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Civil War Underwear

[ 23 ] November 27, 2012 |

I am happy to argue that a discussion of Civil War underwear is at least as interesting as a movie about Abraham Lincoln and far more interesting than battlefield tactics. This is especially true when we realize the story of underwear is a story about the growth of Gilded Age capitalism, labor exploitation, health, cleanliness, and everyday soldier life. Plus there’s this:

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant himself once appeared in “parade uniform”: one night, when gunboats threatened the depot at City Point, Va., reported an eyewitness in The Century magazine, “the general came hurriedly into the office. He had drawn on his top-boots over his drawers, and put on his uniform frock-coat, the skirt of which reached about to the tops of the boots and made up for the absence of trousers.”

Less known evidently is how many drinks the august general had consumed that evening.

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  1. ploeg says:

    Erik, I very much appreciate that you, unlike many other historians, are perfectly willing to touch Civil War underwear.

  2. Njorl says:

    Like the uniforms, underwear varied from unit to unit. While the Iron Brigade generally went commando, the 5th New York volunteer Zouaves were proud of their bright scarlet satin thongs.

  3. DrDick says:

    I’ll bet his undies were not made out of flour sacks like my mama’s were when she was growing up. (Which is really not all that bad if you know something about the history of large capacity (25-50 lb) flour sacks).

  4. rea says:

    We can pinpoint this occasion to the night of Jan. 23-24, 1865–the only occasion Confederate gunboats attempted to make their way downstream through obstructions, shallow water and the union fleet to attack the union depots at City Point.

    I doubt Grant was drinking that night at all–he gave some fairly sensible orders in a dificult situation.

  5. thusbloggedanderson says:

    Isn’t the persistent picture of Grant as a stumbling alcoholic during the Civil War yet another Dunning School leftover?

  6. rdale says:

    Speaking of Civil War underwear, all of the members of John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River exploring expedition in 1869 were Civil War veterans, including Powell (20th Illinois), who lost his right arm at the battle of Shiloh in 1862. Powell never let it stop him from climbing cliffs to take scientific readings, and in Desolation Canyon on the Green River in July 1869, that caught up with him. He became “cliffed,” his one arm extended, standing on a small ledge. George Y. Bradley (19th Mass. Infantry) climbed above him, took off his drawers, which is what they all wore during the day, saving their other clothes, and lowered them down to Powell. Powell let go of his fingerhold, grabbed Bradley’s drawers with his strong left hand, and was hauled to safety.

  7. J R in WV says:

    I’ll wager the good general, U. S. (Unconditional Surrender [sic]) Grant, only had one drink that night.

    The question, sir, is whether it was a pint, a fifth, or a quart?

    That is all.

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