Civil War Relic Hunting for Buttons

Weapons and Accessories of the American Civil War

By Daniel Bernzweig

Part 3 - Civil War Buttons

The military button adorned uniforms worn during the American Civil War by both Union, and Confederate troops were, as in most wars, relatively standardized things. The Union wore monochrome Prussian blue pants and jackets, while the Confederates clashed with them by wearing light grey jackets and pants. However, the uniforms of the rank and file and officers on both sides were given some flair by adding lapels, insignia, and buttons of varying kinds. The latter could be particularly ornate, and indeed there were dozens of different button types developed by both the Union and the Confederacy to decorate the jackets of their soldiers. These had a great number of different symbols on them to variously indicate the type of division a soldier was a member of and what state the unit came from. Here, in the third part of this series of articles on the material culture of the American Civil War, we examine the range of buttons produced by both the Union and the Confederacy and what some of the various symbols on them were meant to communicate. Civil War buttons are amongst the most prized finds located with metal detectors designed for relic hunting.

Types of Jackets and Uniforms

Before assessing the buttons themselves, we should look briefly at the jackets to which they would have been affixed to during the war. Union soldiers were issued with a standard service uniform which consisted of a jacket or coat, trousers, and headgear. The jacket was in Prussian blue, but the cut could vary depending on the type of serviceman it was being issued to. For instance, infantry jackets were almost knee length, while those issued to cavalry were shorter to avoid the excessive length hindering the ability to ride. An officer generally wore a double-breasted coat which meant a different arrangement of buttons. Additionally, many officers were issued with a greatcoat to signify their rank. The design of the Confederate button worn on jackets and coats was broadly a similar item to those worn by Union soldiers, but, as noted, they were in grey and were modeled after some of the uniforms of Europe's armies, as the designer of the uniform, Nicola Marshall, was a German who had settled in America in 1849. Incidentally, Marshall also had the highly curious distinction of having designed the first Confederate flag and once having had Abraham Lincoln sit for him to paint his portrait.

Civil War era buttons, or military uniform buttons from the Civil War (1861-1865), were made of metal. They were used to fasten a:

  • Jacket
  • Vest button
  • Cuff
  • Trousers, or other clothes

Cuff buttons were worn on the sleeve, and pocket buttons were worn on the waistband of trousers. Many of these buttons have a shank on them so that they could be sewn onto clothing.

Most Civil War period buttons had an insignia or emblem called a "coat of arms" or "crest," which was molded into or stamped onto the front of the button. A button might include different emblems on the front and back; sometimes, each side would feature a completely different design. Each metal button also had two holes for fastening to clothes, although some uniforms did not use cuff buttons with shanks while other models required them.

Various buttons had seals on them, including:

  • The Great Seal of the United States Army
  • The Virginia State Seal
  • North Carolina State Seal
  • South Carolina State Seal
  • The eagle and anchor insignia of the U.S. Navy

During the Civil War, soldiers typically had two types of uniforms: a service uniform for camp/combat and a dress uniform on special occasions such as inspections or battle reviews.

  • Service Uniform
  • Dress Uniform

Officers typically wore gilt buttons with their uniforms, while enlisted men's buttons were silver-colored or polished iron with no markings. However, Confederate army forces used brass instead of the more expensive metals used by Union troops, so Confederate enlisted men often had brass buttons on their uniforms rather than iron ones like those worn by Union infantrymen. This is why many Civil War artifacts from this period have been found. Typical buttons are made from brass, silver, copper alloys, and other metals. Some are covered in cloth to make them less noticeable by generals who did not want their men wearing too much metal because it could be heard jingling during battle. These buttons are called Trousers Buttons because they were hidden under the trouser flap rather than at the side as most modern blouse-style pants do now. In all major battles, including the infamous capture of New Orleans, buttons were worn on uniforms. An extremely significant turning point in the American Civil War occurred in 1862 when the Mississippi River was captured.

Types of War Buttons

It is interesting to note that a 19th-century Military Uniform button from World War I and World War II varied from civil war buttons. The most obvious is that the modern buttons are made from a slightly heavier-weight metal and do not have any cloth covering them. They were also painted with various color schemes to denote military branches, such as:

  • Infantry
  • Cavalry
  • Ground action
  • Lined Field artillery and even
  • Marksmanship

Revolutionary War buttons have a Phrygian cap on them, a cap worn by freed slaves during the French Revolution. World War I uniform buttons do not have the sharp points on their back as their predecessors did, but rather have a smooth back.

The D Evans Civil War Collection showcases U.S. military uniforms throughout the years, but most notably of the 122 buttons, it contains those worn by soldiers during the Civil War. These uniform buttons have various engraved designs, including eagles, crosses, sprigs of leaves, and more. Van wart and Horstmann Brothers Civil War buttons are also some of the most notable buttons from the time period.

Numbers, Material, Size, and Attachment

The number of buttons used on jackets could vary from unit to unit. For instance, later in the war, the standard Union Prussian blue sack coat had just four brass buttons, but by way of contrast, the 7th New York National Guard Regiment wore a single-breasted shell jacket with a nine-button front to it. On the other side, the standard issue jacket for the Confederates was also single-breasted and generally had between six and nine buttons on the front. Officers would wear more buttons, and major generals and lieutenant generals would typically have up to eighteen buttons on their coats in two rows of groups of three, while brigadier generals had sixteen buttons. Thus, the number of buttons involved in a given uniform was in itself a highly varied thing. When viewed as a whole, the total piece construction of a garment was a tremendous accomplishment.

Because buttons were worn on both jackets and coats and the material involved was of a different thickness, there were buttons of differing sizes issued to US Army soldiers before the war, and they continued to be produced in this manner as the war proceeded. Generally, the larger coat buttons were 23 millimeters in diameter, while a small button worn on jackets and cuffs was 15 millimeters in diameter. Generally, the buttons produced during the American Civil War were made out of cheap brass. Only senior officers would have worn buttons made out of more expensive material. Buttons were convex in shape, with a brass eye or loop at the back for tying or stitching it to the jacket or coat.

Union Buttons

All things being equal and simple, the Union and the Confederate governments would have simply manufactured buttons and buckles which were plain and functional. A simple brass button, for example, which could tie a jacket or a coat and didn't have any design on it, would be an easy thing to make. And surely Lincoln's government had greater concerns in the spring of 1861 than designing ornate buttons with fancy images on them. But in the nineteenth-century military uniforms were far from simple things. They were about the presentation of power and the military might of the nation-state. And in the United States, they were particularly complex because the federal government was composed of 34 states, and each wanted to project its own political statement. Thus, civil war military buttons became a highly complex and political thing themselves, and their myriad designs reflected that.

The most common type of Union buttons were those which bore the image of the US eagle. There were some variations on this to indicate what branch of the Union army the wearer was serving in. For instance, the button worn by infantrymen had a shield in the middle with a capital 'I' for infantry cast within it. Cavalry divisions were issued with the same buttons but with the 'I' replaced by either a 'C' for cavalry or a 'D' for dragoons. Artillery divisions bore an 'A' on the shields of their buttons. Some rare button types had either a capital 'R' or a capital 'V' standing for 'rifleman' and 'voltigeur.' Such buttons were relics that were still in use from the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848 when the Regiment of Voltigeurs and Riflemen was raised in 1847 as a kind of half-infantry and half-cavalry division. The buttons issued to members of the Union navy had an anchor depicted in the center of the US eagle.

Beyond these variations on the US eagle symbol indicating what branch of the armed forces one belonged to, a wide range of other buttons were in use. More often than not, these bore the state seal of individual states such as Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Even relatively young states such as California had their own button with their state seals imprinted onto them. A collector will often look for a nice button to complete their collection. Finding an original button with a unique design is thrilling.

Another particularly curious type of Union button is those which were made from vulcanized rubber and which bore the word 'Goodyear' on them. These were worn by the US navy, for whom brass buttons were susceptible to corrosion from seawater. The stamping of these with the word 'Goodyear' was in recognition of their being made out of the kind of hardened rubber which Charles Goodyear had invented and received a patent for in the 1840s, though he had died in poverty in 1860 before the war began. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company were only founded in 1898 when Frank Seiberling named his own rubber company in honor of Goodyear. Thus, these particular Union buttons have the curious distinction of being a species of 'Goodyear' product that was produced over three decades before the Goodyear Company was ever founded. A Union brass button with an 'I' in the center of the eagle indicates that this was an infantryman's button. All standard infantrymen in the Union army were issued with uniforms with buttons of this kind, and they are amongst the most common American Civil War buttons.

Confederate Buttons

The manner in which the Confederacy manufactured their army buttons mirrored the Union in a great many ways. For instance, many individuals had buttons with the US eagle holding arrows and an olive branch emblazoned on them. Equally, some of these had the same system of using the shield in the center to designate whether these were buttons that were allocated to infantrymen ('I'), cavalry ('C'), or artillery ('A'). However, as with so much else in terms of the material supply of their troops, the Confederacy was not as well placed to supply its armies with such things over the course of a four-year war. Consequently, as the conflict wore on, the Confederate government in Richmond began issuing orders to produce buttons that displayed with the more elaborate design and simply printed a large capital letter onto a brass button. Conversely, some states, such as Virginia, continued to produce more elaborate buttons bearing their state seal throughout the war.

Civil War Buttons Still in Existence

While more than half of all soldiers' belongings were claimed by families after the war had ended for good, many personal items did not survive long enough to be reused or passed down through generations of family members due to more modern conveniences. However, some surviving artifacts provide us with a glimpse into the material culture of soldiers during this time period.

A few American Civil War uniform buttons are still in existence today in beautiful or at least good condition. The buttons were handmade by individual soldiers themselves with sharp detail out of base metal and high-grade metals such as brass or bronze depending on their conditions, ranks, single star, wing, dots, or units. Many buttons were coated in either gold gilt or silver wash to make them look more well-polished and distinctive for officers' uniforms. Waterbury Buttons, made from a base metal called Tombac, were widely used by the Union.

Army because of their low cost and easy availability at the beginning of the war. The Waterbury Button Company produced about four buttons per minute on a newly-invented button-making machine. By 1863, Waterbury Buttons became so popular that they even gained interest from soldiers in the Confederate States and foreign countries such as England and Mexico.

Many collectible buttons are sold with an authenticity disclaimer. These buttons come from various manufacturers, but the Waterbury Button Company is said to have made the most. Displays for collectible buttons can be purchased at historical sites and museums, along with replica edged weapons, bullets, and other memorabilia.

Button size and shape differ, mostly by the era they were manufactured in. Buttons made during the American Revolution were usually brass or pewter, while Civil War buttons are often made out of iron or silver-plated metal. The process that goes into making a button is closely guarded, with owners believing it gives them an edge over other replica manufacturers.

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