The Union Soldier
Gettysburg National Military Park Kidzpage


Union soldiers of the 110th Pennsylvania
Miller's Photographic History
The typical Union soldier had been a farmer before the war who volunteered to defend his home and put down the rebellion of the Southern states. Like his Confederate enemies, he probably enlisted for the excitement of leaving the farm for a war that most believed would last only three months, but he also had patriotic reasons. Most Northern soldiers believed very strongly in the Federal government and despised the unjust accusations of southern politicians and secessionists. The departure of the southern states was a rebellion, and the Confederacy had to brought back into the Union whether they liked it or not! Most of the first volunteers were twenty years old and older, though there were others who were considerably younger. Most northern states required a man to be 18 years old to stand in the ranks with a musket; yet some teenagers lied about their ages and got into the ranks anyway. As the need for manpower grew, teenage boys were accepted as musicians and older men were enrolled as quartermaster assistants, surgeons, and officers. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the average age of a Union soldier in the rank and file was 24 though there were also quite a number of older soldiers, including many in their mid-forties.

Dirty Billy's 1858 Forage Cap
"Forage Cap"
The Union uniform was standardized by War Department orders after the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861. In that battle some Union regiments fought in gray uniforms given them by their home states, while several southern regiments wore blue uniforms. No one could tell exactly who was on what side! Clothing and equipment was supplied by state warehouses at first, but then the Federal government took over the duty of supplying uniforms, arms, food, and equipment. By the second year of the war, almost every Union soldier in a regiment wore the same uniform and carried the same equipment. Overall, the Union soldier was very well equipped and uniformed especially when compared to his Confederate counterpart. He also had an advantage if equipment or clothing wore out, because it could be easily replaced.

Army blouse
Union soldiers wore a wool uniform that included the fatigue blouse, a light-weight wool coat with an inside pocket and four brass buttons on the front. Blouses were usually made with a wool flannel lining for added warmth. This coat was meant to be worn when the soldier was doing chores such as chopping wood or other duties, but many soldiers wore them all of the time because of their comfort. This lightweight coat was worn by officers as well, though officers had most of their uniforms specially made for them by professional tailors. Federal issue trousers were made of light blue wool, which was very durable. The cap that most Union soldiers wore was called the forage cap. It was made of wool broadcloth with a rounded, flat top, cotton lining, and leather visor. The men would sew their corps badge and attach brass numbers that specified their regiment to the top of the cap. The corps badge was a small flannel cloth badge cut into different shapes and were either red, white, or blue. The army shirt the soldiers received was made of wool flannel. It proved to be very hot to wear and so itchy that most men discarded it, preferring to wear cotton shirts and underwear sent from home.

Army Shoes
The army shoes or bootees were made of thick, blackened leather with heavy leather soles and heels tacked together with wooden pegs or stitched with thick thread. Some of the first massed produced leather shoes made specifically for the right and left foot, Union-made shoes were of excellent quality, and would last as long as the soldier took care of them. It was a common practice for soldiers to have small iron horse shoes nailed to the leather soles and heels to make the shoes last longer and give the wearer traction on loose soil and pasture land. As for tall leather boots, the Federal army only authorized boots for Union artillerymen who drove the artillery limbers and caissons. Some Union cavalrymen obtained these boots, but they were difficult to come by and very expensive to produce. Sutlers (merchants who followed the army), charged high prices for commercially made boots. Usually, officers were the only ones who could afford to purchase good marching boots.

US cartridge box
Cartridge Box & sling
Every infantryman wore a belt set that included a cartridge box and sling, cap box, and bayonet scabbard. The belt was made of thick, black leather and closed at the waist with a large brass buckle with a "US" on the front. There was a similar brass plate with "US" stamped on it placed on the cartridge box that hung on the soldier's right hip. This leather box held forty cartridges, a paper tube filled with a minie ball and black powder. Cartridges were issued in small packages, each containing ten rounds. The cartridge box was the safest way to carry the explosive cartridges, kept in order in the box by means of removable liners made of tin. Each cartridge box also had a small pouch that held musket tools and cleaning patches. Union soldiers were usually given sixty to eighty rounds of ammunition to carry when they were on a campaign. What could not be fit into the cartridge box was often carried in the soldier's pockets or knapsack. The cap box, a small leather pouch worn on the front of the belt, was for the percussion caps. These were also very explosive and great care had to be taken when handling them. The scabbard for the bayonet hung on the soldier's left hip. Also made of black leather, the scabbard had a loop at the top that fit over the belt. The end of the leather tube had a brass tip.

Union cavalrymen also wore a belt set designed to accommodate equipment used by the mounted soldier. The cavalry belt included a cartridge box for carbine cartridges, a cap box, pistol holster, and had special straps and hooks that clipped onto the cavalry saber. Artillerymen usually did not wear belt sets of equipment except for special ceremonies or if they were in special units called heavy artillery regiments. Many heavy artillery regiments served as infantrymen in the latter part of the war.

Union Knapsack
Union Haversack
Union soldiers carried their personal belongings in a knapsack. This was made of cotton cloth or canvas that was painted black to repel water, with leather straps and bcukles to close it and leather shoulder straps to carry it on the back. It was called the "soldier's trunk" and was large enough to hold a soldier's extra clothing, personal items, a gum blanket and shelter half (or "dog tent"). Straps on the top of the knapsack were used to tie on a rolled-up blanket or overcoat. Union soldiers were also issued a haversack, made of painted canvas that was to be used to carry food or rations. Inside the haversack was a detachable cotton bag that could be removed and washed. Haversacks were worn over the shoulder and became a handy device to carry not only pork, hardtack, and coffee, but personal items and extra packages of ammunition as well. As one can imagine, these became foul-smelling and saturated with grease after several weeks of carrying salt pork and other food stuffs, but it could be easily washed and cleaned or replaced. It was superior to haversacks made in the South and Confederates prized them if they captured one.

Union canteen
The Union soldier's canteen was also superior to most Confederate-made canteens. The body of the canteen was made of two pieces of tin with a pewter spout and cork. The body of the canteen was covered with a cotton and wool cloth which, when wet, would help keep the water cool. The first canteens proved to be easily dented, and improvements were made to strengthen the canteen sides so that it could not be easily crushed or dented. A leather or cloth strap looped around the canteen so that it could be carried over the shoulder. The canteen and haversack were important to carry water and food, but soldiers also needed items to cook and serve their rations. Every soldier would also carry a strong tin cup or boiler for their coffee, a metal plate, knife, fork, and spoon. Some men carried small frying pans or one-half of an old canteen for cooking their rations of salt pork and hardtack.

Heavy marching order
Light marching order
As you can imagine, all of this equipment weighed quite a lot with a full cartridge box, three days worth of rations, rifle, and extra clothing packed on the soldier's back- somewhere between forty-five and fifty pounds. New soldiers quickly learned what was necessary for them to carry and what was less important. Campaigns in the early spring always began with full knapsacks, but the roads were soon littered with overcoats, blankets, extra clothing, and shelter tents that had been tossed aside to lighten the load. Wagons from the Quartermaster Department always followed the line of march and scooped up the discarded items, which would be cleaned and re-issued when needed. Often troops were ordered to move in "light marching order" like the soldier at right, which meant that knapsacks were left behind in wagons. The men would wrap their blankets and gum blankets into a roll, tied at one end and slung over the shoulder. Inside each "horse collar" was a collection of the man's personal items such as writing paper and pen, toothbrush,tooth powder, comb, soap, and perhaps a small mirror.

Even though the War Department ordered that all Union soldiers be dressed alike after Bull Run, there were some exceptions. Some Union volunteer regiments were raised as zouave regiments and wore a colorful uniform based on a style of uniform worn by French troops in North Africa and the Mediterranean. They were very different from the regular Union uniforms and often featured red trousers and red fez caps with a large yellow tassel. One would think that these uniforms would be gladly discarded by most regiments, but there were zouave regiments dressed in this attire throughout the war such as the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry. This was a zouave regiment that retained the distinctive uniform throughout their service. There were even some regiments in the Army of the Potomac than began their service in the regular Union uniform, but then switched to zouave uniforms in 1864.

Apart from the zouave regiments, there were other distinctive units in the Army of the Potomac. One was the "Iron Brigade" composed of regiments from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. They were tough fighters and won their reputation for fighting "like iron" in 1862 during the Battle of Second Bull Run. The "Excelsior Brigade" was a special brigade composed of New York regiments that adopted the state motto "excelsior" for their slogan. The Excelsior Brigade fought at Gettysburg on July 2. There was also the "Irish Brigade", which was made up of regiments from New York City, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Irishmen, either born in New York or recent immigrants, filled the ranks of the three New York regiments in the brigade. Likewise, the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania were also composed of soldiers who had immigrated to America in the 1850's. And from Pennsylvania came the "Philadelphia Brigade", made up of regiments raised in the city of Philadelphia. The 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry of this brigade was filled with former firemen from the city and surrounding towns.

Confederates had a number of nicknames for the Union soldiers, but the most popular one was "Yankee" or "Yank".


Army of the Potomac
fatigue blouse
forage cap
cartridge box
cap box
dog tent
Quartermaster Department
Iron Brigade


Gettysburg Kidz Page

National Park Service
Gettysburg National Military Park
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Gettysburg, PA 17325



John Heiser
Gettysburg National Military Park
March 2000