Wright or wrong?

This picture appeared on eBay, and the image was placed on our "Images of the 76th New York" page. It prompted the following note from our frequent contributor, Conrad Bush:

"The more I see this picture the more I think it isn't of William Wright. If this was taken in the beginning of the war the shell type jacket might be OK but by the end of the war he would have been in four button regular issue jacket. The one that is shown could have been Zouave or Artillery. I can't see if the collar is standing as it would have been if artillery. He also has a service slash mark on the sleeve which would indicate later in the war. The man looks older than 22, which Wright would have been at the end of the war If I was a betting man I would put my marbles on him not being Wright. "

Matthew Nelson saw the note, and replied:

Honestly I feel that Mr. Bush is incorrect in his assumptions. First of all I do not understand where he gets the indication that this is a late war photograph, unless I missed some date somewhere. (I think that refers to an earlier message in my exchange with Conrad Bush - if the picture is, indeed, William Wright, it seemed likely that the picture was not taken at the beginning of the war, because the soldier in the picture does not look 18 (Wright's age at enlistment), and he appears to have a hashmark on his sleeve, which would indicate some period of service. Hence the "late war" comment. - Mike Brown) 

The 76th was issued a number of different uniforms on different occasions. Apparently they arrived in Albany wearing some sort of uniform, possibly the M1861 SNYV jacket (not to be confused with a "shell" jacket - they are two entirely different things.) 

I checked my records here in the office relative to the uniforms of the 76th and came up with a bit of a mystery. There is no record of the state issuing sufficient uniforms for the regiment. From Albany they drew enough state jackets for about one company.  There is a description in the NY Herald of 19 January 1862 of the regiment as having the "costume...of the regular army regulation uniform." That would mean either the uniform coat or sack coat. In approximately March of 1862 there is mention in several letters of an issue of uniform coats (the so-called frock coats) dark blue trousers, and a short jacket that is defined by one individual as of a different pattern than the uniform he left Cherry Valley in. 

 There is at least one photograph showing what appears to be this uniform:

Later in the war the 76th appears to have drawn an number of uniforms, NYS Jackets like this:

...were apparently issued until shortly after Gettysburg in the 76th. (Other units such as the 121st retained them for their full length of service).

As the Federal government took over the issue of uniforms to the state troops in late '62 or early '63 NYS turned over all its stores of uniforms to the Federal government, who then redistributed them as the need arose. Thus you could even end up with units from other states getting NYS jackets, and NYS troops getting other unique uniforms. Thus the chronological uniformology of the 76th is not as simple as "early war they wore State jackets, late wear they wore sack coats".

What I believe Wright is wearing is an untrimmed federal shell jacket, or possibly a uniform coat (frock) with the skirt removed. These were not at all uncommon among infantry. they were issued right alongside sack coats. Thus I do not believe that his apparel in any way indicates that he is not who he appears to be.

Another entry in the debate on "Wright or Wrong?" from Michael McAfee, an authority on Civil War Uniforms:

I was just looking through your website and was amused by the controversy over the cdv of "Wright" and his uniform. Obviously no one recognized the jacket that individual wears. It is what I have termed a "Veteran's " jacket in several of my articles on Civil War uniforms. Many Union soldiers can be found in these jackets, usually fronted with nine buttons, having low, standing collars and three cuff buttons on each sleeve. The veteran's stripe, awarded to Veteran Volunteer regiments (those who re-enlisted as a unit at the expiration of their original term of service), is clearly seen on the lower sleeves.

While the majority of these jackets were unadorned, save by the veteran's stripes, some regiments added garish decorations in quasi-zouave style, especially regiments from western states. Most of these uniforms were privately purchased by the men of the regiment from contracted tailors. I just thought someone should properly identify the uniform.

Michael J. McAfee, 
Curator of History, West Point Museum

In addition to being the Curator of History at West Point, Mr. McAfee is Senior Editor of the Military Image magazine, and the author or co-author of a number of books and articles on Civil War Uniforms, including: 

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- Last updated September 6, 2004