As a living historian portraying a Confederate officer can be as challenging as portraying a Confederate enlisted man. With so many choices on the market of what to buy, it’s kind of hard to determine what is authentic without first doing some research. I have seen some really bad officer impressions in my time but at the same time I’ve seen some good officer impressions as well. The newly elected officer needs to ask himself four questions. Where do I start my research for the impression I am doing? What was it that an officer did? What type of uniform was he able to afford and had available to him? What type of uniform should I buy? This article should serve as a guide for those who want to improve their impression or those who were just promoted into an officer’s position such as 2nd Lieutenant through Captain.
The second step is to research your impression. Always research your role and impression first before making any purchases. Researching your role can be done by reading the military manuals and also read "Customs of Service for Officers of the Army" which can be downloaded free from Google Books. There are other related manuals that can also be downloaded. Once you have studied the duties, responsibilities and the role of the junior officer, you then need to build an impression. Always research your role and impression first before making any purchases.
A valuable research tool is the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy” book which can be used to research your impression and other uniform needs. Look at what the average officer wore, not what majors, colonels or generals wore. While choosing a uniform it is important to keep in mind the pay rate of the officer position that you are portraying and the time period. For example you should not buy a uniform that exceeds the rate of pay that the officer you are portraying would have received. Another resource to help you determine what type of uniform to purchase would be photographs of officers from the state you are portraying. Once you find an officer that is wearing a uniform that you like, ask yourself what is it he is wearing, do I see any trim, what type of buttons is he wearing and what is his uniform made of? Remember too, that the Confederate officer had to buy his uniform and accouterments as a private purchase.
As an officer it is best to have an authentic frock coat for formal occasions. When wearing a frock coat it should be for dress details and worn with a sash. My frock coat is a Confederate regulation coat that is made from wool broadcloth that is Richmond grey in color and it has Austrian knots on the sleeves signifying my rank. It also has a cream colored collar and cuffs as seen in the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”. This frock coat has Virginia local seal buttons on it which are also found in the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”. The rank is sewn onto it using 1/4 inch wide dull gold colored lace.
Rank devices for lieutenants and captains should be made from braid or a non metallic brass or subdued colored lace that is about 1/4 of an inch wide sewn onto the collar. When jackets were made for the officer, most of the time braid and lace were used as rank devices however, many of them were sewn onto the collar during the construction of the jacket. As you look through “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”, you’ll notice that the majority of the rank devices are not patches sewn onto the jacket like what is commonly seen on reproduction jackets. It is advisable to avoid the usage of these patches as much as possible. If anything, just use the lace or braid and remember, you can always go without wearing rank on your collar. This practice was done during the Civil War.
Trousers are something that many people never research. Many mainstream re-enactors who are voted into their position just buy an officer's jacket and forget about the trousers. Looking at photographs you see that many officers wore trousers with tape running down the leg in black or blue, while many others wore pants with cord or piping that extended down the leg. Studying photographs of officers, you will also notice that many had standard depot style trousers that were neatly hand sewn and tailor made.
Headgear is a must for the officer. I would invest money into a high quality made officer’s kepi rather than buying a cheaply made one that you will see for sale at some of the sutlers in Gettysburg for a price of $25.00. A good quality officer’s kepi will run you about $150.00. Study the photographs and examples of officer kepis as seen in the “Echoes of Glory, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy”. For mid to late war, a standard enlisted kepi or slouch hat is appropriate.
After you have determined what type of uniform would be appropriate for your impression you can move on to the other necessary accouterments. Study photographs for details such as if he is wearing a sword belt. See what type of buckle he is wearing. Get yourself a quality sword belt and not just a standard cavalry belt. Study the sword as well. There are not many authentic sword makers out there, so you will have to purchase wisely. After purchasing your officers sword it is a good idea to defarb all modern marks off of it and polish it well. Remember that your sword represents your rank. You’ll want to keep it clean and in good shape.
An officers haversack is another good investment to make in developing your impression. This is what an officer would carry his personal papers, notebooks and pencils in as well as morning reports and such. It is also a good idea to keep one or two extra revolver rounds in the haversack. There are a few good haversack makers out there, just be sure to research where to buy.
When purchasing a side arm the main thing to keep in mind that they were used by officers for protection only in hand to hand combat. Your job as an officer was lead men, not shoot at the enemy. Do not fall into a common pitfall of carrying more than one sidearm. Also keep in mind that you do not need to purchase a cartridge box or cap box. Remember if you need extra ammunition, you’ll have it packed in your officer’s haversack.
If you are portraying an officer on campaign it is advisable that you wear a knapsack or a blanket roll with your entire personal items stored in there. Although extremely accurate, this is rarely depicted at mainstream events unless it is by a company of campaigners. As an officer, it is highly unadvisable to purchase a wall tent, as this is inaccurate for your officers impression. Even in the Federal Army, where troops were better equipped, a captain was issued two shelter halves while the lieutenant was issued one shelter half. Junior officers on campaign would march with their men and sleep with their men unless prior arrangements were made.
Footwear for a lieutenant or a captain should consist of brogans and not fancy, knee high, cheaply made officer boots that you would normally see a colonel or a general wearing. This is not only inaccurate, it is over portrayed with junior officers. There is nothing wrong with wearing Jefferson Booties since you are a line officer. As an officer, you marched with your men on foot and very seldom would you have ridden a horse.
One last tidbit of advice I will give is please do not follow the trends of everyone around you. If you see someone wearing something that you like, ask them the history of it before running out to purchase one just like it. And in return, if people ask you questions about your impression, you’ll have the answers for them just by doing the research. Remember, your research is what makes this hobby educational for spectators.