Original Civil War uniforms are very scarce. When I first started collecting Civil War items, uniforms could still be purchased quite inexpensively. When I think about collecting memorabilia and my early days in the hobby, I remember a trip to Virginia in the summer of 1976. I was almost 16 years old and had saved a summer’s worth of lawn mowing funds to buy another item for my collection. The sum totaled about $165. I did business with a dealer named Ron O’Connor who was based outside Richmond and operated a mail order business known as Rebel Relics. Ron had always told me to give a call if I were in the area so I took him up on the offer.
We drove into the Virginia back country and found Ron’s home with a little bit of difficulty. I told him that I was interested in adding an original Civil War uniform to my collection. We walked over to the barn and climbed a ladder into the loft where he stored some of his items. In one pile, were Union army shell jackets, while in the other there was a pile of Union officer’s frock coats. Ron said that the shell jackets were $150 and the officer’s coats $175. All of the items had been deaccessioned from the Chicago Historical Society and some bore the original catalog numbers.
I was intrigued by the artillery shell jackets. I did not know much about them and believed that they were the type worn by the Zouave soldiers that I had read so much about. Little did I know that the red trim and long array of twelve buttons signaled artillery and that these were the standard jackets worn by Union artillerymen during the war. I recall that Ron tried to get me interested in one of the officer’s frock coats. As he held it up, he reached into the breast pocket and pulled out a long lock of a woman’s red hair. The hair had likely belonged to the officer’s wife or sweetheart and he carried it in the pocket over his heart. I still regret not purchasing that coat, opting instead for the more inexpensively priced artilleryman’s shell jacket. Such are the lessons of life and collecting.
Union Soldier Wearing the Artilleryman’s Shell Jacket
The artillery shell jacket worn by the Union forces is more formerly known as the Model 1855 Artillery Enlistedman’s Jacket. It is a fine looking jacket that was cut to form for the soldiers who served in the Civil War. Union cavalry wore a similar jacket that was trimmed in yellow to distinguish their branch, while Union infantry wore a shell jacket devoid of colorized trim. New York State soldiers wore a distinct version of the shell jacket that was trimmed in light blue that featured a slash exterior pocket on the breast with shoulder tabs that were buttoned down using buttons featuring the New York State seal.
The 12-button shell jacket pictured here was found at an estate sale in Sparta, North Carolina. The jacket displays significant signs of wear and use.
Inside lining of original Civil War artillery shell jacket with what appears to be New York regimental markings. (Credit: William F. Howard Collection).
Contract, Inspection and Sizing Stamps inside the sleeve lining of the jacket. (Credit: William F. Howard Collection).
The interior of the jacket has a blanket stitched lining that is contractor, inspector and size stamped on the linen sleeve as illustrated in the photographs above. Unlike many surviving jackets that saw actual wartime service, this example retains the pillows on the back that were used to support the leather sword belt. Soldiers often removed these in the field. The jacket was purchased from a dealer in Matthews, North Carolina and is a fine example of a shell jacket used in the Civil War.
Pillows on the back of the jacket (Credit: William F. Howard Collection).