By Bill Skillman
One of the most rewarding aspects of attending reenactments is the opportunity to gather around a campfire with fellow kindred spirits and exchange "gold nuggets" of research gathered from the previous winter. Since these informal roundtables have commenced I have discovered a growing number of Co. B. pards who "pull up a stump" and listen in. "History Detective", Chris Czopek, and I delve into a diverse range of topics such as locating graves and the histories of forgotten CW soldiers, Ottawa Indian sharpshooters, even the controversial USS Sherman (America's first Korean Conflict-1877) incident. Dan Wambaugh and Brian White also chime in with their latest uniform discoveries. Usually the moon is waning when the roundtable closes, with each of us hoarse but feeling invigorated and with a renewed appreciation of this fascinating period of American history. Noted sharpshooter historian, Rob Leinwebber, often joins our ranks at Hastings. Rob and his pards portray Berdan’s for Midwest and eastern events, and the 14th Missouri/66th Illinois (Beirge's Sharpshooters) for Deep South and western events. At Hastings (2000) Rob tantalized me with the promise of some "new stuff" for my "What did they wear?" series. A few days later a package arrived and inside I discovered photocopies of the Collected Papers of Caspar Trepp 1861-1865 (the controversial Lt. Colonel of the 1st U.S. Sharp Shooters), from the New York State Archives. There is an old saying "amateurs talk tactics, while veterans talk logistics". So if you are looking for stirring first person accounts of Trepp's life on the skirmish line or his rows with Hiram Berdan, you will be disappointed with the collected papers. However, if you’re curious about what paperwork was needed to keep the USSS in the field, then these papers are a gold mine. They comprise regimental and company ordnance transactions, target practice, hand-drawn maps of battles, and a personalized instruction manual (for guard mount). Also included is Trepp's written testimony and rebuttal to the court-marital charged against him by Hiram Berdan. Armed with this new information I will be updating some of my articles. Thank you, Rob! Another gem Rob enclosed was an excerpt from the February 1996 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, featuring the memoirs of Brigham Buswell (Company F. 1st USSS) during the Seven Day's battles of 1862. Written from his CW journal when he was 73 years old, Buswell described the battle at Gaines Hill (Mill) from a sharpshooter's perspective. Initially deployed in woods as skirmishers, Buswell and his comrades peppered Jackson's advancing division, while withdrawing from tree to tree. However, once they reached open ground they had to run for their lives or risk capture. The rebels reacted: "now their anger seemed to increase as they could count the size of our little squad, not over a dozen in number, who had done their mischief." As their line relentlessly advanced, a number of rebels had revenge on their minds. Buswell reports; "We reached the brow of a hill when we found ourselves in a trap which looked to us impossible that we could get out alive. We could not have been at this time over two rods (1 rod=5. 5 yards or 33 feet) from the enemies bayonets. Our little squad had by this time drawn in closer together when with a howl of rage and oaths and curses, those nearest rushed forward - expecting to run three or four bayonets through each one of us." At that moment a brigade of Union troops rose up from behind breastworks with rifles aimed at the closely packed rebel ranks. Buswell and his comrades’ dove for cover behind nearby tree stumps as a tremendous volley fired over their heads, decimating the rebel front rank. The Vermonters were saved. Buswell noted: "That evening when we camped we changed our shirts by throwing away the one we had on and putting on our last and only one. Our remaining worldly possessions were now reduced to a minimum. They were carried in a small black rubber blanket that as rolled up and thrown over the shoulder and tied on the other side below the arm. Mine consisted of one heavy woolen shirt, one pair of socks, a spool of thread, a few buttons and needles, a diary in which I had tried as well as I could to record the incidents each day and a testament my mother had gave me when she bade me farewell." On June 30th Buswell noted that he had only slept 5 hours over the preceding 4 days, and he had been marching or fighting nearly continuously. He had and his comrades had drawn no rations whatsoever. Buswell noted they would "draw our belts in a notch which seemed to increase our strength in a way that gave us the ability to march easier." That evening Buswell enjoyed his first meal after discovering a granary full of cornmeal. The men filled their haversacks and discovered 50 beehives nearby, so they promptly "liberated" the honey. After a supper of corn meal mush and coffee, Buswell laid down; "the garments covering my body consisted of one heavy woolen shirt, army blue pants, one dark blue army blouse, a pair of socks, a pair of shoes and a cap." The remainder of his "wardrobe" comprised of the "little rubber blanket", which he wrapped himself in to enjoy 4 hours of sleep. I hate to interrupt Mr. Buswell's exciting account, but it is important to get back to my original question; "What did they wear?" Private Buswell's account collides head-on with what many Berdan reenactors believe what the USSS wore during their early service. Here we have Co. F. 1st USSS men attired in the "army blue blouse" and "army blue pants", a full 15 months earlier than my preliminary research suggested. The Sharp Shooters indistinguishable from the infantry as early as 1862? It is a reenacting Berdan’s nightmare! However I've learned that new and controversial information doesn't have to pose a dilemma to forthright reenactors. The ranks of Co. B (2nd USSS) has slowly transformed from all green to a mixture of blue blouses, green trousers (and some blue) and caps. While I was pleased to see my comrades use research to upgrade their impressions, I was also curious to learn why? I discovered the boys appreciate the blouse's light weight, flexibility, and ability to keep them cool during the sultry summer months here in Michigan. In short, these veterans appreciate the blouses' versatility (over style and reenacting tradition), just like the original volunteers. But why wouldn't the original boys want to continue to wear the distinctive Rifle-Green coat - that quintessential mark of a sharpshooter? I decided to pose a variation of the above question to guys who spent a portion of their young adulthood dodging bullets in SE Asia, Panama, or the Gulf? The closest veterans I could find to the original USSS. From them I learned that the most dangerous thing for a solider to do in a combat zone is to wear/carry something distinctive--an article of clothing, equipment or do-dad that causes them to stand out from their comrades and surroundings. Granted, if you're the guy lugging a radio (or the other guy yakking' into the handset), toting a SAW/ M-60 machinegun, or carrying a bolt-action rifle, you usually don't have a choice in the matter. But whenever bad guys started shooting, they typically aimed for those guys first. So let's go back to my original question for a moment. Suppose you are a veteran Johnny Reb observing skirmishers emerge from a tree line 400 yards away and are advancing across a field towards you. Two groups of skirmishers are dressed in standard blue blouses and trousers, but sandwiched between them are skirmishers dressed in green. Which group of men are you going to shoot at? I don't know about you, but considering that my chances for survival are better if I take out a Sharp Shooter, I'll aim for the green guys. So much for the "green for camouflage" idea. But read on… Sometimes clever soldiers can use distinctive dress to their advantage. During the siege before Yorktown, (1862), the rebels had become accustomed to shooting at Union pickets dressed in their blue overcoats. Likewise, they made themselves scarce behind their earthworks if they saw the USSS (dressed in gray overcoats) manning those posts. One morning the Rebs spotted some blue overcoat-clad pickets across the way, and a few fellows stood up to give take a few well-aimed shots. In short order the Yanks returned fire and a number of the rebels dropped dead, as the survivors dove for cover. When they slowly raised their heads, the Johnnies discovered the Berdan’s taking off the blue overcoats and putting their gray overcoats on. The surviving Rebs laughed and chided the Berdan’s for the "Yankee trick" played on them. While this ploy worked in a static siege, the Berdan’s soon found the gray overcoat to be a liability; as it attracted fire from both the front, as well as the (from their own troops) rear when on patrol or on the skirmish line. In the brutal evolution of the combat soldier, the first law is to blend in with your surroundings. Thus, I believe that the switch from green uniforms to blue blouses (and combination green/ blue trousers) was a calculated and deliberate decision made by the Sharp Shooters (prompted either by the men, their officers, or both) to improve their chances for survival on the battlefield. The "Dark Blue Army Blouse" Okay, so what sort of blue blouse is Buswell talking about? This question takes us to the next level of details (the Devil is everywhere) in our quest to find out, "What did they Wear?" During the Civil War the "Fatigue Blouse", "Sack Coat", or "that Ugly, Old Rag", and other euphemisms were applied to this humble garment. Paul McKee reports over 6,000,000 blouses were manufactured during the War. Today only handfuls (+100) remain in museums and private collections. While the fatigue blouse was expected to meet U.S. QM specifications, the number of stylistic variations between Depot and private contractors has caused many modern researchers unending headaches. Trying to classify the few surviving (1/60,000) blouses into a coherent identification system has defied all attempts so far. For those of you who absolutely love to wade through progressively complicated 1860's uniform details (like Dan, who lives and breathes this sort of stuff), you will find some excellent articles in the Watchdog quarterly newsletters, and the Authentic Campaigner, and other websites. For example, K. C. MacDonald has outlined construction features associated with the Schuylkill Arsenal blouse below: Topstitching: All by hand,1 line on button side, 1 line on hole side. Pocket: Flat bottomed, hand stitching shows through on exterior Lining: Brown, gray, blue flannel or patterned linsey-woolsey; or unlined with hand-felled seams. Collar: 2 ½ inch w/rounded or square tips. Cuff: Deep vent w/single or double handsewn top-stitch line. Skirt corner: Rounded Maker's Mark: "SA", plus either dots (for early to mid War; 0=size 1, 00=size 2, etc.) or number (1-4) to indicate size. No. of pieces: 2, 3, or 4 Since we already know that the Philadelphia Depot/Schuylkill Arsenal provided green uniform coats and trousers for the USSS, we might expect that they supplied blouses as well. Paul McKee and Patrick Brown noted that the Schuylkill Arsenal was responsible for producing blouses from 1858 to 1865. At the start of the war they were the only supplier, (and later, the largest producer) of fatigue blouses. A unique feature with the SA was the Depot tailors cut the material and bundled them into kits. These were then issued to local women and girls to sew (by hand) into uniforms. This provided the women with a stable source of income while their soldier-husband was away at the front. Another source for blouses came from private manufacturers, who bid and were awarded contracts by the government. J. T. Martin was the largest private manufacturer of U.S. Army blouses, (biggest run of 1864-5 = 250, 000). Does that name ring a bell for any of you? That Martin was none other than J. T. Martin, who by 1862 had bought out his partner and became a government contractor of uniforms. There are a number of differences between the SA blouse and a J. T. Martin. These are readily apparent if you compare one of Dan's ca. 1862 SA unlined blouses with my (Sekela) ca. 1864 J. T. Martin. My own evolution as a reenactor has progressed from wearing a blouse of 18ounce Woolrich wool and questionable heritage, to ones that are recognized as the closest to originals available today. Why? For the same reasons as the original veterans: fit, function, and practicality. Let's get back to the research; Captain Merriman's QM records reveal the blouses issued to his men were exclusively unlined. However, if one closely examines photographs of USSS boys wearing blouses, Dan and I have discovered both Philadelphia Depot/Schuylkill Arsenal and J. T. Martin contract blouses are present, (in lined and unlined versions). An article examining these photos and blouse details is forthcoming. Mr. McDonald cautioned prospective buyers of the current Sekela-made JT Martin blouses. His concern is that these are based on one made during the waning days of the War. With most the 1st USSS mustered out by October '64, and the 2nd USSS dispersed by February '65, it is very unlikely a USSS veteran drew one of these blouses. Mr. Sekela is at work on a new mid-War Martin blouse, so stay tuned. Fortunately, Dan has entered the authentic uniform business, and he produces both lined and unlined SA blouses. To keep costs down, he employs a post-war treadle sewing machine for the longer seams (which are hidden), but the rest of the blouse is sewn by hand like the originals. It is a very accurate reproduction of the lowly Army blouse, but stylish it ain't. Just like the originals. Conclusion (so far) Private Buswell's memoir of his duty during the Seven Day's campaign is notable on two accounts. First, it is a rare, first person narrative of a sharpshooters service during a campaign that featured rapid marches, hard fighting, and little opportunity to record the events as they unfolded. Second, Buswell's story has unexpectedly advanced the fact that at least the Vermont Company of USSS was not wearing Rifle-Green coats during one of the earliest and pivotal campaigns of the War. I am fairly confident that we can anticipate, (pending verification of QM and added primary sources), that Co. F. 1st USSS wore the Army blue blouse while on campaign during the late Spring-early Fall months of 1862 to 1864.
While the temptation to jump to the conclusion that all USSS companies wore blue blouses covering the same time periods as Co. F. is very strong, I must caution the reader. Despite an emerging body of photographic and written documentation to support this hypothesis, it is essential that we examine the original QM reports to confirm that the information is indeed accurate for the USSS Company or Regiment we portray. There may be as yet still undiscovered discrepancies between how the Vermont Company was outfitted compared to, say the Michigan or Wisconsin units. There might also be significant differences between the 1st USSS and 2nd USSS uniform standards as well. Failure to incorporate the three critical components (QM reports, photographs, primary sources-letters/memoirs) of research as a foundation to build our USSS impressions could plunge us into an equally rigid headset that has snared Only-Green, All-the Time reenactors. Therefore, my next step is to obtain photocopies of the 4 Michigan USSS company's QM reports (from the Archives in Washington D.C.). I encourage readers from other units to do the same. However, for those of you who aspire to honestly portray a United States Sharp Shooter on campaign, I hope that this new information, (while still incomplete), will give you greater confidence when you decide to purchase a blouse for your impression.