During the American Civil War of 1861 - 1865, more than 2 million men served in the Union army. Early in the war, American textile manufacturers had trouble procuring enough new raw wool to meet the burgeoning military demand, and incorporated recycled wool, called shoddy, to eke out supplies. This greatcoat (overcoat), an M-1851 model, was probably made before the war began. It is made of a dark blue all-new-wool broadcloth, tightly woven in a plain weave, and heavily fulled (washed to prevent shrinkage and increase durability), with a brushed surface (nap). The dark blue color indicates that it was an officer’s overcoat; the enlisted man’s regulation greatcoat was of ‘sky blue’ kersey, a twill (diagonal) weave. The power-driven looms of Northern US textile mills produced millions of yards of woolen textiles for the military. Less than half of the raw wool required came from American sources.

The Collar

The stitching here is so even it almost looks like machine work, but is hand sewn. The double-layer, high standing collar protected a soldier from drafts, just as the elbow length cape added protection from wind and weather.

A Brass Button

The standard US Army eagle button was used on this coat. No letter appears on the shield to indicate a particular branch of service. Notice here how the nap (brushed surface) of the woolen cloth has worn off with use and abrasion, revealing the warp and weft threads.

A Button Hole

Sewing machines were relatively new in the 1860s and the US Army Quartermaster distrusted the durability of most machine stitching. An army of female labor went into making uniforms, hand sewing seams and buttonholes. The seamstress of this coat employed lustrous silk twist thread in a standard buttonhole (or blanket) stitch, over a laid thread, to create a solid line around the slit opening. Good workmanship meant closely spaced, even stitches that kept the thick, heavy woolen cloth from fraying with use. By the middle of the war, demand was so high that machine sewn seams became acceptable.

Dyed in the Wool

Indigo dye was specified by the Quartermaster for blue shades. Natural indigo is a difficult dye to control, and results varied. Wool might be dyed as fiber (“in the wool”), as yarn, or as cloth. The average Union army overcoat weighed 5.25 pounds (2.38 kg). One source records 1,486,000 Union greatcoats purchased in 1864 alone. At 5 pounds each that equals quite a lot of wool – for just one item of a soldier’s uniform. Clothing and blankets also had to be replaced if they wore out, or were lost during a battle or in a retreat. More and more wool needed…

A Repair

Thick wool broadcloth was difficult to stitch through. Notice the difference in the even, fine stitching around the collar and the bigger stitches taken in this repair. The stitches have pulled out at the center front of the coat – a short line of needle holes is still evident. The body of the coat shows numerous stitched up rips and tears. It seems that the wearer of this coat saw a good deal of action during his service – but the sturdy wool coat saw him through it.

The Hem

In general, military wool fabrics used for overcoats and frock coats were so heavily fulled (treated to shrink the cloth and make the weave close and tight) that hems could simply be cut – they would not fray. This coat, however, has had the hems of both the cape and the coat turned and stitched. Notice the uneven curves, which suggest the work was not done by a skilled seamstress.

New Wool or Shoddy?

The technical term for recycled wool fiber is “shoddy”. A small percentage of shoddy added to new wool and spun into weft yarns decreased the cost of a cloth without seriously affecting its wearing properties. In the early months of the Civil War however, some Northern US textile manufacturers responded to huge demand, low supplies, and the potential for large profits by adding shoddy in amounts beyond the norm. Soldiers complained that their uniforms fell apart; newspapers investigated, and the “Shoddy Scandals” erupted. Quartermaster’s regulations began to specify ‘pure new wool’, a term still very much in use today with its associated logo.