C.S. Trans-Mississippi "Penitentiary" Jacket by N.J. Sekela
coarse, un-dyed kersey wool penitentiary cloth,Â lined
with coarse cotton. Impeccably patterned and constructed, all exposed
seams are hand-stitched with a great deal of additional handwork
throughout. Wooden buttons complete the beauty and authenticity of this
The Penitentiary Jacket is a garment without surviving examples and very
little in the way of period images. No known photographic image
survives although sketches of the garment exist from period lithographs
and other like works. Additionally, these garments are mentioned in a
good many letters and reports. Historians Fred Adolphus and Don Smith
have both done a significant amount of research into Penitentiary
Jackets and have concluded the following- the garments were constructed
of a "military styled" pattern, the jackets featured little in the way
of adornment or embellishment, and finally, there was no set number of
buttons nor other points of uniformity. The shared trait of all
Penitentiary items was the cloth of which they were made.
January 1862, one of the first moves of the Military Board was to use
the State Penitentiary at Huntsville, Texas for the manufacture of cloth
and uniforms. [The first unit to be outiffted by the Penitentiary was
the 18th Texas Cavalry on January 22, 1862.] Its inmates were put to
looming and weaving millions of yards of cloth to provide to the lacking
people of the State of Texas as well as the Confederacy as a whole.
Much of this fabric was sold or provided to families for personal needs.
However, vast quantities were also transformed into jackets, trousers,
and other badly needed uniform items for both State and Confederate
forces. A large proportion of the cloth manufactured at Huntsville was
undyed, both to speed production and reduce the cost of making it.
Therefore, thousands of jackets and trousers were constructed of
"natural" (or undyed) cotton jean cloth. Another advantage inherent in
making uniform items from light colored, cotton cloth was the comfort of
the combatants. Trans-Mississippi soldiers on garrison or on campaign
in the torrid summer heat of Texas or the thick, muggy humidity of the
Louisiana cane breaks no doubt appreciated any relief afforded them.
Thus, Penitentiary uniforms were a very common sight in the states west
of the Big Muddy. Moreover, there is building evidence which indicates
similar types of uniforms were worn by troops east of the Mississippi as
well. Several letters and diaries make mention of Confederate troops
clad in white uniforms, particularly around the time of the Chickamauga
campaign. Finally, it is important to remember that these garments were
not known as "Penitentiary Coats" during the time of the war. Rather,
that term is one crafted by modern historians and material culturists as