Monday, August 1, 2011

"An Army of Scarecrows" - Uniforms at Wilson's Creek

Next week marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Wilson's Creek, fought August 10, 1861, on the outskirts of Springfield, MO.

The battle is one of my favorites to study and I have (happily!) visited the battlefield 2 or 3 times.

I have posted previously on the battle as noted below:

Book review of Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, & Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide with a Section on Wire Road (here)

The Springfield (MO) National Cemetery (here)

"The Sinkhole" - a temporary burial pit - on the battlefield (here)

Like many of the early battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Wilson's Creek witnessed a great variety of uniforms as well as mistaken identity of enemy and friend.

The excerpt below from my first book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008) gives a sense of this variety and confusion.


"An Army of Scarecrows"

We know, Mr. Weller — we, who are men of the world — that a good uniform must work its way with the women, sooner or later. In fact, that’s the only thing, between you and me, that makes the service worth entering into.The Pickwick Papers

More than fifty years after the fact, Eugene Ware still remembered how the militia companies in Burlington, Iowa — one composed mainly of Germans and the other of Irish — had attracted his attention. “They were both fiercely pugnacious,” Ware wrote, “the Germans having a little more fight than the other . . . when there were festive occasions and these two military companies paraded, they paraded separately, and when the thing was over and military discipline at an end, there was liable to be a fight, and generally a fight that was stubborn.” (1)

In the late 1850s, Ware got his chance to join. He bought his own uniform and, after some drilling, became quite proficient and proudly marched in the company’s exhibitions in the city. As the unit matured, it grew more expert still, especially under the helm of an old, kind-hearted Swede who had fought in Europe and had been through the Mexican War. “Our Swedish captain wanted us to become Zouaves [a colorfully-adorned soldier popularized by the French wars in Africa],” Ware remembered, “so we all bought Zouave uniforms — leather leggings, red flannel baggy trousers, a light-blue woolen shirt, and a bob-tailed, dark-blue cloth jacket . . . with rows of round brass buttons. A little gold braid was put on and a jaunty cap with a gold band.” Ware concluded that “a handsomer body of young men could not have been found.” (2)

Ware’s Zouaves constituted the larger part of another local military company: the “Wide Awakes,” a pro-Union paramilitary organization that had chapters across the nation. The town’s Democrats formed their own company, adopted a Scotch plaid uniform, and called themselves the “Douglas Clan” or the “Little Giants.” With partisan tensions stirred, either the Wide Awakes or the Little Giants were promenading on the streets all the time, and — like the German and Irish companies he watched as a youngster — Ware was now party to fisticuffs of his own. “It was hard to have a political parade without a fight,” he remembered. (3)

With the passing of Lincoln’s election, it became apparent that war was likely. Even more men wanted to join Burlington’s Zouaves, and Ware became a drillmaster of new recruits. By spring, the company had grown to 200 men. When news of the firing on Fort Sumter reached town, the unit immediately offered its services to Iowa’s governor; but, with so many men prepared to go, Ware was not assured a spot.

“I went home that night with a very heavy heart,” he remembered, “feeling that I was not going to get into the company and I was not going to get to see any of the trouble.” A few nights later, at a local tavern, Ware encountered a Rebel sympathizer waxing poetic about how “one Southern man could beat five [Yankees] any time or any where.” A fight ensued in which Ware came out on top; the victory won him accolades and — more important — a spot in the company. (4)

Only half the company had the Zouave uniforms, however, and local veterans of the Mexican War criticized the attire as unfit for the rigors of camp and battle. The state had no uniforms to give, so the girls in town organized themselves and made an outfit “the way they wanted it,” Ware recalled, “with some art and some style put into it so that we would be adorned as well as uniformed.” With bemusement, Ware described the homespun uniform in detail:

The coat, as made, was a hunting-frock of the pioneer Daniel Boone type, fitting closely at the neck, cuff, and belt, but full of surplusage everywhere else. It was made of a fluffy, fuzzy, open-woven, azure-gray cloth, the like of which I had never seen before and have never seen since. The cuff, collar, and a band up and down the breast were flannel of a beautiful Venetian red, insuring a good target. Trowsers of a heavy buckskin type and color. Black felt hunting-hat, with a brilliant red-ribbon cockade. (5)

Now uniformed, Ware and his company joined hundreds of fellow statesmen in Keokuk, where they were mustered into the First Iowa Infantry in mid-May 1861 for three months’ service. Few thought the war would last that long. The First left Iowa for Missouri in mid-June, marching from Macon City to Renick and then to Booneville in a week’s time, as part of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s “Army of the West.”

“We now began looking for the foe,” Ware remembered, “the ‘foe’ is what we were after.” In Lyon’s eye, the “foe” was the Missouri State Guard under Major General Sterling Price. Lyon had chased him from St. Louis to Booneville to Jefferson City and was now advancing toward Springfield. (6)

Ware had enlisted in April. It was now mid-July, and Lyon’s campaign was wearing the men down. “Regarding the First Iowa, I may here say that they had begun to look tough,” Ware wrote. “In the first place, no two companies were uniformed alike. Each company had a different shape of clothes and in different colors. . . . In addition to this, many uniforms had been completely worn out and the boys had bought what they could get, or had got new things from home already partially worn. It was a motley crew.” Ware was right about the eclectic uniforms of his comrades. “[They] were a mixture of every shade and shape,” one historian declared. “The jackets varied from dark blue to light bluish-gray, while two companies wore black and white tweed frock coats. The pants ranged from black with red stripes to pink satinet with light green stripes.” (7)

It was all too much for Franc Wilkie, a reporter with the Dubuque Herald who was traveling with Ware’s regiment. When he compared the condition of his fellow Iowans with a regiment of Missourians in “their clean, handsome blue uniforms and glittering rifles and sword bayonets with the dirty, travel-soiled appearance of our men, with their old-fashioned black muskets, I was ashamed of Iowa,” he reported. He continued:

A State pretending to loyalty, sends a thousand men into service, looking like an army of scarecrows, while a secession state [Missouri] furnishes twice as many regiments, and gets them ready for service in a style unsurpassed by that of the best soldiers in the world. It was enough to make one curse in utter vexation to see our men as they trampled wearily through the sand — their rags fluttering like streamers — their whole appearance more like that of a crowd of vagabonds chased from civilization. If the children of Israel looked half as ragged and dirty and woe-begone, after their forty years tramp in the wilderness, as our men yesterday, they were a meaner looking set of men than one can well imagine. (8)

Wilkie needn’t have been so critical of Iowa: the regiment that caught his attention was the exception to the rule in Lyon’s army. Also, other Missourians were less well off; a soldier in the Third Missouri wrote that his regiment “resembled a rabble more than soldiers. Each one wore whatever clothes he chose to wear. They had become torn on the march. Some had no trousers anymore. In place of trousers they had slipped on sacks for head coverings.” An officer in the First Kansas infantry had “tinfoil shoulder straps sewed with black thread,” and other Kansans had government-issued blouses and socks (if they were not barefooted) and headgear that ranged from “Jackson’s white plug at Talladega to Scott’s monstrosity at Cherubusco.” (9)

Lyon and his “army of scarecrows” — about 6,000 strong — were camped at Springfield, Missouri. Confederate troops under the command of Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch had joined Price’s Missourians, making them about 12,000 strong. On August 9, both sides — each unbeknownst to the other — formulated plans to attack. At about five o’clock the following morning, Lyon, in two columns, attacked the Confederates on Wilson’s Creek, about twelve miles southwest of Springfield.

The first major battle of the war west of the Mississippi was fierce; it was also confusing. The panoply of uniforms on both sides — Price and McCulloch’s men wore a mix of blue, gray, and butternut themselves — led to several incidents of mistaken identity. At a critical point in the battle, Colonel Franz Sigel, commanding one of Lyon’s two columns, saw a regiment in gray emerge from the smoke. The optimistic Sigel — who had pressed for the two-column approach — expected to link up with Lyon’s forces at some time in the battle and, thinking that the approaching force was Ware’s own gray-clad First Iowa, ordered his men to hold their fire.

In fact, the troops emerging from the haze were soldiers of the opposing Third Louisiana, and when they began firing it was a great surprise to Sigel and his men. Sigel, horrified at what he thought was tragic friendly fire, screamed in his native German, “Sie haben gegen uns geschossen! Sie irrten sich!” (“They [are] firing against us! They make a mistake!”). Some of the Union soldiers returned fire, but the Third Louisiana was largely unopposed and quickly routed Sigel’s force from the field. (10)

The battle was going no better across the creek. Lyon had been killed leading the First Iowa in a charge; his column had faced three charges by Confederates up “Bloody Hill” and, low on ammunition, could scarcely face another. The Union force, now under Major Samuel Sturgis, retreated to Springfield.

As for Ware himself, he was justly proud of how his company and regiment fought in the battle and incredulous that they had left the field to the Confederates. Still, Ware drew two important lessons from his first of many actions in the war: “One thing which the battle . . . forever settled was that a ‘mudsill’ would fight,” Ware decided. “And another thing was forever settled, that one Southern man could not whip five Northern men.” (11)

Eugene Ware’s experience with uniforms in the early part of the Civil War was not a singular one. In the hectic days following Fort Sumter, the federal government was hard pressed to supply uniforms for tens of thousands of volunteers, let alone impose standards for color, pattern, and quality. The states took responsibility — as best they could — for outfitting their regiments; a few governors were able to supply their men with durable uniforms that matched, but most relied on militia units — like Ware’s Zouaves — to go to war in sometimes gaudy and often impractical attire until they could be properly outfitted.

In the early days of the Civil War, blue and gray had not yet taken on any partisan significance. On each side, soldiers wore both colors, even in the same regiments. This confusion due to the variety of uniforms made a great difference in the war’s early days. The First Battle of Bull Run ( a month before Ware’s trial at Wilson’s Creek ) and the Battle of Cheat Mountain ( a month after) witnessed “friendly fire” incidents caused by uncertainty about the uniforms of approaching parties.


After the battle at Wilson’s Creek, the First Iowa left Springfield and marched to Rolla, where they were put on flatcars and boxcars and delivered to the arsenal at St. Louis in late August “in the presence of a vast crowd that yelled and cheered as if they could not make noise enough,” Ware recalled. The men got up at 4 a.m. the following day. (“We had got into the habit of getting up early,” Ware wrote, “and could not sleep in the morning.”) Roll was called, breakfast was had, and mail was delivered. “Then we all went down into the Mississippi River,” Ware remembered, “and had fun in the water.” (12)

On return to the arsenal from their day at the beach, the men had a great surprise waiting for them: boxes of uniforms sent by the state. “These State uniforms were very neat,” Ware wrote. They included a black hat, light-blue trousers, and a dress coat buttoning up the chin made of fine cadet gray cloth with a light-blue collar and cuff trimmings. “I got a uniform that fitted me as if a tailor had made it,” Ware remembered with satisfaction (and humor: “I looked like a Confederate officer,” he added). The men struck out for baths and barbers and threw away everything they had worn till then. Shaved and bathed, the Iowans made a good impression at the evening’s dress parade: “Nobody would have known the regiment,” Ware concluded. (13)

The reception given by the city heartened Ware and his comrades considerably. Museums, theaters, restaurants, and other establishments were open to them gratis. “I never put my head out of [my] hotel but that — having on my First Iowa uniform,” Ware recalled, “the first German who saw me took me by the arm to the nearest beer saloon, and after introducing me to everyone he knew in the room, said ‘You fights mit Sigel — you drinks mit me.’” (14)

When it returned home to Iowa, the First was greeted with equal aplomb. The regiment — then finished with its three-months’ service (and more) — disbanded, but Ware reenlisted in the cavalry. And why not? Like Dickens’ “gentleman in blue” who addressed Mr. Weller in the Pickwick Papers, Ware’s uniform did “work its way with the women.” “The girls had been praising us so that we felt it incumbent on us to prove we could do it over again if we wanted — and we did,” Ware wrote. “Without the inspiration of women there could be no armies, no great battles, and but little of what we call ‘history,’” he concluded. (15)


(1) Ware, E. F. The Lyon Campaign in Missouri. Topeka, KS: Crane & Co., 1907, p. 5.

(2) Ibid, p.64.

(3) Ibid, p.66.

(4) Ibid, pp. 70-71.

(5) Ibid, p.79.

(6) Ibid, p. 80.

(7) “Regarding the First Iowa . . . ” in Ware, p. 155-56; “[They] were a mixture . . . ” in Lindberg, K. “Uniform and Equipment Descriptions of Units at Wilson’s Creek.” Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, n.d., p. 12.

(8) Dubuque Herald, June 26, 1861, p. 2.

(9) “resembled a rabble more than . . . ” in Lindberg, p. 17; “tinfoil shoulder straps . . . .” and “Jackson’s white plug at . . . ” in Lindberg, p. 15.

(10) Piston, W. G. and R. W. Hatcher, III. Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000, p. 255.

11. Ware, p. 340.

12. Ware, p. 345.

13. Ibid, p. 346.

14. Ibid, p. 347.

15. Ibid, p. 353.

Read more excerpts from Lincoln's Labels here:

E. R. Squibb and Anesthesia (here)

Gail Borden and Condensed Milk (here)

Express Companies (here)

du Pont Gunpowder (here)

Introduction (here)

Essay on Sources (here)

and more on this blog!

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