In the study of Civil War equipment, survivability sometimes determines how common certain items are believed to have been. For example, for a long time Confederate belt buckles were classified based on the types recognized as such by their finders. Literature on the subject therefore focused entirely on brass plate and frame buckles, items with monetary value coveted by relic hunters. Records and photographs, however, clearly show the commonality of simple roller buckles in addition to these types; buckles that when found today are little more than rusted iron worth a few dollars at best, and seldom recognized for what they are. Have buttons been subject to similar bias, obscuring the commonality of certain types?
The Richmond furniture and carpentry firm of John & George Gibson did substantial business with the Confederate government throughout the war. The company produced furnishings for the offices of the Quartermaster’s Department, planking for the defensive batteries around Richmond, hospital beds, coffins, carbine stocks, and barrack buildings, among other things. In the fall of 1862 they approached the government with a new proposal: John & George Gibson would provide the Quartermaster’s Department with wooden buttons for uniforms. Such buttons would mean a substantial savings to the government over the manufacture and importation of metal buttons. Their proposal was accepted, and on October 17, 1862, a contract was signed between the Gibsons and Maj. Waller of the Richmond Clothing Depot, promising delivery of 6,000 gross (1 gross = 12 dozen = 144) wooden buttons, to be delivered before January 20, 1863.1
These buttons would be produced in three sizes: large (also referred to as “coat size”), medium (also referred to as “pant size”), and small (also referred to as “shirt size”).
The contract was clearly filled to the government’s satisfaction, because a second contract was signed on March 2, 1863 for the manufacture of 20,000 gross buttons. This was followed by a third for 10,000 gross on June 19th, and on December 11, 1863 by a fourth and perhaps final contract for another 50,000 gross buttons. The last recorded delivery of buttons was on January 21, 1865. This may indicate that a fifth contract was agreed upon, or it may be that the fourth contract was so large that it took more than a year to fulfill. Adding up the number of buttons delivered under the four extant contracts yields some staggering numbers. In the approximately two years worth of deliveries covered by the contracts, the following amount of buttons were supplied:
Large (coat) size: 27,000 gross = 3,888,000 buttons
Medium (pant) size: 29,500 gross = 4,248,000 buttons
Small (shirt) size: 29,500 gross = 4,248,000 buttons
In theory, that is enough coat buttons for more than 353,000 Richmond Depot jackets, at 11 buttons per jacket. It is enough pant buttons for more than 386,000 pairs of pants, at 11 buttons per pair. And it is enough shirt buttons for a much larger number of shirts and drawers, which required fewer buttons.
According to Maj. Waller’s April 1863 projections (described elsewhere on this site), the Richmond Depot was set to produce approximately 210,000 jackets and 270,000 pairs of pants in the coming year. That means that over the period of the contracts, from the end of 1862 to the start of 1865, the Depot may have produced about 420,000 jackets and 540,000 pairs of pants. This is a very rough estimate based on limited evidence, but may be supported by the surviving statement showing that Lee’s army was issued about 104,000 jackets and 170,000 pairs of pants over a seven month period in 1864-65.2 The implication of this is that the Depot received enough wooden Gibson buttons to outfit most of its garments. It is possible some were dispatched to other depots, or used on the shelter halves the Depot apparently began to produce in the closing months of the war, but the bulk must have been used for their intended purpose.
Now that we have the evidence that John & George Gibson supplied the Richmond Depot with a massive quantity of buttons, can we identify these buttons in photographs and on original garments?
The details above show a Confederate who fell on the Rose Farm at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Several of the men in this group of bodies have what appear to be recessed-center wooden buttons on both the front and shoulder tabs of their Richmond Depot pattern jackets. Note that these buttons appear somewhat smaller and flatter than the deep, two-hole wooden buttons seen on some Deep South uniforms.
This photo shows Pvt. James B. Wooten of the 27th North Carolina Infantry, sometime near the end of 1863. Note the strong similarity in both size and shape between his buttons and those of the fallen Confederate in the previous images.
On a side note, Wooten's jacket is believed to be part of a batch of blue-gray English kersey uniforms received by his regiment around the time the photo was taken. The shade and texture of the material bears a striking resemblance to the jacket of the dead soldier above. Are the jackets of the Rose Farm dead of the same material?3
(Mast, State Troops and Volunteers)
Pvt. John Gray of the 12th Virginia Infantry was captured at Boydton Plank Road outside Petersburg in October 1864, and had his photo taken afterward by the Army Medical Museum to document treatment of his foot wound. His Richmond Depot jacket appears to have the same style and size of recessed-center wooden buttons.4
(National Museum of Health & Medicine)
The Richmond Depot jacket of Pvt. William Pilcher of the Otey Battery, on display at the National Park Visitor Center at Appomattox Court House. According to the Park Service this jacket of English kersey was issued to Pilcher in early 1865. The jacket retains its original nine recessed-center, four-hole wooden buttons. They appear identical to those in the period photographs.5
The buttons on the Pilcher jacket measure approximately 3/4" in diameter. In some cases the four holes in each button are imperfectly centered.
Finding photographic evidence for the smaller Gibson buttons is more difficult, but this fallen Confederate soldier at Petersburg in April, 1865 appears to have the slightly smaller pant size buttons on his trousers. The button fastening his drawers may be of the same type.
(Library of Congress)
The consistent appearance of this relatively small, recessed-center wooden button in photographs dating from 1863 to the end of the war, combined with the massive numbers of buttons supplied by the company during the same time frame, makes it highly likely that this style of button is the one manufactured by John & George Gibson of Richmond. It is not the purpose of this study to propose that the majority of Richmond produced garments in this period featured these buttons, even though the numbers show that this should have been possible. There is ample photographic and material evidence to suggest that metal buttons remained very common, but we must consider the likelihood that wooden buttons were far more prevalent than previously assumed.
Jon Bocek has shared a number of additional photos of men wearing jackets with the suspected Gibson buttons, as well as images of surviving examples of the button in the collection of the Museum of the Confederacy. Surviving items bearing these buttons include a Richmond Depot jacket (on the shoulder tabs) and the shelter half of Alfred May, 61st N.C. Infantry. It is clear now that the buttons on the Pilcher jacket, discussed above, do not match the buttons described in the rest of the article, or the additional examples shared. They are too flat. However, they do match the pant buttons in the photo of the fallen Confederate at Petersburg above, and they match a few original examples, not attached to garments, in the collection of the Museum of the Confederacy. The Pilcher jacket buttons might be the Gibson pant-size buttons, or they may be the product of a smaller contractor. Regardless, the deeper-profiled four-hole buttons seen on the jackets of soldiers in the article above are by far the most common type seen, and as no other contractor delivered wooden buttons on the scale of Gibson, the connection remains sound.
Missouri Boot and Shoe of Neosho, Missouri is now offering reproductions of both the common Gibson four-hole button and the flatter variant seen on the Pilcher jacket.
This fallen Confederate of Benning's or Law's Brigades, photographed near Devil's Den at Gettysburg, wears pants bearing what appear to be more examples of the probable Gibson button, including what could be an example of the elusive "shirt size" button on the fly.
1. Gibson, John and Geo, M346: Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861-1865, Record Group 109,
National Archives and Records Administration, on Fold3, (accessed 8 May, 2012).
2. Leslie D. Jensen, "A Survey of Confederate Central Government Issue Jackets, Part 1," Military Collector and Historian, Vol. XLI,
3. Andrew Turner, "English Cloth on Cooke's Foot Cavalry: English Uniforms and the 27th NCT," The Liberty Rifles
http://www.libertyrifles.org/research/englishcloth.html (accessed May 12, 2012).
4. Domenick A. Serrano, Still More Confederate Faces (Bayside: Metropolitan Company,1992): 181.
5. National Park Service text accompanying the William Pilcher jacket, National Park Visitor Center, Appomattox
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Online image. 10 May 2012.
Greg Mast, State Troops and Volunteers: A Photographic Record of North Carolina's Civil War Soldiers (Raleigh: North
Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1995): 174.
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine. Online image. Flickr. 10 May 2012.