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The Evolution of US Navy Uniforms During the Civil War

The uniforms of the modern United States Navy have remained essentially unchanged since the end of the Second World War, with only slight modifications being made to modernize pre-existing attributes. This regularity is an aspect of the Navy which was not to be found in the early days of its foundations through well into the nineteenth century. It would not be until the Civil War forced the underdeveloped Navy to expand and modernize that real attention would be paid to creating standardized dress and rank signifiers.

Unlike the Militia, the United States Navy was an institution which had not been intended to exist during peacetime. It would not be until American commerce was molested in the Mediterranean during the late 1780s that the need for a standing navy was recognized. The first uniform broad regulations were made in 1797, shortly before French interference with American trade caused a brief war in which the Navy proved its importance. These first uniforms were largely only for commissioned officers and were vague in their descriptions. The next war with Britain in 1812 further demonstrated the importance of the Navy, and the necessary expansion finally led to the first regulation which included both commissioned and warrant officers in 1813, but not enlisted sailors, who generally wore whatever was deemed appropriate for the voyage. Enlisted sailors would not receive uniform regulations until 1841. By the 1850s navies all around the world were developing rapidly, and new steam driven vessels not only affected the technical operations of the Navy, but also its system of rank identification.

Admiral David G. Farragut

Ever since the Navy acknowledged the existence of “combatant” and “noncombatant” officers in 1794, it became necessary to design uniforms which would make distinguishing between the two simples. These terms were quickly changed to “line” and “staff” officers of which surgeons, pursers, chaplains, secretaries, and later engineers made up the latter. The confusion around what rank was attributed to these positions spilled over into their dress. The answer was unclear until the uniform regulation of 1852 provided a lithographic print showing shoulder straps, cap devices, and sleeve stripes, yet another step towards standardization. The outbreak of the Civil War nine years later necessitated another overhaul of the uniform. In 1861, the perceived importance of engineers resulted in new cap and shoulder devices, and as the Navy expanded rapidly, new uniform regulations for all personnel would be instituted on July 16, 1862. New ranks such as Admiral, Lieutenant-Commander, and Ensign were added, further demanding attention to the uniform. The new dress of 1862 reflected the nonfrivolous position the Navy found itself in during the early years of the war, with sword knots and much of the gold lace removed from all uniforms. This trend of simplification would follow for the uniform modifications of 1863, and the order of 1864, with each new iteration becoming simpler.

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As the Navy’s high command was more concerned with fighting a war than policing uniform violations, many officers and crew wore mismatched uniforms of various regulations. As the war came to an end the Navy began to downsize, decreasing its strength from around 700 ships in 1865 to around 50 vessels by 1880. This meant a significant reduction in manpower, which resulted in yet another alteration in the uniform in 1866. While this change brought back much of the gold lace of the peacetime service, it also made sure to retain the rank and corps symbols which had been found to be effective during the war.

The lessons learned from the war had resulted in a system of rank indication and symbols for corps which remain to this day. It would not be until the early twentieth century that the dress of the Navy could be truly called uniform. The Civil War began a chain reaction of effective and streamlined revisions within the service resulting in the modern system of rank or corps identification today.

Ian Poole

Collections Associate

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