To a Civil War soldier, a bulletproof vest could be a lifesaver—or just one more impediment.
On the night of July 2, 1863, Captain Jesse H. Jones of Company I of the 60th New York surveyed the noise and flash of battle at Gettysburg from the crest of Culp’s Hill. As he directed the fire of his troops, a hard blow to the center of his chest sent him staggering back.
He had been hit by a Minié ball, but escaped with only a bruise. The projectile struck the bulletproof vest he was wearing under his uniform, leaving a large dent at the point where its two metal plates came together. The novel piece of protective gear prevented a fatal shot through the heart. To Jones, it was nothing short of a miracle. “God’s hand to me reached out of heaven to save my life,” he proclaimed.
Used routinely today by police and the military, bulletproof vests possess a long and colorful heritage. Bullet-resistant body armor protected storied bank robber John Dillinger, U.S. doughboys in World War I and Pinkerton private security guards in the Gilded Age. But the most colorful chapter in the history of the mass-produced bulletproof vest unfolded during the Civil War, when advances in technology and industrial production made the promise of protection from gunfire seem attainable.
Not considered standard military equipment, the vests were never officially issued to troops on either side. But a number of companies responded to demand for the gear at the outbreak of the war and produced them in a variety of styles. Two of the largest and most reliable manufacturers were based in New Haven, Conn. Body armor made by the G&D Cook Company used two steel plates joined together in the center, supported by broad hooks secured over the shoulders. The company made two models— one rated for infantry and another, heavier vest for cavalry and artillery. A cloth fabric waistcoat, usually blue with gold buttons, covered the steel plating. It was intended to resemble, as closely as possible, the uniform of a Union soldier.
The manufacture of body armor represented a dramatic change in production for the company, as well as a startling switch in its customer base. Before the war, G&D Cook made carriages and claimed in its advertisements to be the world’s largest maker of the horse-drawn vehicles, many of which were sold down South. Reflecting the company’s cotton-producing clientele, Cook’s 1860 catalogue advertised carriage models called The Pride of the South, Georgia and The Plantation.
The armor vests produced by Cook’s New Haven competitor, Atwater Armor Company, used four attaching steel plates. Like the Cook model, two broad hooks were used to secure the vest over the shoulders. For a tighter fit, their vests were belted at the waist. The Atwater vests were heavier than Cook’s and almost twice as expensive, but demand was high at first. At the height of production, Atwater Armor turned out 200 vests a day.
Widely advertised in such publications as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, bulletproof vests were hailed for the security they offered—with ads sometimes gilded by spurious official-sounding endorsements. An ad by Messrs Elliot of New York claimed its vest had been “proved and approved by a Board of Officers at Washington” and promised that the gear would “save lives of friends.” The retailer asserted that “every man is entitled to its protection”—but at prices suggesting the quality of protection depended on rank. The store sold the vests to privates for $5 and to officers for $7.
In April 1862, when General Ambrose Burnside’s forces occupied New Bern, N.C., sales agents perceived a marketing opportunity. Bartlett & Munn distributed broadsides to the troops that proclaimed the resilience of their vest by dubbing it the “Monitor” in reference to the Union’s ironclad vessel. The armor would be on sale “at our stand, opposite the Post Office,” but it was a limited-time offer: “We shall be here only a week or two longer.”
Sales pitches like these proved successful at first. Manufacturers sold thousands of vests in the early days of the war, mostly to individual soldiers—although a few volunteer companies were assigned the body armor.
The best efforts of sales agents and advertisers proved ineffective, however, against experience. Soldiers quickly became disillusioned with the gear, and for good reason.
With knapsacks on their backs and guns in hand, privates lugged about 50 pounds as they marched. Depending on the model, the vests added another six to 12 pounds. On a long, fast-paced march under a sweltering August sun, the extra weight of a metal vest was simply too much.
When a New Hampshire troop marched through Washington in October 1862, onlookers witnessed how fatigue had overtaken fear of enemy bullets. As the regiment paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue before going off to the war, the troops halted just as they reached the White House. The men equipped with bulletproof vests that had been a source of pride back in Concord declared that they would rather face Southern bullets than carry the gear any farther—and tossed the bulky armor into the gutter.
More significantly, the stigma of cowardice attached itself to those wearing the vests. In February 1862, Colonel Patrick R. Guiney of the 9th Massachusetts Volunteers promised his wife he would consider wearing one. Two days later, he reported the vest did not fit comfortably under his coat but noted another, more significant problem. “Bullet proofs are looked upon as indicating timidity, if not cowardice,” he confided to his wife, Jennie. “Don’t think I will have one anyhow.”
Confederates mocked those wearing vests for suffering from the “Yankee chills,” but Southerners used the gear as well—sometimes without the imputation of cowardice. At the Battle of Corinth, Colonel William P. Rogers, commander of the 2nd Texas, put on an armored vest and entered the fray. After experiencing close-quarter combat and hellish gunfire, Rogers fell, mortally wounded. He had been hit at least seven times—too frequently for any bulletproof vest to protect him. On the orders of Union General William S. Rosecrans, Rogers was buried with full honors near where he fell.
Advertisements boasted the vests could withstand a bullet fired from a pistol from 10 paces, and could protect one from the ravages of a rifle bullet fired from a distance of 40 rods. The vests could shield a soldier from the cut of a saber and undoubtedly stunned sword-wielding combatants whose blades encountered hard steel rather than flesh and bone. But in other contexts, the vests offered little protection. Guns fired at close range still proved deadly. Even if the bullet didn’t pierce the armor, the impact would be fatal. The vests also offered no protection against artillery. Nothing could protect soldiers hit by large projectiles.
It was the responsibility of the Inspector General’s Office to assure that sutlers sold troops quality merchandise at reasonable prices, but sharp-dealing merchants often provided shoddy equipment. A private with the 6th Connecticut recounted how his commanding officer discovered a swindler in camp selling tin-armored vests to unsuspecting troops. “He straightway made a half dozen bullet holes in the tin armor, required the fellow to return the money to the dupes, and sent him to the guardhouse.”
In May 1865, Union General Joshua Chamberlain made a heartbreaking discovery that testified to the limits of the protection the vests offered. Chamberlain and his men had stopped to camp near Hanover Court House in Virginia. Around midnight, Chamberlain awoke. His tethered horse was unsettled and pawed at the earth. Searching the ground, Chamberlain discovered an eerie sight—half-buried human skeletal remains scattered throughout the pines. Armor breastplates with initials carved in them were found among the bones. The vests failed to save the lives of those who wore them, but they helped identify some of the dead.
At the outset of the war, bulletproof vests seemed a godsend to many, but it would be decades before body armor won wide acceptance among the troops it was designed to protect.
A retired regional planner whose ’51 Chevy pickup reflects his passion for antiques and history, David McCormick has written for Northeast Antiques, Antiqueweek and Back Home in Kentucky.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.