Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Interpreting Wiley's Material Culture.

During the Bell Wiley Panel last Saturday afternoon at the Southern, Pete Carmichael posed the interesting question of interpreting the evidence that Wiley had used descriptively. That is, how can historians use the material culture of the soldier - what he ate, what he wore, etc. - to better understand (and in the case of both the park service and the academy, to better teach) the dynamics of wartime life. Earl Hess raised the valuable point of the "battlefield detective" type work that has been done on some Civil War battlefields, but that is, of course, straying from Wiley's methods and sources, therefore being rather out of the spirit. Carmichael was on to something using sources like Wiley's letters and diaries.

I think that material culture has two important interpretative uses. 1) Strategic. As anyone who has been on one of Jim Ogden's staff rides at Chick-Chatt can attest, the materiel of the Confederate soldier is a window into the political economy of the Confederacy, Chattanooga being the gateway into the industrial heartland of the Confederacy. A Johnny writing home about the abundance of goods - and, yes, that happens despite mythology - reveals the extent of the (to quote The Ogden) "Confederate military-industrial complex."

2) Social. What do clothes say about the man? What prewar associations did soldiers make between cloth and status? Is the fact that the Confederacy resorts to the cotton-wool blended jean cloth vice the all-wool uniforms of regulation (and their U.S. counterparts) significant? I think it is, particularly with this army emerging from a southern slave society. How do Confederate soldiers, particularly those from elite backgrounds, react when they are issued uniforms of jean cloth? Is it degrading to wear the material often associated with "jeans wearers," a term antedating "redneck" and "hillbilly"? Is it more degrading when, after hauling off large quantities of jeans from the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, slaveowning Confederates are issued suits of the same goods marketed as "negro cloth" before the war?

This is, also, something I've been playing around with recently. I mentioned a while back poking around on a project on the relationship of the 5th Ky. Inf. to the rest of the Orphan Brigade. That issue of interpreting material culture, using it for more than its purely descriptive, "wonder what it was like..." value. In a paper I'm prepping for the Appalachain Studies Association's meeting in the Spring in Dahlonega, I bring out Kentucky Confederates' association of cloth and class. One brief illustrative point from my paper, my take on an account of the 5th Ky. joining the rest of the Brigade, which by that time was uniformly uniformed in what is now known as the "Columbus Depot" jacket.

"'Say, there backwoods, bawled one [Orphan], 'any more butternut jeans where you
came from?' And such attacks came quick and fast." Such attacks, of
course, associated both class - jeans coats - and space - the backwoods - with
the men of the Fifth Kentucky and as a consequence with the mountains as a whole
without regard to material evidence of the Fifth's actual range of sartorial
class presentations.

Lee, if I remember correctly, has found some similar evidence of disdain for rough jeans from his South Carolinians. Any more we're aware of?


Michael C. Hardy said...

Interesting thought, but we should be careful not to apply these interpretations, particularly about the demoralizing effects of jeans cloth, to a wide swath of the Confederate population, other than to just the “quality folk” of the Deep South. From experience, I know that wearing jeans cloth was the norm in western North Carolina. Considering the thousands of men from this area who joined the Confederate army, the wearing of jeans was not uncommon, and was not associated with the clothes that slaves wore. Except for a very few individuals at the highest levels of society, everyone was wearing it (or linsey-woolsey).

So, how does the common, everyday wearing of jeans cloth translate into other areas of the rural South? What percent of the Southern populace was wearing jeans in 1860? Those questions need to be answered before a serious discussion of the soldier’s views on their clothing can occur.

Patrick Lewis said...

Excellent point. You're perfectly correct there. Though I certainly wasn't trying to apply it to everyone. My examples of the Orphans and the 10th SC most definately deviate from the socioeconomic norm for the Confederacy. They were chosen specifically because of that reason. My research interests are, admittedly, the rich boys.

Patrick Lewis said...

Sorry, Michael. I can't type

Anonymous said...

I do know a little bit about how/where a lot of the cloth was made. Texas Governor Francis R. Lubbock volunteered prison labor at the state penitentiary in Huntsville to make shoes and to weave cloth from cotton and wool.

The raw jeans cloth was then made into uniforms, hats, shirts, jeans, blankets, and tents at clothing plants in both Texas and Louisiana. In 1862, the prison inmates wove more than 1 million yards of cloth, more than all the other clothing plants in the South put together.

The factory was a tremendous operation by Southern standards, but as hard as they worked, the Huntsville prisoners could supply only one-fifteenth of the requisition submitted by the Confederate army.

1862 was the peak of production. After that, machinery began to break down, and there were no machine shops that could make replacement parts. As everyone knows, there was not nearly enough cloth to supply the army.

There's more about this on the Texas State Archives site: http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/exhibits/civilwar/index.html