June 19th, 2011: Civil War Portraits- Better Know Rank Insignia Edition Part 2

Posted on: 06/16/2011

Yesterday we presented a quick guide to how Union Army officers would display their rank.  Today we’ll see how the Confederate Army chose to represent its officers through rank insignia.

The Confederacy outlined uniform guidelines for its army in June of 1861.  Just like the Confederate Regular Army, these regulations existed mostly on paper, although you do catch glimpses of them on actual confederate soldiers during the war.  The guidelines for enlisted men were generally universally ignored, but officers tended to stick a bit closer to guidelines.  Here is a glimpse of what the Confederacy had in mind for its army:

Instead of the popular frock coat, the uniform designed for the Confederate Army utilized the tunic which, in the 19th century, implied a shorter version of the frock coat.  In the image above we see confederate officers depicted in tunics.  They were seldom worn even by the highest grade officers due to the frock coat being very fashionable at the time and lack of enforcement.  Officers and enlisted men were to wear double breasted tunics with their respective branch color on the collar and cuffs.  Also, due to shortages of the material and facilities to produce enough of these to outfit the army, regulations were pushed aside for necessity in most cases.

Now, we’ll start looking at portraits of officers wearing the variations that were the norm in the confederate service.  Like yesterday, we’ll start with the lower ranks first and work our way up:

Above is a portrait of William W. Cosby of the 2nd Virginia Artillery.  We’re not sure what he was doing 150 years ago today, but we do know he was commissioned as a captain in February of 1862.  He is wearing what was very close to regulation for a foot officer.  Instead of shoulder straps, the Confederacy opted for collar insignia.  The system was fairly simple:

One bar for second lieutenant, two bars for first lieutenant, and three bars for captain.  Also their rank would be shown through was called an Austrian Knot, which is the gold braid you see on Captain Cosby’s sleeve.  One strand represented both grades of lieutenant, and two strands stood for captain (see diagram below).  The cuffs of his jacket underneath the braid should have been red to represent artillery.  Either he could not afford the red fabric it would take to do this or the photographer did not include the red when he hand colored the image.  Responsibilities for officer of the junior grades were very much the same as in the union army. 

Field officers looked much the same:

Above is Harry Gilmor, who led various cavalry commands and made many daring raids during his career in the Civil War.  He was a native of Baltimore, and 150 years ago today was making the transition from political prisoner (he had been arrested in the wake of the Baltimore Riot), to soldier.  In this image he is wearing the collar insignia of a full colonel, but you will notice that there doesn’t seem to be any braid on his sleeve.   This reflects how confederate officers often went with more low key uniform features than was official prescribed, both because of lack of material and to keep a low profile in battle.

Instead of bars used for junior officers, stars were used for field and staff officers:

This is where confederate rank can get confusing.  Stars were used for both field and general officers, but general officers had the addition of a wreath:

Here is John C. Breckinridge; confederate general and 1860 Democratic presidential candidate.  150 years ago today he was still a sitting US Senator from Kentucky, until he was expelled from the Senate in December 1861 for support of the Confederacy.  He was commissioned as a general after he fled south.  In this photo he is wearing the uniform of a confederate brigadier.  Just like the union system, brigadier generals had two rows of eight buttons arranged in pairs, but you’ll notice that his collar insignia bears three stars and a wreath.  This was the collar insignia for all confederate generals regardless of grade:

This is John Breckenridge’s fellow US Senator Thomas Clingman.  Like Breckinridge, he was expelled for supporting the Confederacy, but was not present in Washington when it happened.  150 years ago today he was gearing up to become colonel of the 25th North Carolina Infantry. He is pictured here as a major general with the same three star insignia, but with two rows of nine buttons arranged in threes.

Confederate generals were held much more strictly to hold commands according to their rank.  Brigadiers were virtually always permanent commanders of brigades, with colonels temporarily stepping in when needed, and major generals tended to strictly command divisions. 

The Confederacy, unlike the Union, used the ranks of lieutenant general for many more soldiers.  At Gettysburg, all three of Lee’s corps commanders were lieutenant generals, with Lee himself simply holding the rank general.  There was no practical difference in uniform for these higher grades, and many, including Lee, chose not to wear regulation anyway.

Lee actually wore a brigadier general’s coat, with colonel collar insignia.  Many other confederate officers wore lower rank than they had, some generals even wore a private’s uniform with no insignia while in the field.

One other thing to note is that, overall, confederate corps and division commanders tended to have more men under their command than their union counterparts.  For instance, at Gettysburg the union Army of the Potomac numbered 90,000 and was divided into seven corps of ten to fifteen thousand men each.  The confederate Army of Northern Virginia numbered about 75,000 and was divided into three corps of about 25,000 men each.  That means confederate corps commanders had twice the responsibility as union ones.  This was not always so, but was the general trend.

There's a lot more minutia to go into, but we think we covered the basics here.  We hope you learned something about how to recognize a confederate officer, and can use that knowledge as you visit battlefields and other Civil War sites to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war.

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