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Civil War Underwear


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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  • ploeg

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

  • Njorl

    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.

  • DrDick

    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).

    • Njorl

      That’s preferable to making the transition in the other direction.

      • DrDick

        LOL! ;-)

        Back in the 20s and 30s (and even into the 70s in some areas), milling companies used to use cotton print fabrics for their flour sacks, with the clear intent that poor people could use it to make clothing with.

      • expatchad

        Especially regarding burlap.

  • ema

    And for comparison, some modern battle undies.

  • rea

    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.

  • thusbloggedanderson

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

    • UberMitch

      The high-functioning alcoholic community needs its heroes. Don’t take Grant away from us!

      • Malaclypse

        We’ll always have Churchill.

        • thusbloggedanderson

          True dat.

        • rea

          Not to mention George W. . . . oh, wait a minute–you said “high-functioning”.

          • thusbloggedanderson

            I have never been able to believe that W. got through 9/11, Iraq, and Katrina without taking a single drink.

            Or, hell, maybe he was so impervious to others’ suffering and his own guilt, he really didn’t need one.

            • expatchad

              Or maybe the aforementioned were products of surreptitious drinking.

      • mds

        Well, there’s quite a bit of daylight between “high-functioning” and “stumbling.” If Grant could out-general the Rebels, give sensible orders when under fire, etc, who cares if he was pickled as a Guss’ Sour?

    • Tehanu

      Indeed it is. I hear the latest twist in Grant’s reputation is that he was a better President than he’s been given credit for. The “drunkard” thing was pretty funny on The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, but the reality is that Grant was one of the greatest generals this country has ever produced and you don’t get that way by being stonkered.

  • rdale

    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.

    • rea

      Although one would hope that by July 1869, they were not still wearing their Civil War underware . . .

  • What? He was doing laundry.

  • J R in WV

    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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