US Civil War vest from the USA, Americas. Made by G. & D. Cook & Co., New Haven, Connecticut. Part of the Pitt Rivers Museum Founding Collection. Given to the Museum in 1884.
This blue cloth waistcoat with gold buttons dates to the American Civil War of 1861-65. It is lined with removable steel plates (one is shown in the picture) and so represents one of the earliest forms of bullet-proof vest.
This innovative piece of armour was developed in the United States, and worn exclusively by Union forces during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In general, it seems that men on both sides viewed the wearing of body armour as rather cowardly. This meant that armour was, as much as possible, disguised to resemble the normal military uniforms of the day, as can be seen in this example. However, the Confederates regarded the wearing of concealed armour as particularly 'yellow', and so the practice never caught on among the Southern forces.
This example was manufactured by Smith, Cook & Company of New Haven, Connecticut. Clearly taking their inspiration from the steel cuirasses of earlier centuries, these vests were not only rigid and heavy to wear but also provided little defensive value against high-calibre muskets. They were even less effective against the newer rifles with the Minié ball.
What is perhaps more interesting than the actual usefulness of this piece of armour is how it grants an insight into the relationship between rank and wealth, and access to better protection. Vests like these were not standard issue and would have been expensive to buy. During the Civil War, the majority of lower ranks on both sides were obliged to travel on foot, carrying their equipment and supplies on their backs. As a result, even if a soldier did possess such a vest, the need to dispose of heavy and non-essential items in the event of fatigue and so on, meant it was often soon abandoned. Therefore it was only the Union officers, who went on horseback and did not carry their own packs, who could afford the luxury of such a device.