Uniform distinctions between Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers were many, but the colors of their uniforms became the iconic identifier of Civil War tradition. It was enough to say “blue” and “grey” to connect the two sides in speeches and in stories, but this was not always the case.
Early in the Civil War, as the states seceded, officers and soldiers chose sides, and the United States split completely in two, with many on both sides still wearing Union blue. After all, no one is going to throw away good pants just because they’re the wrong color.
At least, not at the time.
Blue had been the uniform color of the United States Army since the days of the Revolutionary War. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, most Confederate Army troops were still wearing their Federal uniforms, dyed Union blue. The US military was not about to change, but the confusion on the battlefield caused by the uniform meant that the south had to make a change.
Even as the Battle of Bull Run marked the beginning of a long and bloody conflict, Confederate soldiers wore a hodgepodge of different uniforms. Some were provided by the Confederate government, others by their respective states. A kind of uniformity had to be introduced.
After the Mexican–American War, the U.S. Army considered adopting a bluish-gray cotton uniform to replace the standard blue wool uniform in hot weather. As the army could not afford these uniforms, the idea was dropped.
Local militias in the south, however, were responsible for procuring their own uniforms and adopted the proposed blue-gray cotton uniform because gray dye was plentiful in the south and cotton was king. The use of the hot weather uniform almost became a political statement of support for the south and supported southern states economically.
When the need arose to distinguish between the two sides (so they could stop killing friendly soldiers and shoot the real enemy), the north retained their blue uniform while the south fully adopted the gray cotton version. It made sense, economically and strategically.
Many other colors used on U.S. Army uniforms were also adopted for Confederate uniforms. This includes color differences in the facings and trimmings of their coats. Union uniforms featured red trim for artillery, blue for infantry, and yellow for cavalry troops. As southern military tradition originated with the United States Army, Confederate uniforms also adopted these colors and meanings.
As the war continued and the Union’s grip on southern material imports and production tightened, gray dye also became scarce. Confederate uniforms began to take on another color, musk brown. Southern musk trees had been used as a dye since Cherokee times and homemade Confederate uniforms were sometimes dyed this color, especially when they began to be made in southern homes. The light brown hue became so prevalent towards the end of the war that rebel soldiers began to be referred to as “butternuts”.
Despite the lack of gray towards the end, Confederate Army gray became the distinctive color of the Rebel forces through most of the Civil War. Blue stealing Gray is the image that has endured over the decades, as iconic as the idea of brother fighting brother.