Civil War Relic Hunting for Buckles

Weapons and Accessories of the American Civil War

By Daniel Bernzweig

Part 4 – Civil War Buckles

As seen in the previous part of this four-part series of articles on the material culture of the American Civil War, the buttons which adorned the uniforms of officers and soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies came in a great many different forms, depicting everything from state seals to variations on the federal great seal. Similarly, both sides manufactured buckles that contained symbols, words, and seals to indicate either the rank of the individual who wore them, the branch of the armed forces he served in, or the state from which his division originated. Here, in the last part of the series, we look at the various types of buckles worn by both Union and Confederate troops between 1861 and 1865, both as standard belt buckles and sword belt buckles. It was the first type of buckle known as a "standard" buckle, which consisted of a base plate and a cap, and was the most common type of buckle found with a metal detector.

In the early 19th Century, buckles were used to fasten the straps of a soldier’s uniform together. These buckles came in many shapes and sizes. These buckles were usually made of brass or steel, and there was a hole in the middle through which the leather strap passed. If you wanted to attach them to a belt, you could use pins or rivets to make it happen. This type of buckle was used throughout most of the war. Some buckles had decorative designs while others were plain. Many buckles were designed to hold two pieces of clothing together. For instance, a belt buckle would connect one end of a belt to another.

A Brief History of US Army Buckles

The Civil War did not witness the emergence of buckles as a part of the paraphernalia worn by American armed forces. For decades before the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, various states had their militias wear distinctive plates to indicate their place of origin. Many of these consisted of a variant of the individual state’s seal or an abbreviation of the state name in capital letters. For instance, ‘SC’ was emblazoned on belt buckles worn by militias in South Carolina. Indeed many of these pre-war state militia buckle plates were fished out of drawers and cupboards in 1861 and began to adorn Union and Confederate uniforms. As with many other bits of equipment which was being repurposed in 1861, this was because in the early stages of the conflict, neither side had the capacity to manufacture sufficient buckles of this kind for all of those who were being pressed into service.

Until the Civil War, belts were buckled using a pin and loop system. There was, however, a change in the Army's policy after the war, and new belt buckles were issued. A brass buckle was attached to the ends of the belt, and it was made of brass material. There were four corners on the buckles, which were shaped like a square with four sides. As part of the square, there was a slot that could be used to attach the strap to one side. In addition to the holes along the edge of one side of the square, there were also holes along the other side. As a result of the slots, the belt was able to slide through the buckle easily. In order to tighten the belt around the waist, the holes on the belt allowed it to be tightened.

Later certain individuals and businesses began mass-producing buckles for servicemen in their own states or others. One such example was Emerson Gaylord of Chicopee in Massachusetts, who is known to have produced the buckles worn by soldiers from the state of Maryland which bore that state’s seal. Similarities in the manufacture of these and buckles for the states of Mississippi and Georgia, which date to the 1850s, suggest that Gaylord had been involved in manufacturing such buckles for many years before the war. Thus, when the war erupted in the spring of 1861, there was a long tradition of the manufacturing and use of buckles that highlighted the wearer’s background, and this was continued throughout the war by both the Union and Confederacy.

Union Buckles

The Union developed less ornate belt buckles than the Confederacy. The standard buckle type was an ovular belt buckle with the capital letters ‘US’ emblazoned on it. These had been introduced in the 1830s as part of standard US army saber belts, but their use had spread more widely throughout the armed services during the twenty years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. They could be made from different substances. Generals and officers would often have been issued with or had their own buckles made from more valuable materials such as silver or washed with gilt to give them a more ornate appearance, however in general, the standard materials which were used to mass-manufacture these in the north were brass and pewter.

During the Civil War, soldiers were issued two types of buckles as part of their uniforms. There are two types of collar buttons. The first type is the "Collar Button." This button was round and flat. The most common material used for making it was iron. It was used to attach the front of the shirt to the back of the jacket using the collar buttons. The second type of buckle was known as the "Horse Shoe buckle." It was a rectangular buckle with a curved edge. It was usually made out of steel. In order to secure the pants to the boots, horseshoe buckles were used.

The buckle became an important symbol of patriotism during the Civil War era. As a symbol of allegiance to the United States, soldiers wore them on their uniforms as part of their uniforms. During the war, buckles did not have a standard design as there was no standard design for them. As far as buckle styles are concerned, each state produced its own style of buckles. Other common types of Union belt buckles were those in which the US eagle dominated the plate and was often clutching three arrows. Such belt buckle types usually had the familiar Latin motto of e Pluribus Unum, ‘Out of one, many, inscribed across them. Where these were issued to officers during the war, they often had silver plating on them. As with the Union soldier’s buttons, a great many other state variations and individual designs for different branches of the Union armed forces were produced and worn, though the depth of variety was not as great as was the case with Confederate buckles. Union State Belt Buckles bearing the capital letters ‘US’ were by far the most widely distributed Union belt buckles of the American Civil War.

Union Buckle Patterns

Union soldiers received two different styles of buckles as part of their uniforms. There were two types of patterns available. The first was the "Army Pattern." This pattern consisted of two rows of holes. In the second style of the buckle, there was a design called the "British Pattern." This buckle had three rows of holes on it. As long as the war lasted, both patterns were used continuously throughout the duration of the conflict.

Confederate Buckles

There were dozens of belt buckles worn by Confederate soldiers during the war and produced for the same purpose. The attachments used varied, with some produced of single plates with hooks on the back for connection and others made of two pieces that interlock, though the former were more common. Other variations included roller buckles of the kind used on most modern belts. As with the Union buttons and buckles and Confederate buttons previously discussed, the main variations in terms of the decoration of these Confederate buckles were to depict either a state seal, a motto of the home state, or buckles simply bearing the capital letters ‘CS’ or ‘CSA’ for ‘Confederate States’ or ‘Confederate States of America’. Because the south was far less industrially developed than the north (in many regions, one would have been hard pressed to locate a factory with a thorough search), it lacked foundries whereby things like belt buckles could have been manufactured. Therefore many of these Confederate belt buckles were manufactured in a makeshift fashion, often by the units who wore them themselves. Indeed one practice late in the war amongst Confederate troops was to use captured Union buckles with the letters ‘US’ on them and wear them sideways so that the ‘U’ appeared as a ‘C.’

Even within these variegated forms, there were further variants produced. For instance, the simple ‘CS’ buckles were typically produced in an oval shape, but some were rectangular, while even these rectangular variants could have either quite severe right-angled sides or rounded sides so that they fell somewhere between being rectangular and ovular. Even the state seals could have differences within them. Some Texas plates were rectangular with a full-bodied lone star depicted in the middle, while others were ovular with a thin lone star consisting of little more than bare lines. Other state-specific buckles were issued to individual groups within it. Thus, we find ovular belt buckles which bore the capital letters ‘AVC’ for the ‘Alabama Volunteer Corps. Thus, the range of Confederate buckles was often as varied as the myriad types of Confederate buttons explored in the previous article in this series.

After the end of the war, the federal government decided to standardize the buckles that were used by all branches of the armed forces. It was the U.S. Army that adopted the pattern which we know today as the "Army Pattern." The Army Pattern was similar to the British Pattern. While there were some similarities between the two patterns, there were some differences as well. The main difference in the two patterns was the fact that the British Pattern had three rows of holes while the Army Pattern only had two rows of holes. As another difference between the British and the Army patterns, the British pattern had a hole in the center of each row, whereas the Army pattern did not have such a hole.

Confederate States Belt Buckles

A Confederate buckle bearing the lone star for the state of Texas. This is a two-piece buckle which clasped together to become a solid piece. The Lone Star State was one of the last states to secede from the Union during the Civil War. After the War of 1861, it joined the Confederacy, but it wasn't until 1865 that it joined the United States again, after formally joining the Confederacy in February 1861.

Like the Union states, the Confederate states also issued two different styles of buckles during the Civil War. In the beginning, there was a style called the "Southern Pattern." This type of pattern featured four rows of holes. It was during the early years of the war that the Southern Pattern was used. Later on, the Confederate buckle was redesigned in such a way that there were five rows of holes on it. The new buckle was referred to as the "Alabama Pattern."

Confederate States Buckle Designs

It is worth noting that the Confederate Army fought the Union Army throughout the duration of the Civil War. As a result, the Confederates needed to manufacture their own buckles. The Confederate Army manufactured buckles in a variety of materials, just like the Union Army. Some buckles were made from wood. Some of them were made from brass, while others were made from steel. Some were made out of iron. Last but not least, some buckles were made out of tin as well.

The buckles of the Confederate Army were also made to meet the specific needs of the wearer, just like the buckles of the Union Army. Some buckles came with ammunition pouches attached to them. Others were designed to carry a canteen. Others were designed to carry a rifle, while others were designed to carry a pistol. Until 1864, the Alabama Pattern was in use in the United States. The buckle was then redesigned once again as a result of the new design. As a result, the buckle was adorned with six rows of holes this time around. "Georgia Pattern" is the name given to this buckle.

Sword Buckles

While most American Civil War buckles for sale today are generally belt buckles, sword buckles were also produced by both sides during the war to hold up swords. Some of these are traceable to sites where they were manufactured in bulk. Such is the case with the sword buckles produced by Louis and Elias Haiman at Haiman’s Sword Factory in Columbus, Georgia. The pair came to America from Prussia in 1830 and established a tinsmith shop. During the war, they became a major provider of swords and sword buckles to the Confederate armed forces, eventually employing 400 people at the site by 1863. Generally, the Haiman sword buckles are recognizable because they were of such poor quality, having been very badly welded together.

As a result, many of these buckles are extremely rare today. An eleven-star Confederate sword buckle, for example, can sell for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars today, such is their scarcity. Thus, of all the remnants of the material culture of the American Civil War discussed in this series of articles, ornate sword buckles are some of the most valuable and rare pieces extant today. A number of manufacturers manufactured swords and other weapons during the American Civil War, including Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson. As a result of the use of these weapons by the Union Army, Confederate soldiers were killed. The Confederacy was also fighting against civilians who used these weapons as a means of defense against them.

However, as cavalry swords and other long-bladed weapons were themselves largely ceremonial, the sword buckles which accompanied them were often more ornate than standard belt buckles of the time. As well as being used to secure swords, buckles were often used to make decorative items such as pendants, brooches, and rings in addition to being used to secure swords. The maker's name and the date of manufacture are usually stamped on these items, which makes it easy to identify them. Examples include those made by the Haimans, who stamped their work "Haiman's Sword Factory" and "Made in USA 1841."

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