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Uniforms & History

With no television, internet or any other form of electronic mass entertainment, 19th-century Americans turned to activities that tended to make them more enlightened and productive citizens. One such pursuit involved joining the local militia—a service with benefits that went beyond social camaraderie.

One existing local military school in Cornwall, N.Y., the New York Military Academy, graduated the current president, Donald J. Trump.

Militia members were exempt from jury duty and the care of public roads in front of their property. In urban centers with small or modest police forces, civil leaders employed the local militia to suppress unruly mobs that posed a threat to public safety.

For males who were too young to enter the militia, numerous military preparatory schools throughout the country helped advance their educations and foster a degree of self-discipline. In fact, even at West Point, a private military school, the Kinsley Military School, resided on land later absorbed by the United States Military Academy. Kinsley students wore dark blue jackets with distinctive buttons. This private academy is sometimes confused with the federal establishment.

Left: The young Zouave pictured in this carte de visite, dated March 1864, wears the same uniform as that of the prewar militia company known as the Philadelphia Zouave Corps. Carte de visite by Edward P. Hipple of Philadelphia, Pa. Right: Armed with a child-size musket and an ivory-hilted sword, this youth’s uniform matches the Philadelphia Cadets. Carte de visite by Frederick Gutekunst of Philadelphia, Pa.
Left: The young Zouave pictured in this carte de visite, dated March 1864, wears the same uniform as that of the prewar militia company known as the Philadelphia Zouave Corps. Carte de visite by Edward P. Hipple of Philadelphia, Pa. Right: Armed with a child-size musket and an ivory-hilted sword, this youth’s uniform matches the Philadelphia Cadets. Carte de visite by Frederick Gutekunst of Philadelphia, Pa.

The upstate New York town of Ossining served as home to three military schools before the Civil War. The aim of these schools was not necessarily to produce future soldiers, but rather, “virtuous citizens.”   

As late as the 1950s, back pages of National Geographic magazines advertised for military prep schools throughout the nation. One existing local military school in Cornwall, N.Y., the New York Military Academy, graduated the current president, Donald J. Trump.

This introduction to military service partially explains why so many extant images of young men and boys in military uniforms exist from the Civil War era. Of course, many youngsters simply wore uniforms for play purposes. But a smartly uniformed adolescent is likely also a military school student. These uniforms ranged from copies of the West Point cadet gray uniforms to the latest Zouave or regulation uniform fashions.

Many of these young men did ultimately serve in military units. Maj. Mansfield Davies of the 5th New York Zouaves, for example, was educated at Kinsley Military School. The accompanying images illustrate some of the variety of their uniforms, accouterments and, occasionally, their weaponry.

MI Senior Editor Michael J. McAfee is a curator at the West Point Museum at the United States Military Academy, and author of numerous books. He has curated major museum exhibitions, and has contributed images and authoritative knowledge to other volumes and projects. The images pictured here are from his collection.

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