Choosing the Proper Sack
For the period our unit portrays, a sack coat is one of the first purchases that “fresh fish” should consider. When the unit came off furlough in early 1864 the sack coat would have been one of the first items issued to the new recruits and re-enlisting veterans.
When you go to a sack coat many things must be considered. First, the proper name of the sack coat is the, “Fatigue Blouse” so don’t get confused by the name. Next, think about how much money you want (or able) to spend. Sack coats start at about $50.00 and can cost as much as $400.00. The coats at the lower price are fine to use and will pass muster without a problem. The $400.00 sack coat is very historically accurate in the form of construction and material. But, who of us can afford to spend $400.00 on one coat.
Next, we need to look at construction and materials. Patrick Brown who wrote the book, “For Fatigue Purposes” states that most of the reproduction sack coats made are too well tailored. The seams are straight and the fit is perfect. Original garments were made quickly by overworked, and under paid seamstresses trying to support a family. The seamstresses were only paid on average $.20-$.45 per coat. Even in the 1860s these were very low wages. So, for a person to make a living and support her family she would have to work 12-16 hours per day, and make as many coats as possible. With this in mind, the coats were not made to high quality, tailored standards. The material to be used was an Indigo dyed flannel of 5.5 oz per yard. The material also had a “raised wale.” This is the zig-zag pattern you see in the material. Button holes were hand sewn. The machine to sew button holes was not produced until after the war. The thread to be used was to be Indigo dyed, much of the thread was, but many contractors also used cheap logwood dyed thread. The logwood dye fades when exposed to the elements. This is why you see many original sack coats with brown thread topstitching.
Shades of color varied widely on original coats. The Indigo dye used was very subject to temperature, humidity, water quality, impurities in the dye, ph of the dye, and the age of the dye. With this in mind, the sack coats were very different in shade from light to dark. Many of the reproduction sack coats are a navy blue rather than a dark blue as were the originals. Sack coats have been found, and documentation located that shows some sack coats dyed with cheap logwood dye. At inspection the coats past, but after 3-4 weeks in the field the coats would turn a dirty brown color. Today you don’t have to worry about that, logwood dye is expensive (modern times) and most vendors won’t deal with it unless you pay a great sum of money.
Lining is a question that comes up. Lines vs Unlined???? Which is historically accurate???? BOTH!!!! Quartermaster specifications called for lined sack coats but, over 1 million coats were made during the war without lining. Also, when the weather got warm soldiers would remove the linings to make a lighter coat. Linings were made from cotton flannel, wool flannel, jean cloth, polished cotton, domet flannel, and other fabrics available during the Civil War. You may notice that vendors sell unlined coats for more money than lined coats. The reason for this is that the seams in an unlined coat must be flat felled and not left raw. Flat felled seams take much more labor.
Now, on to sizes. The army during the civil war had 4 sizes. Labeled with dots and block numerals on the sleeve lining, 1, 2, 3, and 4. The largest size 4 had a chest of 42 inches. Most soldiers of the period described the army sizing system as only 2 sizes, “TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL!!!” Sack coats were bundled together with 150 being in a bundle. In this bundle there would be more size 2 and 3 than 1 and 4. Modern research has shown that sizes for boys also existed as well as larger than size 4. Most of us will not fit into issue sizes.
Sleeves were made with a triangular vent at the base of the cuff. If a sleeve is too long it is perfectly acceptable to roll them up.
Contractor vs. Arsenal coats. The arsenal system could not keep up with demand during the war, thus contracts were sent out. Numerous contractors made sack coats during the war. Schyulkill Arsenal was the only arsenal at the beginning of the war that manufactured sack coats. Many of the highest quality vendors make sack coats based on contractor sack coats. The reason for this is that the contractors were clothing manufacturers with sweat shops and sewing machines for the seamstresses. Thus, coats were made mostly machine sewn. Hand sewing was more prominent with the surviving arsenal made coats. It is believed that machine sewn arsenal sack coats were made during the war but no examples exist today. Machine sewn reproductions can be made cheaper, and faster, but historically accurate. A reproduction Schyulkill Arsenal sack coat, 100% hand sewn will coat as much as $400.00. Arsenal coats as well as contractor coats were seen in all theaters of the war after mid 1862.
Vendors that are acceptable for muster:
The above vendors sell their coats for $50-$90.00.
Vendors that make the highest quality, most historically accurate coats:
These coats are between $150-$400.00. In order to get the “most bang for the buck” you might want to purchase your sack coat from one of the acceptable vendors rather than the highest quality vendors. All vendors listed have websites that can be found using search engines. Also, you can contact me though e-mail for specific sites.
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