Originally PUBLISHED ON MAY 25, 2015
Not long after the Battle of Gettysburg, Walt Whitman wrote: "Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers, you meet everywhere about the city, often superb-looking men, though invalids dress'd in worn uniforms, and carrying canes and crutches." Later, in 1865, he saw "a large procession of young men from the rebel army […] Their costumes had a dirt-stain'd uniformity; most had been originally gray; some had articles of our uniform, pants on one, vest or coat on another; I think they were mostly Georgia and North Carolina boys." (Specimen Days & Collect, 1882).
Whitman poignantly conveyed the war's progress and its toll on the common soldier by observing the state of their uniforms. Sarah Jones Weicksel, a doctoral candidate in US history, is taking her own long look at military uniforms in her dissertation: "The Fabric of War: Clothing, Culture, and Violence in the American Civil War Era."
Largely ignored by Civil War historians, the study of clothing requires Weicksel to examine the social, economic, and cultural history of the 1860s and '70s—areas of research that have in the past not been combined. She expects this combination to reveal new insights about the relationship of battlefields to the home front, politics and gender, and the cultural afterlife of war in peacetime.
Weicksel's research has taken her to archives up and down the East Coast, as well as to midwestern and Chicago collections. She recently published a portion of her findings, "To Look Like Men of War: Visual Transformation Narratives of African American Union Soldiers (1861–1865)," in the journal Clio: Histoire, Femmes et Sociétés. She will spend the coming year at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History, delving into their expansive collections of objects, images, and manuscripts as a recipient of a 2015 Committee on Institutional Cooperation/Smithsonian Institution Fellowship.
Kathleen Neils Conzen and Leora Auslander codirect her dissertation; Amy Dru Stanley and James Grossman are readers.
By Joanne M. Berens, MFA'93, email@example.com