The Uniforms, Weapons & Accouterments
United States Marine Corps
during the American Civil War
by James Morrow
U.S. Marine Detachment
Washington Navy Yard
The United States Marine Corps in 1861 consisted of 1,892 officers and men; about half of whom were stationed aboard U.S. Navy vessels in small ship’s detachments. There, Marines performed the same duties as generations of Marines before them; guard duty aboard ships, service as sharpshooters and in repelling boarders, the heading landing operations, and furnishing a flash of color on special occasions. Ashore, the Corps provided the guards for the principal Naval Stations and Navy Yards. At the outset of the War, Congress authorized an increase of the Corps’ strength to a total of 3,167 officers and other ranks. At no time during the Civil War did the Marines strength exceed 3,900 men, with which they had to provide detachments for a constantly expanding U.S. Navy. The U.S. Marines played a gallant role at sea, as elements of landing parties, and as members of Naval Brigades serving with the Army.
Service afloat made different demands upon equipment than service on land. The effects of coal smoke and salt water were particularly serious. The Corps supplied much of its own clothing and accouterments, that more often than not, differed from comparable U.S. Army equipment. Marines, along with sailors, served under much more rapidly changing weather conditions than soldiers; and as a result, the Corps employed distinctive warm weather clothing, and Marine Detachments on ocean going vessels were issued special gear for both foul weather and extreme cold.
Brevet Brigadier General Archibald Henderson, the "Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps," passed away on 6 January 1859. Henderson had served aboard the USS Constitution in 1815 and since 1820 had served as the Commandant of the Corps. As Commandant, Henderson convened a board of officers to revise the Corps uniforms. One of the first acts of his successor, Col. John Harris, was to send the board’s finding to the Navy Department. Approved on 24 January 1859 and put into effect in October of that year, these regulations remained in force until 1875 with only slight modifications.
Full Dress Uniforms
The Marine uniform regulations, The Uniform and Dress of the United States Marine Corps - October, 1859, gave all hands except musicians, a dark blue double-breasted frock coat for a full dress uniform. This garment, rather long by today’s standards, had a skirt that extended "three-fourths of the distance from the top of the hip to the bend of the knee." All officers wore eight, evenly spaced; large "Marine" buttons in each row. The Commandant wore his buttons in pairs. Enlisted personnel had seven Marine buttons in each row. The distance between the rows of buttons was five and one half inches at the top of each row, and three and one half inches at the waist of the coat.
Trimmed all around with scarlet piping, the standing collar rose only high enough to permit the chin to turn freely over it. This collar hooked at the bottom and opened up and back at an angle of sixty degrees. Two loops of one half inch gold lace (yellow worsted wool for enlisted personnel) were placed on each side of the collar. These loops each ended in small Marine buttons, with the bottom loop extending back four and one half inches. The upper loop extended back to a line parallel with the end of the bottom loop. The fronts of the loops sloped up and back, following the lines of the collar.
The full sleeves had a plain round cuff that was three inches deep, and each had a false slash cuff, edged in scarlet piping. These slash cuffs had loops of half inch gold lace (again, yellow worsted wool for enlisted) that were to be two inches long and one and a quarter inches wide. Photographic evidence shows, however, that these loops were sometimes smaller. Each of these loops held a small Marine button. Field grade officers wore four of these loops on each cuff, Captains wore three and Lieutenants had two. All enlisted men wore two loops of yellow worsted wool lace, except for the four senior enlisted ranks, the Sergeant Major, the Quartermaster Sergeant, the Drum Major, and the Chief Musicians, who wore three loops. The slash cuffs were all cut in a scalloped shape fashion and were two and one quarter inches deep at the points and one and nine-tenths inches wide. With the varying number of loops on the slash cuffs, their length varied as well. The Commandant and field grade officers were to have slashes that were six and a quarter inches long, with other ranks' slashes lessened in length to correspond with the fewer number of loops.
The skirts of the dress uniform coats were to be full. All ranks had two scarlet edged pocket openings on the back of the skirts. These flaps, sewn vertically into the back of the skirts, were also scalloped shaped. There were two buttons sewn on to the flaps, one button at the bottom point, and one midway between the top and the bottom. There was also a button sewn just above the opening, at the waist. The lining of the coats was black. An examination of an enlisted full dress coat in the Marine Corps Museum at the Washington Navy Yard shows the right side of the double-breasted coat was cut along the row of buttons, and angles out again from the waist to the hem of the skirt. The bottom edge of the skirt is directly in line with the top button on the coat.
Musicians wore a scarlet, cochineal, dyed full dress coat. The Drum Major and Chief Musicians wore double-breasted coats and the Musicians coats were single-breasted. Instead of scarlet piping, all musicians wore white piping.
All Marines wore sky-blue trousers with "French pockets." Photographic evidence shows that these pockets were of the "Mule Ear" design. Made loose, and designed to fit well over the bootee, the trousers of all officers had a welt of scarlet, three sixteenths of an inch in diameter, sewn into the outer seam. Only the senior enlisted ranks, Sergeant Major and Quartermaster Sergeant, and Orderly Sergeants, along with all musicians wore the same size scarlet welt sewn onto the outer trouser seam.
Officers not serving with troops were permitted to wear dark blue trousers, with a welt of scarlet, once again, sewn into the outer seam. In warm weather, all Marines were permitted to wear white linen, or cotton trousers, cut like the sky blue trousers.
Full Dress Hats
The Commandant and all field grade officers wore a chapeau-bras of the French pattern. These nautical appearing bicorne hats were worn in a "fore and aft" fashion. The length of the chapeau varied from seventeen to nineteen inches and was five and one half inches high at the fan. Edged with black silk lace, these hats sported a black cockade, held in place with a loop of gold lace on the right side. The Commandant wore a plume of yellow swan feathers and other field grade officers wore a red plume of cock or vulture feathers. The plume was designed to lie along the crown of the chapeau-bras.
Company grade officers, enlisted Marines and musicians wore a black cloth shako. These hats were five and one half inches tall at the front and six and one half inches tall in the rear, giving the counter sunk crown of the hat a sloped appearance. There were two bands of glazed black leather on the hat, with the bottom band one and an eighth inch wide and the upper band seven eighth of an inch wide. The visor was perfectly straight and was one and a half inches deep and six and a quarter inches wide.
Officers wore a gold net pompon and enlisted men wore a worsted red pompon. The officers' pompon was two inches tall and one and a quarter inches in diameter. Made over a cork foundation, the pompon was fixed with a three-inch long wire loop to attach it to the top of the hat; pitched slightly to the front parallel with the slope of the crown. The base of the pompon was a hemisphere of yellow, heavily gilt metal. Enlisted personnel’s pompon was constructed in the same fashion, except that there was also a piece of red leather, cut in a scalloped shaped fashion inserted into the cup.
The ornament worn by company grade officers and enlisted Marines was a yellow metal United States Shield within a half wreath of laurel leaves. In the center of the shield was the emblem of the Corps, a light infantry bugle with an "Old English" letter M made out of white metal.
The terminology for military boots and shoes of the 1860’s is far from clear and even seems to have caused some confusion in the Civil War era itself. In 1854, the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster general determined that the footwear intended for the mounted services would be called a "boot," while the footwear used by the infantry would be called the "bootee." "Shoe" was apparently a description for Ladies footwear and to a lower, lighter, style of footwear worn by civilian men. Dress regulations, however, mention only the "ankle boot" and the "Jefferson boot." Both types of footwear were prescribed for the cavalry, but the infantry was only permitted the Jefferson Boot. We can conclude that the ankle boot was a medium high riding boot, without lacing (also known as a half boot), while the bootee or Jefferson meant a high quarter shoe, or a "brogan."
The bootees issued to the Marines of the Civil War era were of the ankle-length-laced variety. These bootees were extremely square-toed, with either pegged or hand sewn soles. Marines were issued eight (8) pairs of shoes over a four (4) year enlistment.
During the Civil War Era, even the cheapest of footwear came in pairs made on right and left lasts. Soles were sewn to uppers or fastened by pegs, nails, and occasionally rubber. The heels on officer's bootees were rather high, but this was apparently a matter of style. American military footwear was invariably made of black leather, with the rough side out.
All Marines wore two epaulettes on the full dress coat. The epaulettes worn by officers were gold cloth, with a solid metal crescent. Inside the crescent each officer wore the emblem of the Corps, the Infantry bugle with the silver "M." Centered in the strap of the epaulette was the officer’s insignia of rank. (See insignia). The Commandant and all field grade officers wore bullion that was one-half inch in diameter and three and a half inches long. Marine Captains wore bullion that was one-fourth an inch in diameter and two and a half inches long. Lieutenants had fringe that was one-eighth an inch in diameter and was two and a half inches long.
All enlisted ranks wore brass scale epaulettes, similar to the U.S. Army Dress uniform epaulettes. Made entirely from brass, enlisted epaulettes had a large crescent and scale straps. Detachable, yellow worsted fringe hung from the crescent in diameters that varied according to the wearer’s rank. The top four enlisted ranks, Sergeant Major’s, Quartermaster Sergeant’s, Drum Major’s, and Chief Musicians’ epaulettes had fringe that was three-eighths of an inch in diameter, Sergeants’ fringe was one quarter inch in diameter, Corporals’ and Privates’ fringe was one sixteenth inch in diameter.
Undress Frock Coats
All officers wore, for undress, a double-breasted dark blue frock coat. With the exception of the lack of lace and scarlet piping, this coat was nearly identical in cut and materials to the officers’ dress coat. The sleeves of the undress frock coat were plain, with three small Marine buttons on the cuff. The standing collar and cuffs of the Commandant was made of dark blue velvet. Once again, there are pockets in the skirt, however, the pocket only had one button at the bottom. There was also a button at each hip, giving a total of four buttons on the back of the coat. In lieu of epaulettes, all officers wore Russian shoulder knots of gold cord. These knots will be discussed later, under Insignia.
All enlisted ranks, including musicians, wore dark indigo blue kersey frock coat. This single- breasted garment had seven large buttons on the front and one button on each hip. The coat had a standup collar, somewhat shorter than the full-dress coat, with a scarlet welt inserted into the seam where the collar joins the coat. The cuffs of this coat were two and a half inches deep and had two buttons. The skirt of the enlisted undress frock coat had no pockets and extended from the top of the hip to halfway between the top of the hip and the bend of the knee.
With undress and fatigue uniforms, all Marines wore a dark blue kepi. These fatigue caps were a copy of the French Chassuer pattern cap, and came with a straight leather visor constructed from two pieces of leather sewn over a stiffener. The top of the crown was counter sunk and Officer’s caps were distinguished by the addition of having a black silk ribbed band one and five eighths of an inch wide sewn onto the bottom of the cap and three rows of black silk braid, three sixteenths of an inch wide was sewn onto each seam from the bottom to the crown. One row of black silk braid sewn around the crown and a four lobed knot sewn into the crown. This knot, still in use in Marine Officer’s uniforms today, is known as the Quatrefoil. Enlisted personnel wore the same cap, but without the braiding along the sides or the quatrefoil on the crown.
The Marine ornament, adopted with in 1859, was the light infantry bugle, surrounding an Old English "M." The ornament for officers was embroidered on a scarlet wool backing with gold thread. The white metal "M" had a shank similar to a button, to ease its removal for cleaning. The red patch that the bugle was embroidered on was trimmed to one eighth of an inch from the outer edge of the bugle. The enlisted ornament was made of brass, with a red leather insert behind the circle of the bugle. Again, as with the officer’s ornament, the detachable "M" was of white metal.
Summer Fatigue Uniforms
While serving at sea, officers were permitted to wear a white linen, undress frock coat. This coat was also permitted to be worn by officers visiting ashore in foreign ports. The white linen coat was never to be worn on ceremonial occasions or while on parade with the troops.
Officers' Fatigue Coats & Enlisted Sacks
Officers also had a shell-type jacket of dark blue cloth, lined with scarlet. The stand-up collar was the same as on the Undress coat, but the coat was edged all around with half-inch gold lace. The cuffs of the sleeve also had points of gold lace, and in at least one case, these points were as much as twelve inches high.
Enlisted personnel, while on board seagoing vessels, were permitted to wear the flannel fatigue sack. This dark blue garment, actually an oversized shirt, worn outside the trousers. The length of the sack, or jersey as it was called in some diary entries, was half of the length from the top of the hip to the bend of the knee. The sack had a small turndown collar and regulations stated that the neck opening was held closed with four small Marine buttons. Photographic evidence shows that many Sacks were made with five small Marine buttons at the neck. When the sack was worn enlisted Marines were required to wear a white shirt underneath.
Officers wore a "cloak coat" of dark blue wool lined with scarlet wool. The "cloak coat" is identical to the coat that was issued to Army officers and is an identical copy of the French Officer's cloak of 1845. This coat closed in front by four frogs and loops of black silk cord. Like both the French and U.S. Army version, the Marine officer’s coat had a detachable cape. A braid of eighth inch of black silk ribbon distinguished officer's ranks. Second Lieutenants wore plain sleeves and each rank added one loop, with the Commandant having five braids in a double knot.
Enlisted Marine’s overcoats were single breasted, with a row of seven (7) large sized "Marine" buttons. These unlined coats were to be of a blue-gray color, with a cape that fell down to the cuff of the sleeve. The sleeves of the enlisted overcoat had five (5) inch cuffs that were meant to fold down in extremely cold weather. Non-Commissioned Officers wore their chevrons just above the fold down cuffs of the overcoat.
Enlisted personnel were issued both white and blue flannel shirts. According to photographic evidence however, many Marines continued to wear Red flannel shirts from the previous uniform regulations. Shirts worn by men in the 1850’s through the 1860’s were a pullover shirt of a style that was also worn widely by the working man. These shirts had a simple turnover collar fastened by up to four (4) buttons. This garment was actually an undershirt since it was not intended to be worn as an outer garment.
All Marines were to wear black neck-stocks, hence the nickname "Leather-Necks." These stocks, the purpose of which was to make the Marine hold his head erect, were made of black leather. A surviving stock of the era is thirteen and one-half (13 ˝) inches long and two (2) inches wide. The back of this stock had a smaller strip of leather; ˝ inch wide that was sewn onto the back of the stock and kept closed with a small brass buckle. Photographic evidence shows, however, that the neck-stock was rarely (if ever) worn, except with full dress.
Officers were to wear a waistbelt "not less than one and one-half inches, nor more than two inches wide, to be worn over the sash; the sword to be suspended from it by slings of the same material as the belt…" The Commandant, keeping with the Corps attempt to make him look like a General, was to wear a belt made from Russian Leather, with three (3) stripes of gold embroidery, with the slings embroidered on both sides. All other officers were to wear a belt of white glazed leather. The Sword Belt Plate for officers was identical to the Sword Belt Plate for U.S. Army officers of this era. According to photographic evidence, most Marine officers appear to wear the black leather US Army sword belt for all undress occasions, regulating the white sword belt for full-dress wear.
According to the 1859 Clothing Regulations, enlisted personnel wore a white buff leather waistbelt of "the French pattern" with the French clasp and knapsack sliding slings, based on the U.S. Army M1855 belt. This belt did not at once replace the older belts and there seems to be some question whether it was ever issued at all. An examination of a belt on display at the U.S. Marine Corps Museum at the Washington Navy Yard shows the belt to be nearly two (2) inches wide, with belt keepers of the same white buff leather on either side of a plain brass rectangular buckle.
Officers wore, with all uniforms except the Full Dress uniform, Russian Knots of gold cord. Company grade officers, Second and First Lieutenants and Captains wore shoulder knots three (3) gold cords three sixteenths (3/16) of an inch in diameter, with Field Grade officers (Majors, Lt. Colonels and Colonels) wearing four (4) gold cords. Second Lieutenants and Majors wore no insignia on the knots. First Lieutenants wore an embroidered single bar sewn directly on the knot and Captains wore two (2) bars. Lt. Colonels wore a silver embroidered oak leaf on the knot and Colonels wore a spread eagle. The Commandant wore a silver five-pointed star.
All officers, except the Commandant, wore a crimson, or wine, colored silk sash with bullion fringe. This sash was long enough to wrap twice around the waist and tied behind the left hip. Officers of the day wore the sash over the right shoulder, tied on the left hip. The Commandant was authorized to wear a sash of buff silk net.
Orderly Sergeants and above wore a waist sash of red worsted, with fringe ends, to be worn twice around the waist and to tie behind the left hip. The pendant was to not hang more than eighteen inches below the knot. This sash was worn over the coat with all uniforms except the fatigue sack.
Non-commissioned Officers wore chevrons on all outer garments. These chevrons were worn points up, unlike the Army’s points down method.
The Sergeant Major wore three (3) bars and an arc of yellow silk lace that was one-half an inch wide sewn onto a scarlet ground. Quartermaster Sergeants wore three (3) chevrons and a tie of yellow silk lace, and Drum Majors wore three (3) bars and a tie, with a star in the center. Orderly Sergeants (also known as First Sergeants) wore three (3) chevrons and a lozenge (diamond) of yellow worsted half-inch lace sewn onto a scarlet ground, with sergeants and corporals wearing three (3) and two (2) chevrons respectively.
The oldest U. S. military insignia in continuos use today is the button worn by the United States Marine Corps. The only item that has changed on the design on the button is the number of points on the stars. Admittedly, the shape of the button has changed over the years, along with the color of the button, but the insignia remains virtually unchanged. The button worn for the Civil War era was a two (2) piece domed button, made from stamped brass. The "Large" size buttons were 7/8th of an inch wide and ˝ of an inch deep, excluding the shank. The smaller cuff button, was ˝ of an inch wide and 3/16 of an inch deep.
The Marine Dress Regulations called for a black cow-skin knapsack to be worn. It is unknown whether this knapsack was ever issued. Surviving knapsacks from the Civil War era are of a "Double-Bag Knapsack" type. These knapsacks were made from black painted canvas. The two sections were attached by a three (3) inch canvas strip. The front section was an envelope 14.5X13X3 inches with a short flap fastened by three (3) buttons. The rear section (14.5X16 in.) formed into a container by two (2) vertical flaps, tied with thongs. Four (4) leather loops sewn to the outside front, two (2) on each side through which pass two (2) russet straps (1 inch wide) encircled the knapsack and buckled at the bottom. Sewn onto those straps, near the top and the bottom, are two (2) carrying straps, also buckling at the bottom. An adjustable breast strap slides on the carrying straps. There is no blanket roll straps for a bedroll. The rear of the knapsack was painted with a "USM" within a white oval.
According the 1859 Clothing Regulations, Marines were to carry a haversack "Of same material, size, and form as those issued to the United States Army." The haversack issued to Regular US Army personnel was a bag of black painted cotton cloth with a five (5) inch rounded or pointed flap, buckled with a single strap. The dimensions of the bag are as follows: 12.5 X 3.5 (at bottom) X 13 inches deep. The interior of the bag had a removable unpainted cotton bag held by three (3) buttons. The haversack had a black cloth carrying strap that was about two (2) inches wide and was non-adjustable.
The canteen issued to Marines was also to be like the canteen issued to the Army. A canteen displayed by the U.S. Marine Corps Museum at the Washington Navy Yard is a black painted "bulls-eye" pattern canteen. The canteens that were issued, like so much of the military equipment of the day, must have been issued with a great deal of irregularity.
The cartridge box worn by Marines was, usually, the M1855 Cartridge Box. This Army issue cartridge box was designed for the .58 caliber Rifle Musket that was issued to Marines for shore duty. Constructed from black bridle leather, the M1855 Cartridge Box had double flaps and an implement pocket. The interior dimensions of the box were 6.8" X 1.4" X 5.2". Two (2) tin inserts of the same design as the M1842 cartridge box. While the Army version of this box carried a brass oval "US" plate, and the Navy Version had an embossed USN stamp, the cartridge box issued to the Marines was plain. The M1855 Cartridge Box had both horizontal and vertical loops on the rear, with two (2) brass buckles on the bottom. These loops and buckles permitted the cartridge box to be worn from either the waistbelt or a cartridge box strap. Marines wore a white buff leather cartridge box strap that appears to be about 2 1/4 inches wide. After the summer of 1864 however, the Marines were instructed to wear the Cartridge box on the waistbelt, and only wear the Cartridge Box strap for full-dress occasions.
Marines wore a M1855 cap box on the right front of the waistbelt.
Crossbelt & Bayonet Frog
The Marines wore a white buff leather cross belt that was the same width of the Cartridge Box Strap. This belt was 38 ˝ inches long, with a loop at the left end. The cross belt was held closed with a cross belt plate that was peculiar to the Corps. It appears that the plate was issued without any insignia whatsoever, but the two (2) surviving examples show that they were engraved. It is surmised that this engraving may have been done on a ship’s detachment by ship’s detachment basis. The cross belt ended in a frog, also of white buff leather, that held a M1842 Bayonet Scabbard. The Bayonet scabbard was constructed of black leather, with a brass tip in the end.
The official United States Marine Corps shoulder arm just prior to the Civil War was the M1855 rifle musket. This was changed to the M1863 in early 1864. The M1855 percussion muzzleloader, caliber .58, was rifled with three (3) grooves. This weapon was 56 inches in overall length without the 18-inch long socket bayonet. The M1855 was one of the first three (3) U.S. arms specifically designed for the use of the Minie bullet. Equipped with a Maynard tape primer system, the priming system of the M1855 was similar to the cap guns used by children today. Musket slings were of Black Leather, and officers were cautioned against "putting muskets in the hands of the men without slings."
Officer Side Arms
There does not seem to be any standard side arm issued to Marine Officers of the Civil War era. One, at least, carried a M1855 pistol carbine, and others carried the Navy Model Colt revolver. This .36 caliber revolver was developed in 1851 and was quite possibly, the finest handgun that this era produced.
With the change to the 1859 Clothing Regulations, the Marine Officers were no longer authorized to carry the traditional Mamaluke Saber. This was done at the recommendation of a board of officers who felt that the U.S. Army sword, with its leather scabbard, was more efficient. As a result, U.S. Marine officers were authorized to wear the M1850 foot officer’s sword. With the Army sword the Marine officer wore a black leather belt of Army pattern with the regulation Army plate, or he wore the white buff leather belt with the Army plate. Most evidence shows, however, that the white belt was saved for dress wear. The sword knot worn had a gold lace strap with gold bullion tassel, apparently of Army pattern.
Senior Non-commissioned Officers, Orderly Sergeants, the Quartermaster Sergeant, the Sergeant Major, and Chief Musician's wore the same sword as the officers, except the NCO version had leather instead of sharkskin grips. Other Musicians wore the Musician's sword from the previous regulations. Regulations called for NCO’s and Musicians to wear the sword in a white frog from the waistbelt and photographic evidence seems to bear this out.
In conclusion, it must be remembered that while the Marines had clothing regulations in place, these regulations were always subject to the Senior Naval Officer present, who could at any time, dismiss or revise any Marine Orders or Regulations. Marines during the Civil War era worked at the pleasure of the Ship’s Captain, or the Navy Yard commander, and were required by both regulation and custom to follow his orders.
E-Mail the author: James Morrow