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County historians hear about Civil War uniforms, weapons


MASSENA — A mannequin named Melvin was the focal point for a presentation on Civil War uniforms during a St. Lawrence County historians spring roundtable Friday morning.

As historians from throughout the county gathered at Emmanuel Congregational United Church of Christ, Terry J. Collette, Massena, explained Melvin’s uniform and the 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 A. 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 still were affected by it.

It wasn’t easy being a soldier in those days, according to Mr. Collette, a former Civil War re-enactor 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 had served in the Union Army.

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

But as the war progressed, the army began to supply the soldiers with uniforms.

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

Some contractors whom Mr. Collette called “less honest” got into the uniform business, but produced outfits using lower grade wool and 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,” Mr. Collette said, not protecting the soldiers from either the sun or the rain.

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

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, one 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.

Other packs worn by the soldiers contained their ammunition, as well as small tools that might be necessary 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 about $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 re-enactment weekend July 27 and 28 at Robert Moses State Park.

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