prefer bright colors (p. 19).

Glory inspired a lot of people to get into reenacting. It's interesting to note that if the actors in that film used the frock coat instead of the sack, I think the world of Civil War living history would look very different today.
54thma.jpg
 
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johan_steele

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#2
The scene where you see Col Shaw having his little blow up w/ a QM actually happened, though there was considerable literary license in the scene. There is a LOT of info out there on the 54th Mass, especially since Glory. By the time the 54th reached SC they had received a full issue of uniforms having both a Sack coat and a Frock, the Frocks and even shoulder scales the frock coats were intended for parade or special occasions.

While I used to love the Osprey series I've come to treat them with wary suspicion. Check the references... aka trust but verify.
 
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#3
Saint-Gaudens did a lot of research before sculpting the memorial to the 54th--it's interesting to note that the soldiers depicted there are all wearing sack coats.
 

Bryan_C

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#4
I know Osprey's stuff is suspect. But I believe they wore frock coats from the original photos I've seen. Of course, St. Gaudens would have been able to speak with living members of the 54th at the time he created the memorial. But these are pictures that show them in frock coats.

carney.jpg

In this picture of Sgt. William Carney, awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the flag at Fort Wagner, I count 5 buttons on his coat, which is partly obscured by the flag. But five buttons seen here would suggest this is a frock coat.

lewis douglass.jpg

Sgt. Maj. Lewis Douglass, so of Frederick Douglass, clearly wearing a frock coat.

robertjones.jpg

Robert J. Jones, Co. I, 54th Massachusetts.

57thma.jpg

Photo of the 57th Massachusetts (White), recruited almost a year after the 54th. These men also wear frock coats. Maybe it was a Massachusetts thing, or a late-war thing, who knows...
 
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Bryan_C

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#6
When you got a CDV taken you wore your best. The 54th & 57th both received full issue which means a Sack Coat AND a Frock. The frock was worn for special occasions, the Sack Coat for fatigue duties such as active campaign.
I've seen CDVs/dags/ambros/tintypes of soldiers in spit-and-polish uniforms. And I've also seen others where they look like they just fell off a wagon.

I get your point about full issue of uniforms and equipment. I just think applying a hard-and-fast rule to it is something to be leery of. Everyone didn't wear their best for a photograph. I also think it would be wrong to say the 54th, or any unit issued both coats, never wore frock coats into battle.
 
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#7
That's true about not generalizing, but for the battle at Morris Island, looking at their location (South Carolina) and time of year (July), the sack coats would certainly be a lot cooler. And they were also on fatigue duty prior to the engagement.
 

Bryan_C

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#8
When you got a CDV taken you wore your best. The 54th & 57th both received full issue which means a Sack Coat AND a Frock. The frock was worn for special occasions, the Sack Coat for fatigue duties such as active campaign.
Hi Johan,
I saw this photo yesterday while at work in a Civil War magazine and thought about this sacks-vs.-frocks debate. I believe this photo clearly shows some soldiers wore the frock coat in combat. I'm not sure which USCT unit this soldier belonged to but note the appearance of his well-worn uniform- the non-regulation hat; the twisted, frumpy collar; the crooked position of the belt; the generally worn, wrinkled appearance of the coat and the pants; and his shoes. This Yank is certainly nowhere near the fresh, spit-and polish appearance of the man in the Osprey image or even other soldiers wearing frock coats for photographs. Plus, I believe the very wide gap in the skirt of the coat tells of a lot of marching that took place in this uniform.

What happened if a man lost his sack coat or if became damaged? What if a man just liked the frock coat better anyway? In a time where many soldiers wore whatever hat they chose, would the preference of a coat have been much different? I think Civil War soldier's uniforms are one of those things where we have to get away from hard-and-fast rules to understand history.

Note- I "flipped" this photo to get the real pose of the soldier as if he were standing in front of you.

usctsoldierflipped.jpg
 
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johan_steele

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#9
Many Regiments never received a full issue w/ some never receiving a Frock coat at all. While others only received the frock coat. By the time the USCT got into full swing the majority of supply issues were behind the QM department, but the USCT was fenerally considered at the bottom of the rung when it came to supply. And there is also the individual unit commander who might or might not push his men in the discipline and uniform department. But we know the 54th received a full issue of uniforms as well as a little bit about the charachter of Col Shaw and the other officers of the 54th. They wanted everything to look and be the best.

The frock coat was more then twice the cost of a sack coat and if a soldier needed to replace his due to heavy use he was charged for it. Some officers would write off such if there were circumstances, others not so much.

FWIW the man in the below pic is carrying some photogrophers props, I hope, as the musket is a flintlock. The frock may well be an example of a regt only receiving frock coats.


Hi Johan,
I saw this photo yesterday while at work in a Civil War magazine and thought about this sacks-vs.-frocks debate. I believe this photo clearly shows some soldiers wore the frock coat in combat. I'm not sure which USCT unit this soldier belonged to but note the appearance of his well-worn uniform- the non-regulation hat; the twisted, frumpy collar; the crooked position of the belt; the generally worn, wrinkled appearance of the coat and the pants; and his shoes. This Yank is certainly nowhere near the fresh, spit-and polish appearance of the man in the Osprey image or even other soldiers wearing frock coats for photographs. Plus, I believe the very wide gap in the skirt of the coat tells of a lot of marching that took place in this uniform.

What happened if a man lost his sack coat or if became damaged? What if a man just liked the frock coat better anyway? In a time where many soldiers wore whatever hat they chose, would the preference of a coat have been much different? I think Civil War soldier's uniforms are one of those things where we have to get away from hard-and-fast rules to understand history.

Note- I "flipped" this photo to get the real pose of the soldier as if he were standing in front of you.

View attachment 32601
 

gary

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#10
That's true about not generalizing, but for the battle at Morris Island, looking at their location (South Carolina) and time of year (July), the sack coats would certainly be a lot cooler. And they were also on fatigue duty prior to the engagement.
During the siege, the 54th often engaged in digging. I can't see them wearing frock coats while digging.
 

Bryan_C

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#12
Many Regiments never received a full issue w/ some never receiving a Frock coat at all. While others only received the frock coat. By the time the USCT got into full swing the majority of supply issues were behind the QM department, but the USCT was fenerally considered at the bottom of the rung when it came to supply. And there is also the individual unit commander who might or might not push his men in the discipline and uniform department. But we know the 54th received a full issue of uniforms as well as a little bit about the charachter of Col Shaw and the other officers of the 54th. They wanted everything to look and be the best.

The frock coat was more then twice the cost of a sack coat and if a soldier needed to replace his due to heavy use he was charged for it. Some officers would write off such if there were circumstances, others not so much.

FWIW the man in the below pic is carrying some photogrophers props, I hope, as the musket is a flintlock. The frock may well be an example of a regt only receiving frock coats.
All interesting points here, Johan. But I think there is truth to the points the author of the Osprey book made. Coming to the war later, USCT regiments (or any late-war regiments, for that matter) had the benefit of better supplies from the QM; as opposed to earlier in the war when QM stores were overrun with shoddy merchandise. I also read on a message board a while back that because existing units preferred the sack coat by the time USCTs were organized, there were greater supplies of frocks to sacks in 1864-65. But I don't know if that is true.

my whole point is that I believe Federal soldiers wore both coats into combat. Sack coats and frock coats were civilian clothing as well as military in those days, so I think people were accustomed to wearing both styles on a regular basis. And as we know, Confederate soldiers en masse are known for having a hodgepodge of uniforms- shell jackets; frock coats; and even the occasional sack coat. I think it's very realistic that there were instances where Yankee soldiers wore sacks and frocks together in combat. Or even taking off their coats entirely in very warm weather.
 
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#13
Many Regiments never received a full issue w/ some never receiving a Frock coat at all. While others only received the frock coat. By the time the USCT got into full swing the majority of supply issues were behind the QM department, but the USCT was fenerally considered at the bottom of the rung when it came to supply. And there is also the individual unit commander who might or might not push his men in the discipline and uniform department. But we know the 54th received a full issue of uniforms as well as a little bit about the charachter of Col Shaw and the other officers of the 54th. They wanted everything to look and be the best.

The frock coat was more then twice the cost of a sack coat and if a soldier needed to replace his due to heavy use he was charged for it. Some officers would write off such if there were circumstances, others not so much.

FWIW the man in the below pic is carrying some photogrophers props, I hope, as the musket is a flintlock. The frock may well be an example of a regt only receiving frock coats.
The Remington revolver must be a prop also as the individual infantry soldier was not issued a handgun. The Remington New Model Army was not readily available for private purchase during the war.
 

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#14
The Remington revolver must be a prop also as the individual infantry soldier was not issued a handgun. The Remington New Model Army was not readily available for private purchase during the war.
The pistol could be a prop but it may also be a trophy. Not sure what to say about the gloves.

FWIW the man in the below pic is carrying some photogrophers props, I hope, as the musket is a flintlock.
How can you tell the musket is a flintlock?
 

johan_steele

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#16
The pistol could be a prop but it may also be a trophy. Not sure what to say about the gloves.



How can you tell the musket is a flintlock?
I have way too much experiance scrutinizing photos of late. To the left & above the trigger guard you can see the larger hammer & equipment of flintlock.

I'm also a bit baffled by the gloves but it does show the man very well...

One of the reason by the end of the war there was a large number of frock coats in storage was largely because of those initial failures to give out complete uniform issues & the QM did appear to be interesteed in doing their job. So they were still trying to back issue items.

An example would be the 4th MN who were initially only issued frock coats and dress hats, by the time of Corinth they had started receiving sack coats but even by the time of Vicksburg they had never received their forage caps & w/ the research I've done I can't find that they ever received a full issue.
 
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#17
The pistol could be a prop but it may also be a trophy. Not sure what to say about the gloves.



How can you tell the musket is a flintlock?
If it was a trophy, then it must have been a trophy first for a Confederate, but still it would have been US Property and must be turned in. The musket is very obviously by observation a flintlock.
 

Bryan_C

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#18
Wow what an interesting account of the 54th. Their still a lot of information, (history) that we haven't uncovered yet!
Thanks, Seduzal. Glad you've appreciated this information.
I just have to say this- this discussion on the uniforms of the 54th and USCT regiments has gotten a lot of responses today and I appreciate it. But it will never reach the level of popularity any discussion on Black Confederates will, including the one going on right now started by comments Professor Gary Gallagher made about Black Confederate advocates. Maybe they were wrong... fiction is stranger than truth, at least in this case.
 
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#19
The Remington revolver must be a prop also as the individual infantry soldier was not issued a handgun. The Remington New Model Army was not readily available for private purchase during the war.
That pistol does not look like a New Model Army. It looks more like a Remington Beals Navy Model.
 

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