Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

    In the early days of the Civil War,  the Southern states found themselves with an abundance of cotton but a shortage of cloth with which to make army uniforms. The trade in cloth prior to the war had largely been to send raw cotton or wool north to New England (or Great Britain) where it was converted into usable cloth; but now that trade was broken and the Southern states were thrown upon their own resources in their efforts to properly clothe the Confederate army. 

This collection of Confederate enlisted men's frock coats and shell jackets gives some indication of the variety of shades of butternut worn during the war. All of them are shades of yellow brown, some heavier on the yellow and some heavier on the brown. The blue used around the collar or as rank insignia indicates that the soldier was in the infantry. Surviving Confederate uniforms are considered rather rare and command quite a healthy price in the collecting market. For an in-depth study of how Confederate jackets were made and distributed to the Confederate Army, please check out Dr. Richard Milstead's superb page on Richmond Depot jackets.

    As commercially produced dyes also were in short supply, Southerners turned to homespun methods of dying cloth which gave rise to a wide variety of shades of yellow and brown collectively called "butternut." In the western armies in particular, many of the Confederates found themselves wearing not a suit of gray, but one of butternut, and as is explained below, the variations in their method of dying gave rise to the wide variety of shades of yellow, brown, and black. It was a common phrase used by Federal soldiers during the Civil War to refer to their opponents as "Butternuts" so common was this color for their uniforms. An Indiana soldier commented of the surrendered Confederates at Fort Donelson that "their clothing was all home made and of butternut color and of every shape imaginable. In place of overcoats, they had blankets made out of carpets, contributed by Southern families. Some of them were very nice, splendid, and well-made. I tell you it was something of a sight to see many stand in a line with their blankets wrapped around them."

    Enter Mary E. Barr of Belfast, Saline Co., Arkansas. In January 1862, she sent the following missive to the Arkansas True Democrat in Little Rock, Arkansas giving her advice to young ladies endeavoring to dye jeans cloth for Confederate uniforms. "I see a premium offered to those young ladies who will send in the largest number of yards of home-made jeans cloth, and as I wish the young ladies success in their efforts to gain the medals, I will send you a few samples of my own manufacturing for those young ladies to excel," she offered. The secret was the usage of tree roots; walnut, red oak, beech, and peach tree roots in particular along with pine bark.

Mrs. Barr then proceeded to provide instructions on how to create the various shades of "butternut":

For Brown: Take a large pot, fill it with walnut roots and the bark of red oak about equal parts, boil them until the strength is out, then take out the bark, strain the ooze through a cloth into a clean vessel, wash the pot, pour back the ooze, and let it boil. The cloth must be sewn up like a sack, ridge side in, rinsed in warm soap suds before you put it in; put in your cloth now. Raise every 15 or 20 minutes, air it well, and put it back again until it is as deep as you desire. Rinse it well in clean water then soap suds again; then dip the cloth in starch, let it get half dry, then roll it, right side in, on a smooth beam very tight and be very careful to let know wrinkles go on the beam or they never will come out. Then keep turning and beating with a mallet for one hour and a half; then commence rolling off and ironing on the wrong side until perfectly dry, as you take it off the beam. The warp should be colored as you desire before putting in the loom.

For Black: First boil a pot full of walnut root, take out the root, then add extract of logwood enough to dye it black; add a small portion of acetate of copper; carry the cloth through the same process as the first in dressing. Post oak will do if you cannot get walnut root; for dying black, add copperas [green crystals of iron sulfate, a dye fixative]. This is no humbug and will not rot the cloth; I have been trying it for 18 years.

To dye dead color: Beech bark and peach tree root, boiled together, will make a beautiful color.

To make a dark brown: walnut roots and the inside of pine bark and copperas.

To make a light clear brown: walnut roots and laurel leaves.

To make a flesh color: the inside of pine bark and madder.

To make a dove color: the inside of pine bark and walnut leaves, adding copperas.


Letter from Lawrence Gates, 44th Indiana, Steuben Republican (Indiana), March 1, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from Mary E. Barr, Arkansas True Democrat (Arkansas), February 6, 1862, pg. 2


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