For the month of June, the Western Illinois Museum will display as the “Artifact of the Month,” a Sons of Union Veterans coat and cap.
Organized in 1881, The Sons of Union Veterans (now called the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War or SUVCW) is an organization created by the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.).
In 1866, one year after the Civil War concluded, Union veterans created “The Grand Army of the Republic” (GAR) as a fraternal organization composed of Army soldiers who had fought in the Civil War.
First formed for camaraderie, the organization grew, becoming powerful and politically influential. The GAR founded soldiers' homes, was active in relief work and in pension legislation.
As only those who fought in the Civil War could be members of the GAR. Realized their organization would eventually die out when the last Civil War veteran was gone, the GAR in 1881 established the Sons of Union Veterans (SUVCW). Their sons could carry on its traditions and memory long after the GAR had ceased to exist. Currently, the SUVCW has over 6,000 members nationwide in about 200 community- based camps.
According to Mark Braun, historian of the SUVCW Custer Camp #1 in Wilmette, Illinois, from the inception members wore uniforms similar to the one at the museum to meetings, and at ceremonies and events.
Braun also noted that the uniforms were uniquely their own. They did replicated the Grand Army of the Republic uniforms which were similar to soldier uniforms. The similarities to the GAR uniform included the buttons, emblems and badges. The SUVCW thought this was a way to honor their fathers who fought in the war.
The definitive way to identify a uniform as a Sons of Union Veterans uniform and not an original Civil War Union soldier uniform is the buttons. Each of the buttons on the coat are marked “SOV” for Sons of Veterans and the buttons on the side of the cap are marked “SV” for Sons/Veterans.
The uniform and cap on display at the museum has no record of who owned and wore it. “My guess is that the wearer was probably a son of a member of the McDonough Post 103 in Macomb of the Grand Army of the Republic.” noted Braun.
Historical records indicate that when the GAR organization began, members of the GAR started out wearing their old Union uniforms to meetings and events. Later they wore a loose sack coat style that would mimic the four-button fatigue blouse (similar to the coat at the museum). Eventually, members began wearing a more tailored style five-button coat.
Kirk Dermint, the Commander of the Colonel Friedrich K. Hecker Camp #443, Belleville, Illinois, of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, notes that there was never an official SUVCW uniform, so “trying to put a date on the pieces is not that easy, [this] style of coat was around for a long time.” Braun added, for dating the coat and cap, “My guess would be around the turn of the last century.”
Many current members of the SUCVW wear uniforms to meetings and ceremonial events. A Sons of Union Veterans member would wear this type of coat and cap as a way of honoring Union veterans. Many generations, son, grandson, or great-grandson, continue to wear the uniform to honor a relative who fought in the Civil War.
During the Civil War, this type of blue lightweight wool coat was called a “sack coat” or “fatigue blouse.” Based on the civilian work jacket, the design of the sack coat is simple. Loose fitting, it was rather shapeless like a sack, hence the name. They were durable, and cheap and easy to make and for those reasons, sack coats were issued to all branches of the military.
The cap on display is called a forage cap because sometimes soldiers used it for collecting food such as berries or nuts. Forage caps were comfortable to wear and for that reason, they became the most popular form of cap worn by Union soldiers throughout the war.
Any man who can trace a relationship to a Union Veteran may be a SUVCW member, or for those without a relationship, but with a passion for Civil War history, there is an Associate Membership. Comprised of volunteers, the organization is a males-only, non-profit, civilian patriotic and educational society. The SUVCW is recognized as the legal successor of the GAR.
The present mission of the SUVCW is three-fold:
To Honor Union Veterans
To Preserve and Perpetuate the GAR
Active throughout the country, the SUVCW carries out numerous activities, participating in Memorial Day observances and other ceremonies and parades that honor the military, as well as teaching patriotism in schools. Other projects of the SUVCW include seeking out and marking the graves of Union Civil War veterans and assisting with the upkeep of Civil War monuments. This coat and cap displayed at the museum were probably worn to such activities.
Although the coat and cap on display at the museum are not from the Civil War period, there is a Civil War connection – it is a connection of commemoration - of male relatives honoring their ancestors, as members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
From an essay by Heather Munro