The Mysterious Confederate Four-Button Jacket
by John Stillwagon
In the summer of 1864, Corporal Thomas Vaden Brooke of the 3rd Company of the Richmond Howitzers was issued an odd and interesting jacket.1 Like many Confederate garments, we know very little about the garment's origins. However, the fact that there are at least five extant examples would appear to indicate fairly widespread usage. In the interest of improving our Confederate impressions, this survey will attempt to identify and describe the surviving examples and to draw some conclusions about their use.
There are five known examples of this pattern. One resides in each of the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy, the Smithsonian Institution, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Ross County Historical Society. The fifth is in a private collection and its whereabouts are unknown to the author.
The five extant originals are all of jean (though of differing weaves) and vary in color from light tan to a medium brown. All have four buttons, a four-piece body, one-piece sleeves, and an exterior pocket on the left side. Due to their four-button fronts and a cosmetic similarity to the Federal fatigue blouse when photographed laying flat (Fig. 1), these jackets are frequently misidentified as "sack coats." As one would expect from Confederate garments, details like collar shape, sleeve shape and construction details vary somewhat from jacket to jacket.
According to Leslie D. Jensen, the four jackets in public collections all have histories linking them to the Richmond area.2 He continues, "They do not appear to be Richmond (Depot) production, however, they may be products from an unknown depot sent to Richmond for distribution."3 It has also been suggested that these may be the product of a local aid society or are slave garments pressed into military service.
The first, and best known, of these garments is the aforementioned jacket of T.V. Brooke. (Fig. 2) A Catalog of Uniforms, of the Museum of the Confederacy describes the jacket thusly:
"Sack coat: single breasted, 4 button front, light brown (probably undyed) wool jean cloth with black collar facing, no sleeve facings or piping, unbleached cotton osnaburg lining in body and sleeves, no insignia, brown composition buttons. Outside pocket on left side."4
According to Jensen, Brooke was issued this jacket from the QM Department in Richmond in the summer of 1864 and wore it to Appomattox and home from the war.5
Jacket #2 (Fig. 3) currently resides in Ohio at the Ross County Historical Society. It is made of light tan tabby weave jean (also possibly undyed) but the lining is a finer cotton than is evidenced on the other jackets. Its collar is similar to jacket #1 in that the upper points nearly come together when buttoned. Finally, it retains two buttons, one a Louisiana state seal (Fig. 4) and the other a Federal "Eagle I." (Fig. 5)
The history attributed to this jacket is quite interesting and not without debate. According to Museum Director Tom Kuhn, the jacket was supposedly obtained by Nelson Purdum of Co. H, 33rd OVI while incarcerated at Libby Prison. He had been captured at Chickamauga and acquired this jacket while in prison and, while disguised as one of the guards, used it to escape.
Purdum's papers survive in the collection of the Ohio Historical Society and include a document recounting the tale of the escape. Interestingly, Purdum wrote this account in third person and refers to himself as, "the corporal." According to the Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio, Purdum (also listed as Purdem and Perdum in various sources) was a private until his promotion to Corporal on January 1, 1864.6 However, the service record on file for him at the National Archives is in conflict with this listing him as a Corporal well before Chickamauga.
According to his own account, Purdum arrived at Libby from Belle Isle in early October of 1863. He immediately set to work trying to escape and by November, had procured Confederate uniforms for himself and a comrade. They made a successful escape through to Union lines by using the uniforms of which jacket #2 was presumably a part. Interestingly, regarding the acquisition of these uniforms, Purdum says only, "The Confederate uniforms were obtained, by which means does not appear."7
It is interesting in itself that Purdum was ever a prisoner at Libby since it was a prison for officers at the time of his capture. The September 26, 1863 edition of the Richmond Sentinel states that 600-700 commissioned officers were imprisoned at Libby at that time.8 Further, a Confederate report from Major Isaac Carrington to General Winder states Libby Prison contained 1,044 inmates, "all commissioned officers" as of November 21, 1863.9 Since this covers the period Purdum was reportedly at Libby, why was a Private/Corporal imprisoned there?
Purdum's own service record makes us question his credibility further. The company roster drawn up after Chickamauga lists him as "Absent, supposed to be a prisoner of war." His regimental surgeon's report listed him as "missing" but mentions seeing him in the battle. His record goes on to state that he escaped from Richmond on November 9, 1863 which conforms to his own account.
Surprisingly, Purdum was also listed as captured at Bentonville on March 19, 1865 but again promptly escaped on the 23rd. Purdum seems to have an "unlucky" habit of being captured early in a battle and escaping very soon after.
Getting back to the jacket itself, the Louisiana button is of interest in that no reference can be found to Louisiana troops acting as guards at Libby at this time. Purdum mentions the 19th Virginia Battalion and other sources mention the 25th Virginia Battalion (Richmond City Battalion) and the 32nd NC Regiment being at the prison in October-November 1863.
So, if we take Purdum's story at face value and overlook his assertion being an enlisted man in a prison for officers, his company's doubts regarding his actual whereabouts at the time of his "capture," and the other questionable details of his story, jacket #2 can be tentatively dated to October-November 1863.
Jacket # 3 (Fig. 6) currently resides in the collection of Gettysburg National Military Park. It conforms to the basic pattern of these jackets and is made of brownish jean and lined with osnaburg. However, the weave of the jean is quite different from the other examples and its collar is somewhat lower and more angled.
Little is known of this jacket's provenance but its cloth-covered buttons could suggest a soldier's attempt to conform to post-war laws forbidding the display of Confederate symbols. If this hypothesis is correct, it could suggest a late-war issue and post-war usage similar to jacket #1. Finally, Jensen asserts that this jacket has a connection to the Richmond area.10
Jacket #4 currently resides in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. It is not currently on display and the author was unable to secure much information other than it is a tan/brown jean of a slightly different weave from the other examples and otherwise conforms to the basic pattern.
Like jacket #3, little is known of this jacket's provenance other than Jensen's assertion that it has a connection to Richmond.11
Jacket #5 (Fig. 7) currently resides in a private collection. Fortunately, the author was able to procure several excellent photographs of this garment. As one would expect, it conforms to the basic pattern and materials we have seen in the other jackets. It's collar (Fig.
is very much like those of jackets #1 and #2 but it appears to be of a slightly darker brown jeans. Interestingly, it is closed with four Virginia state seal buttons. (Fig. 9)
Nothing is known of this jacket's provenance but the buttons certainly point to Virginia usage or possible post-war usage by a Virginian.
All five examples have some connection to Virginia and four have a connection to the Richmond area.
Jacket #1- Issued by the Richmond QM
Jacket #2- Libby Prison (though some questions exist.)
Jacket #3- Jensen
Jacket #4- Jensen
Jacket #5- Virginia buttons
Jacket #2 points to possible Louisiana usage via one of its remaining buttons.
Clues to dates of usage.
Jacket #1 is positively dated to the summer of 1864.
Jacket #2 is tentatively dated to October-November 1863.
Jacket #3 is possibly a late-war jacket with post-war usage as is suggested by its cloth-covered buttons.
Applying what Jensen refers to as the "last uniform rule" strongly suggests late-war usage.
The source of manufacture of these jackets is unknown but at least one was issued through the government quartermaster in Richmond.
For our purposes as living historians, the scant facts surrounding these jackets raise many questions and provide few answers. The only firm date points to late-war usage and secondary evidence appears to support this. While these jackets may have been in use as early as October 1863, as possibly indicated by jacket #2, are there not better safer choices for our impressions? I would recommend that SGLHA members only wear this garment for events portraying Richmond-area service at a date of October 1863 or later. Anything earlier or in other theaters is guesswork at best and is beneath the standards of the SGLHA.
Special thanks to Joe Loehle, David Chinnis, Neal Sexton, Chuck Sprowls, Chas. R. Childs, and Frederick C. Gaede for their generous assistance in this project.
1 A Catalogue of Uniforms In the Collection of the Museum of the Confederacy. Leslie D. Jensen, Museum of the Confederacy, 2000, p. 13.
5 Ibid, p. 14.
6 Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio
7 Nelson Purdum Papers. Nelson Purdum. Ohio Historical Society. Columbus. Ohio
8 "Libby Prison", Richmond Sentinel, 9/26/1863
9 O.R.--SERIES II--VOLUME VI [S# 119] UNION AND CONFEDERATE CORRESPONDENCE, ORDERS, ETC., RELATING TO PRISONERS OF WAR AND STATE FROM JUNE 11, 1863, TO MARCH 31, 1864.--#22