The Old Corps: The Uniform Regulations of 1859
by LtCol Charles H. Cureton
Originally published in the November 1992 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette.
The Gazette looks at the uniform regulations of 1859 and the attempt to standardize uniforms within the Corps. The prints in this photo gallery were originally reproduced on high-quality, acid-free paper in the November 1992 issue of the Gazette. This section continues a series initiated in the November 1989 Gazette and continued in November 1990 highlighting prints of antebellum uniforms of the Corps.
The uniform plates reproduced in the center of the magazine were actually the third attempt by the Marine Corps to develop drawings to go along with its printed dress regulations. They are taken from the Regulations for the Uniform and Dress of the Marine Corps of the United States, October 1859, which were the most descriptive and detailed guidelines developed to that time. This set of regulations and its accompanying illustrations have proven to be an invaluable source document in helping us determine the appearance of mid-19th century Marines. However, the 1859 regulations were not written for the convenience of future historians; they were part of an ongoing effort to achieve that ever elusive goal of uniformity throughout the Marine Corps.
The effort to standardize Marine dress gained impetus as a result of the chaos arising from the confusing and contradictory regulations of the 1820s. For a period of several years, one regulation followed another, each canceling the previous regulation in whole or in part. By the end of the decade the situation had gotten so confused that the Quartermaster of the Marine Corps. Capt Elijah Weed, was forced to tell the Commandant that a regulation uniform did not exist. Capt Weed was somewhat embarrassed by this situation but capitalized on it as an excuse to completely revamp the organization and operation of the Quartermaster Department.
One change that emerged from Capt Weed's reforms was the introduction of published uniform regulations in place of the previous handwritten descriptions. The detailed regulations of 1824 were an important development, and Weed went so far as to commission a set of plates to accompany the text. The drawings were of little value. Evidently, only a few copies were ever produced, and not one is known to have survived. In 1852, a second attempt was more successful, and from this effort emerged a set of finely drafted and detailed line drawings illustrating the revised dress regulations published that year. For the first time, commanders of distant stations could know exactly what was meant by the sometimes ambiguous descriptions of officer and enlisted uniforms and accouterments.
But there were still some shortcomings. In particular, the 1852 drawings only showed details of dress, they never illustrated the uniform in its entirety. Thus, how the uniform was to be worn remained a matter left to the opinion of the local senior Marine officer. This omission was corrected with the publication of the 1859 regulations, which contained the most comprehensive uniform plates yet done. The illustrations in the 1859 regulations can be divided into three parts. The first set of illustrations consists of four color plates showing the various order of dress. These are followed by four color plates depicting specific parts of the uniform. Finally, there are six plates of line drawings illustrating accouterments and headdress. Of the 47 individual illustrations that make up the plates, 33 drawings pertain to officer material while only 14 cover enlisted uniform items. This seeming disparity is not surprising. The Quartermaster Department furnished all enlisted men with their clothing and equipment thereby making numerous depictions of these items superfluous. Officer dress was another matter entirely. All officers acquired their clothing from private tailors and military goods dealers of their own choosing; however, many tradesmen had an imperfect knowledge of what was required. The lessons of the 182s showed the need for well-written and descriptive regulations to curtail sartorial creativity. Since it was with officer dress that there existed room for interpretation, the uniform regulations of 1834, 1839, 1852, and 1859 tended to focus on officer material to the exclusion of enlisted uniform items.
The dress regulations of this period can be seen as a set of instructions for the tradesman to follow in making the item in question. The first element in each specification is always a statement of the generic item from which the finished piece is developed. For example, the officer's full dress coat is characterized as a "frock coat." The second part of the description defines specifically what is needed to be done to make it into a proper Marine officer's full dress coat.
The regulations did not specify fashion or cut, these were left to the preference of the individual and to the skill of his tailor. In the wild fashion extremes characteristic of the period, this latitude inevitably led to some degree of variation in the style of officer clothing, but that was accepted and tolerated.
The first two plates depict officer dress (formal), undress (informal), and fatigue clothing according to the styles prevalent in 1859. Within 2 years, however, the loose and full sleeve would replace the fitted sleeve shown in the illustrations (see Figure 3). Plate 1 depicts the summer full dress uniform. Aside from the Commandant's coat having its buttons set in pairs, the primary differences between the uniforms of company grade and field grade officers are the number of loops to the slashed cuff and the wearing of the chapeau instead of the uniform cap. The epaulets also differed according to rank, but this detail is difficult to see.
Plate 2 shows winter undress and fatigue uniforms. Sky blue wool trousers replaced the white linen trousers for the winter season; the upper garments were the same for both winter and summer wear. Officers in undress wore a frock coat patterned after the full dress coat but without the red trim, gold lace, and epaulets. The latter were replaced by shoulder knots made of fine gold cord. Of the officer uniforms shown in these plates, the fatigue jacket, in modified form, remains in use as the officers' evening dress.
Plates 3 and 4 repeat what was done in the first two plates but show the equivalent enlisted uniforms. They are the first illustrations of the Marine noncommissioned officer's sword, which was officially adopted on 15 October 1859. They also clarify what types of arms and equipment were appropriate for the various grades and specialties. Musicians, staff noncommissioned officers of the Marine Corps, and those orderly sergeants holding an independent command carried swords. All others were armed with a musket and bayonet (and a sword in the case of sergeants). The musician's sword resembled the Army noncommissioned officer's sword and can be seen being worn by the third musician to the right of the drum major (Arrow 2) in the band picture at the beginning of this article
The drawings have proved to be accurate, but generally they do have some errors and omissions. The most glaring mistake is in the depiction of French pattern accouterments and equipment for enlisted personnel. At the time, the French Army was moving away from suspending the cartridge box and bayonet from constricting shoulder belts. They transfered everything to the waist belt. The new system proved to be popular and, by the late 1850s, both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were thinking about adopting it. The Marine Corps dress regulations of 1859 even went so far as to indicate that the pattern had been adopted, when, in fact, it was still being tested. After a trial issue of 200 sets, the Marine Corps returned to the earlier system of suspending the cartridge box and bayonet from shoulder belts held in place by a waist belt.
The picture of the Marine Band that appears at the beginning of this article was taken in 1864 and illustrates how well the regulations of 1859 were being adhered to. In this photograph, it is possible to see several details concerning the uniform of the drum major of the Marine band (Arrow 1). The white edging to the collar and to the cuff slash is clearly evident, but the yellow lace loops are less obvious. Because of the chemical properties of photography during this period, yellow photographed dark, hence the lace is difficult to see. The loops' existence, however, is indicated by the small buttons placed at the outer edge of each one. The yellow silk chevrons are even more difficult to see. They conform to those shown in plate 3 except they are larger and the star device in the center is embroidered in gold and has six points instead of five. His dress also differs from the regulation in the use of gold epaulets instead of yellow worsted, and the fur cap has a falling horsehair plume in place of the prescribed red pompon.
Also visible in the Marine Band photograph is John Bauman, the Corps' senior ranking enlisted Marine (Arrow 3, standing one pace to the left and one pace to the rear of 2dLt John W. Haverstick). SgtMaj Bauman's uniform is correct in all respects except that it is trimmed with gold rather than the yellow worsted lace. This follows the tradition begun in the 1820s where the sergeant major, the quartermaster sergeant, and the chief musician wore the uniform of an enlisted man, but with the gold embellishments of an officer. SgtMaj Bauman also wears epaulets typical of an earlier period.
There are other inaccuracies or omissions. The officer plates fail to show the officer's summer fatigue coat. Made of white linen and authorized for wear on all occasions except "parade or ceremony," it was patterned after the undress frock coat. The depiction of light blue trousers for field grade officers is also incorrect. These were actually changed to dark blue. The quartermaster managed to get the modification into the text but was apparently too late to change the illustrations. Furthermore, officers substituted a red feather plume on their dress caps in place of the regulation gold pompon. Civil War photographs also reveal that officers continued to wear the sky-blue trousers even in the summer.
Regarding Plates 3 and 4, the enlisted fatigue sack, a pull-over garment made of dark blue flannel, was omitted. It replaced the earlier linen jacket and was intended for use in hot weather or for strenuous labor. The chevrons for noncommissioned officers were actually larger than those depicted. They went from seam to seam on the sleeve. The rank insignia and lace trimming on the sergeant major's dress coat was done with gold "Prussia" lace instead of the yellow worsted wool and silk lace specified in the regulations. It is also clear from'contemporary photographs that the sergeant major, the quartermaster sergeant, and the chief musician continued using the earlier pattern gold lace and bullion epaulets instead of the yellow worsted and brass epaulets specified in 1859.
The illustrated regulations of 1859 achieved what was expected of them. With a few exceptions, what is specified in the text and depicted in the illustrations can be confirmed in contemporary photographs and surviving examples. Where differences do exist, they appear as official modifications to the regulations rather than as the product of individual whim. To have actually attained this degree of uniformity is remarkable, especially when you consider that it was largely accomplished during the turmoil of the Civil War years that followed shortly after publication of the 1859 regulations.