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County historians hear about Civil War uniforms, weapons

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MASSENA - A mannequin named Melvin served as the focal point for a presentation on Civil War uniforms during a St. Lawrence County historians spring roundtable Friday morning in Massena.

As historians from throughout the county gathered at Emmanuel Congregational United Church of Christ, Terry Collette, Massena, explained Melvin’s uniform and the different pieces of gear he was toting, the same as the soldiers who fought in the Civil War more than 150 years ago would have carried.

Errol McLean, Louisville, was also on hand to talk about the various rifles and pistols that were used during the war.

Northern New York played a role in the Civil War, St. Lawrence County Historian Trent Trulock said.

“Probably over 7,000 men from St. Lawrence County signed up for the Union cause,” he said, noting that even though fighting didn’t occur in this area, families were still affected by those who went off to battle and those who returned from the war.

It wasn’t easy being a soldier in those days, according to Mr. Collette, a former Civil War reenactor and member of Forsythe’s Rifles, Ogdensburg. The uniforms were heavy, the blankets were thin, the crackers the soldiers received as part of their rations were hard as a rock and had to be softened.

Mr. Collette said there were 14,000 enlisted soldiers when the war began and, by the time it ended, 2.2 million men has served the Union Army.

Uniforms were a hodgepodge in the early days of the war, he said.

“Uniforms were anything but uniform,” Mr. Collette said.

But as the war progressed, they began supply the soldiers with their uniforms.

Until then, he said, soldiers obtained uniforms from wherever they could find them.

Some contractors who Mr. Collette called “less honest” got into the uniform business, but produced outfits using lower grade wool and which were put together with a little bit of glue. The cheap uniform cloth was called shoddy, literally unraveling on the wearer’s back.

“When it rained, the glue came undone” and the uniforms started to fall apart, he said.

“That’s where the term shoddy came from. As the war progressed, the uniforms got better,” he said.

Caps that the soldiers eventually wore were known to them as bummers. They were “useless,” according to Mr. Collette, not protecting the soldiers from either the sun or the rain.

“Early in the war you wouldn’t have seen anything for hats,” he said.

Soldiers didn’t travel light. A knapsack they wore when moving from place to place carried a number of items.

“You’re talking pretty heavy,” Mr. Collette said.

In Melvin’s case, he had a rolled gray blanket with a black stripe that sat atop his knapsack. Early in the war those blankets were thin and of poor quality, he said.

Opening up the knapsack might find several items, such as a poncho and a shelter half. Each soldier carried a shelter half and, when partnered with someone, they could put their two pieces together to form a tent.

The main problem they faced, Mr. Collette said, is that the average tent was about 5 feet, 6 inches and the average soldier stood about 5 feet ,7 inches. That’s when ponchos came in handy, to extend the length of the tent.

The knapsack might also contain items like a spare shirt, piece of rope, playing cards, a pack containing thread and needles, wool socks, a wooden comb and toothbrush.

Besides the knapsack, soldiers would also carry a canteen that was initially made out of tin and bent very easily. A cup was generally attached to a haversack, which contained two or three compartments for the assortment of rations the soldiers received. He said they were issued three days of rations.

The haversack might also contain a tin plate, matches inside a container and an eating utensil that was a fork on one end and a spoon on the other.

Other packs worn by the soldiers contained their ammunition, as well as small tools that might be necessary when in the field.

Inside their uniform coat was a space where soldiers could place their wallet. A private earned $13 a month, while a lieutenant general’s monthly salary was $749, Mr. Collette said.

For those interested in learning more about the Civil War, the St. Lawrence County Historical Association will hold its annual Civil War reenactment weekend July 27-28 at Robert Moses State Park, Massena.

The Civil War weekend began 12 years ago was a way of making history more accessible than a lecture or textbook. Attendees are able to wander through a tent city, talk to reenactors about the practices of the day, read newspaper clippings describing the fate of Civil War units from the north country and, for the children, play with toys and games from the Victorian era.

Both days are highlighted by a reenactment of a Civil War battle.

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