Early Uniform Study of the Chicago Light Artillery

    In April 1861, in spite of gathering war clouds, the Chicago militia was a paper organization of under strength, poorly equipped, and ununiformed companies. Even the Famed Ellsworth Zouaves had fallen into a state of disorganization after their tour of 1860 and had disbanded. Comparatively speaking, the city's senior military company, the Chicago Light Artillery of the 60th Regiment, I.S.M. was described by a chronicler as the one company that "had both men and arms fit for immediate service. Four brass six-pounders, with caissons and harness complete, all in excellent order." In spite of this positive evaluation, the unit had only fifty men enrolled and, like their infantry brethren, they were without appropriate clothing for active service.

    On 19 April 1861, Gen. R. K. Swift, of the Illinois State Militia, was ordered by Governor Yates to immediately organize and equip an expeditionary force to secure the strategic town of Cairo at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  With amazing alacrity, Swift and his agents undertook the task of arming and clothing the enthusiastic Chicago volunteers.  Weapons were gleaned from pawn shops and hardware stores; the city was swept for belts, holsters, and powder flasks; and the dry goods merchants were visited for blankets, socks, and flannel shirts.

    On Sunday, April 21st, the expedition was ready to move. The new soldiers were marched to the depot through a cheering throng. Some uniforms from some prior service were to be seen here and there among the volunteers but, as one participant recalled, "We all wore our usual clothing, the only attempt at uniformity being that we had a red blanket rolled up and passed over the left shoulder."

    Cairo was reached and seized without incident and the Chicago Light Artillery was charged with controlling traffic on the river. On  April  24th, as the steamboat Baltic, heading south from St. Louis, attempted to run the Federal position, Lt. John R. Botsford put a shot across her bow and forced her to shore. As Chicagoans were to subsequently boast, "The first shot fired in the West for the Union was a Chicago shot, from a Chicago cannon, trained by a Chicago boy of the Chicago Light Artillery."

    The lineage of the Chicago Light Artillery dates from 1847, when R. K. Swift organized the Company of Chicago Hussars & Light Artillery that he uniformed and equipped at his own expense. Reorganized in 1854, the company was also known as the Dearborn Light Artillery. The first reference to uniforms is encountered on the 1859 color lithographed sheet music cover, "The Northwestern Railway Polka". This print features two military figures: a Zouave Cadet and a fashionably wasp waisted gunner of the Chicago Light Artillery. The artilleryman's uniform is in conformity to U.S. regulations of the day. Dark Blue frock coat and pants trimmed in red.

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    When the Cairo expedition was mounted, the Chicago gunners adopted a simple, serviceable navy-like dress. Photographs taken in the Cairo district of the Chicago Light Artillery  in the early months show both men and officers in gray or light blue over shirts and heavy darker gray trousers. The ubiquitous Havelock appeared as spring turned to scorching summer. Distinctions of rank, other than the carrying of swords, are difficult to discern in the photographs. The officer (figure with the sword) is wearing a kepi provided by the Confederacy.   Several steamboats captured by the Illinois boys were carrying consignments of military caps intended for rebel soldiers that were triumphantly appropriated and worn by the Chicagoans.

 

    In the late summer of 1861, a natty uniform provided by the citizens of Chicago was finally received by the men.   Pvt. Jeremiah Sherman of Battery "A" has a ledger entry that  states, "Received my uniform of artillery close [sic] which are a grey suit throuht [sic] except the red trimmings:''  Enoch Colby wrote to his family, "It consists of one pair of gray pants, lined all wool and of good material, also a coat out of the same trimmed with red.  A cap of the same cut after the souave [sic] pattern. It is a gay looking uniform and when our company's out on dress parade, they make a splendid appearance. Our overcoats will be of heavy blue with a cape and will come down almost to the ankle."  A full length portrait of William Pitt Follansbee, reproduced in Kimball's "History of Battery A", corroborates these descriptions and provides details of the cap insignia and the Brandenburg cuff of the jacket. It is difficult to determine how long this gray uniform was worn. Kimball states that "the boys (of battery "A") received their first regulation uniforms at Paducah, December 22,1861. However, Jeremiah Sherman, in recounting his experiences at Shiloh , describes looting an abandoned sutler's tent: "I stuffed my artillery jacket, grey uniform jacket full of wrighting [sic] paper." Certainly, by mid 1862, the Chicago artillerymen were provided with the regulation blue and red trimmed jackets that they wore for the remainder of their service.

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 *This article is based on the information provided with Plate # 785 by the Company of Military Historians.  Written by James J. Hennessey