By Ron Field
A garment described as a “blue cloth Jacket” was part of dress or mustering wear for petty officers and other ranks of the U.S. Navy from the time the first crews signed on to the new frigates in 1797. As this jacket evolved, it was cut with a wide, shawl lapel or roll collar, and tight, two-piece sleeves. It had two rows of small-sized double-breasted Navy buttons, plus buttons of the same size on each cuff, and often had breast pockets level with the middle buttons on either side.
The clothing list contained within the Rules, Regulations, and Instructions, for the Naval Service produced in 1818 stipulated that each man should receive “2 Blue cloth jackets” within his first year of enlistment. A reference to jackets was included in the National Advocate, of New York City, on July 26, 1824, when Navy Agent Eben Irving advertised for sale at auction “100 blue cloth jackets” which were surplus to Navy requirements. From 1825, lists of requirements of ready-made clothing, known as “slop clothing,” became more explicit, and, by 1832, included “indigo dyed, twilled cotton Jackets.”
During the decade before the Civil War, the Navy required “blue cloth round jackets” at the rate of 4,000 a year until 1853, and fell to 3,000 thereafter each year until 1857. Following this, no further requests for jackets were made until Oct. 16, 1861, when Navy Agent Isaac Henderson, at 39 Nassau Street in New York City, advertised in the New York Times for “Sealed Proposals” for 3,000 jackets to be delivered to the Navy Yard, “to conform in quality of material, pattern and workmanship to those in use in the Navy,” a sample of which could be seen “on application to the Inspector in charge.” These were to be delivered within 60 days of acceptance of the bid, “and as many more as may be requested previous to the first of July, 1862.” From this, it is evident that a pattern for the round jacket existed, and sample garments were available for prospective bidders to inspect at the main Navy Yards. Also noteworthy is the realization that in 1861 the Navy might need more than 3,000 jackets as the Civil War unfolded.
It was not until 1863 that a formal request was published in newspapers for more round jackets at the rate of 4,000 in March and 6,000 in July of that year. The last Civil War period requirement for jackets occurred in September 1864, when 2,000 were needed at the Charlestown Navy Yard at Boston, and 3,000 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City.
Although variation existed in the number of buttons on the front and cuffs of round jackets, it is fairly certain that this resulted from clothing contractors misinterpreting the pattern of samples left at Navy Yards, rather than shipmates with sewing skills making them aboard ship, as they sometimes did with trousers, caps and shirts. The round jacket required considerably more skill to cut and sew. It was also more expensive for the Navy to produce, which may account for its limited issuance.
Considering that the Union Navy had expanded from 7,600 to 51,500 men in service from 1861 to 1865, it is probable that only about one third of Union seamen wore a round jacket during the Civil War. Hence, an image of an enlisted sailor in full dress wearing his “blue cloth round jacket” is quite rare, and a welcome addition to a Navy image collection.
Special thanks to Jon Isaacson for assistance in the preparation of this column.
References: Regulations — Navy U.S.: Message from the President of the United States, Transmitting the Rules and Regulations (Prepared by the Board Revisions) for the Government of the Navy of the United States. 23d Cong., 1st sess., 1833, House Doc. No. 20. (See chapter 42, “Uniform,” pp.73-74); “Rules, Regulations, and Instructions, for the Naval Service,” American State Papers, Class VI, Naval Affairs, Vol. I; National Advocate, Washington, D.C.; The New York Times.
Ron Field is a Senior Editor of MI.
SPREAD THE WORD: We encourage you to share this story on social media and elsewhere to educate and raise awareness. If you wish to use any image on this page for another purpose, please request permission.
LEARN MORE about Military Images, America’s only magazine dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and preserving Civil War portrait photography.
VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.