By Wayne Thompson
The one item of your uniform that will be the most appreciated is the great coat. It is both a blanket and protection against all but the worst weather. You should have one as a part of your kit.
The greatcoat was a regular issue item for every soldier in both armies during the Civil War. This does not mean that every soldier received one. Due to the many shortages that resulted from the blockade of southern ports, many southern soldiers had to suffer through at least a part of every winter without the benefit of a greatcoat. For many Federals, the early winters of the war showed the inefficiency of the peacetime quartermaster system.
The greatcoat is different from the uniform jacket and frock coat in a number of ways. First, the material used was heavier than that found in jackets and frocks. Additionally, the skirt of the coat was lower than on the frock, usually dropping to around the knees. The coat was lined with cotton or wool flannel. Also, unlike the frock, there was a cape, sometimes lined, that had the option of being buttoned up to provide additional protection from the wind and the cold. The collar was either a standup or roll collar, depending on the model.
The greatcoat was designed for moderate to extreme cold weather. As such, it usually is a bit too much to wear while on campaign. Even though soldiers traveled lightly, the soldiers usually retained their greatcoats, unless they were ordered to turn their coats in to be reissued in the fall when the armies went into “winter quarters”. If cooler weather occurred before the fall issue of the coats, the soldiers had to improvise. Instead of the coat, they would wrap their blankets over their shoulders, and secure them in place with the uniform belt. But the dead of winter demanded a greatcoat.
The color of your coat has already been discussed in two articles that have appeared here by other authors, so I will only say that I’m partial to Richmond Depot gray. If you like a different color, then, hey, it’s your coat. Who am I to tell you what color it should be? (I’m assuming, of course, that you haven’t chosen flamingo pink or woodland camo. I would feel obligated to speak out on that matter.)
There were, of course, alternatives to the greatcoat or blanket. Officers were partial to cloaks or capes. The rank and file may have worn these items, but they were more appropriately officers’ apparel. If you are a “high private” and you choose to wear a cape, expect to be ribbed mercilessly by your comrades. You have asked for it.
Civilian coats were certainly worn by the Confederate soldier. Here, the impression allows great latitude. So, if you must have a singularly unique coat, this is probably the way to go. Just remember that the same rules apply for civilian coats as they do for capes and cloaks. Get too fancy, and you don’t deserve to hear the end of the jokes and comments from your comrades in arms.
The last option to wearing a greatcoat is the shawl. This is a woven or knitted cape, usually of a looser weave than that of capes or coats. In style and shape it resembles the modern-style afghan. A woolen throw can also be improvised into a type of cape or shawl. A throw is about the size of a modern airline blanket. Shawls were very popular items for men’s wear in the mid-19th Century.
Capes and cloaks were secured by means of a pin or a short chain that was permanently attached to one side of the garment, with a clasp or buckle on the other side. These fasteners are common finds in many of the former camps of both armies, but particularly in the camps of the Union armies. They break easily, which is why they are usually found in pieces.
The beauty of the greatcoat lies in its versatility. In the past, I have used mine as a pillow, extra blanket, ground cloth, raincoat (not recommended), and even as a coat, from time to time. I’ve even seen one desperate fellow try to use his as an end closure for his shelter half (better than a big rainy hole, but not by much).
As noted earlier, you probably will not want to wear the coat while in the field. It does a really good job of holding in body heat, making it difficult to stay cool while running about. If you use a knapsack, you can fold the coat up and put it inside the pack. If you are carrying a bedroll, the coat can be rolled up inside the blanket. It makes for a big roll, but it is the most comfortable way to carry the coat, next to wearing it .
I don’t like wearing the greatcoat in the rain. It soaks up every drop of moisture, and weighs a ton, soaking wet. Also, I’ve found a dry coat is a welcome blessing at bedtime, especially if you have to peel out of a wet coat and shirt before turning in. It also gives you something to wear while said jacket and shirt are drying by the fire. The poncho does not do a good job of keeping the coat dry. It doesn’t do a good job of keeping anything dry. A rubber blanket is much better.
Should you own a great coat? It is an expensive proposition (about the same as a coat and trousers ), but if you already have your basic kit, you may want to consider it. If you have other items to buy, however, you should wait until you have the basics. Better still, wait until someone else in the unit gets tired of his coat, and buy it from him. Cheap. Then let him constantly know how much you love his old coat (especially at Fort Branch and Saylor’s Creek.) The colder the better…