Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Boxers, Briefs and Battles

By Jean Huets, 11-25-12

Civil War soldiers carried many valuables: letters from home, photographs, and locks of hair from wives, sweethearts and babies. But they held a less romantic article much nearer to their hearts, and sometimes much dearer: their undergarments.
History favors epic battles, stirring speeches, presidents and generals and the economic and political forces that transform the lives of millions. Yet mere underwear has a story to tell, a story that covers the breadth of the Civil War, from home front to battlefield.

A full suit of mid-19th-century men’s underwear consisted of a shirt, “drawers” and socks. Like today, men’s underwear at the time, unlike women’s, did not provide structure to the body. Rather, cover, warmth and hygiene were the order of the day — though the hygiene part did not always work out. The term for undershirt was usually just “shirt”; shirts as we know them today were often called blouses or top-shirts. Undershirts were square-cut pullovers, voluminous and long. Buttons and sometimes laces at the neck fastened them.

Drawers, meanwhile, were sometimes knee-length, usually ankle-length. Two or three buttons closed a center fly. Lacing or a buckle at the back waistband adjusted the fit. Tape ties or drawstrings at the ankle (or knee) kept drawer legs from riding up. Possibly the drawstrings also functioned as sock garters. For many men of the period, shirt tails stood in for drawers. Ribbed and knit fabric primarily went to socks, which were nearly always woolen. When not hand-knit, the tubular body was knit at mills, with heels and toes added by hand.

Mills provided the fabric, which women pieceworkers assembled at home by hand and sewing machines. “In certain districts” of rural New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, reported one New England manufacturer, “the whole female population is employed, in spare moments, at this work.”

It’s nearly impossible to imagine rural women enjoying “spare moments” while running farms in the absence of men, in addition to housekeeping and child care. Women who relied solely on piecework struggled as well. One “smart operator” finished four pairs of drawers daily, breaking “long enough to make herself a cup of tea and eat a piece of bread,” reported The New York Times. For her 12-hour day, she earned 16 and a quarter cents. Women in mills might make even less. By comparison, a Union private earned about 43 cents a day, plus rations and clothing. Pieceworkers in New York and other cities organized, but contractors, or as The New York Sun described them, “fiends in the shape of men,” continued to reap huge profits while “driving ten thousand working women into the very jaws of hell.”

For subsistence, patriotism, love or profit, women North and South worked hard to supplement Army-issue underwear, sometimes ripping their own clothes apart for fabric. And many soldiers, especially those in the South, preferred their underwear homemade; wives, sisters and enslaved women stitched a variety of fabrics, especially canton flannel (cotton flannel fleeced on one side) and cotton-and-wool blend flannel, into drawers and shirts.

Recruits whose mothers never issued underpants could be fooled into wearing their new drawers on parade. They presented themselves in august company. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant himself once appeared in “parade uniform”: one night, when gunboats threatened the depot at City Point, Va., reported an eyewitness in The Century magazine, “the general came hurriedly into the office. He had drawn on his top-boots over his drawers, and put on his uniform frock-coat, the skirt of which reached about to the tops of the boots and made up for the absence of trousers.”

Underwear was always in short supply. Prisoners of war suffered most. Lincoln’s quartermaster general, Montgomery Meigs, stipulated that “from the 30th of April to the 1st of October neither drawers nor socks will be issued to prisoners of war, except to the sick.” A Union prisoner testified that hundreds of his fellow captives went “without even a pair of drawers to cover their nakedness.”

Such shortages made underwear coveted spoils of war. When Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s men raided a Union supply depot, “sumptuous underclothing was fitted over limbs sunburnt, sore and vermin-splotched.” A Confederate cadet spotted his own monogram on underwear worn by a Federal whose pants were cut open to tend a wound. The soldier confessed to looting a Lynchburg, Va., house where the cadet had stowed his trunk.

Getting fresh underwear by issue, mail or pillage was easier than laundering and carrying extra. One Confederate soldier, Carlton McCarthy, preferred to wear all his clothes “until the enemy’s knapsacks or the folks at home supplied a change. Certainly it did not pay to carry around clean clothes while waiting for the time to use them.”

Francis Ackerman, a volunteer from New York, gleaned fresh clothes from the fields at the Third Battle of Winchester, in September 1864. His account of finding a riderless horse mingles the grotesque tragedy of battle with the dry humor so characteristic of War memoirs. “I discovered a horse with one of his legs shot off, on his back a good outfit,” he wrote. “Feeling rather lively from life inside my clothes,” he “concluded to examine the wounded horse, and was rewarded by finding a clean full suit of underwear. I stripped on the battle field, and with thankful heart put it on, the first change I had in six weeks.” More fastidious men changed into clean underwear faithfully — once a week.

Regardless of how often one changed his drawers, the louse ruled. “It preyed alike on the just and the unjust. It inserted its bill as confidingly into the body of the major-general as of the lowest private,” wrote one memoirist. Laundering in boiling water didn’t rout the “gray backs”; instead, taking a page from their battlefield playbooks, soldiers relied on “skirmishing,” or painstaking search-and-destroy efforts to pick them off one by one.

In any case, boiling underwear could get a man into hot water. When Gen. Thomas Lanier Clingman of North Carolina wrote his mother to send drawers, she answered back, “I am certain that your flannel is injured by washing. It should not be put in very hot water or boiled at all,” and it should be washed in “moderately warm water with soap and rinsed in warm soap suds, which will keep it soft and free from shrinking. At least, you can direct your washer to do so.” General Clingman was 50 years old when his mom told him how to wash his underwear.

Even clean and vermin-free, underwear was rarely comfortable. Harsh laundering subtracted durability and comfort. Availability and cost, not fit or season, dictated cut and fabric. In summer a soldier sweltered in flannel or discarded his drawers and got chafed raw by rough, sweaty wool pants.

The manufacture and use of underwear reflects several aspects of the Civil War, and it holds a mirror to our own times. Labor was both empowered and exploited by the cascade of contract money that poured in for its production, which in turn helped usher in the corruption and wealth of the Gilded Age. Slavery and regionalism weren’t the only things that fractured our country. A chasm existed between the “dainty men” in their boiled shirts and the common herd in homespun plaid and flannel, between impoverished millworkers and pieceworkers — often immigrants — and women whose elegance was purchased by their husbands’ manufacturing enterprises.

Most of all, the humble suit of underwear highlights the Civil War soldier himself: his endurance and fortitude, his ability to make do with whatever conditions and supplies came along and his sense of humor, which pervades even the most dire accounts of battle and camp life.

Image: Wash day at camp: A pair of drawers hangs to dry on the log support behind the ax-wielding soldier on the right.



Post a Comment


Facebook Twitter Delicious Stumbleupon Favorites