The First Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Gray Frock Coat of Corporal Milton Ewen
On Friday, March 24, 2006, Scott Frank, Marc Storch and Gary Van Kauwenbergh, met with Wisconsin Veterans Museum Curator of Collections Bill Brewster to examine the frock coat belonging to Corporal Milton Ewen of the First Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. These notes are taken from a recording of our session, and are primarily the observations of Bill Brewster. They were transcribed by Gary Van Kauwenbergh and circulated among the attendees for additions and corrections. The accompanying photographs were taken by Gary Van Kauwenbergh.
On April 20, 1861, Milton Ewen of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin enlisted for three months at Camp Scott, Milwaukee, into Company I of the First Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. He returned to Camp Scott with the unit on August 21 of that same year, and was mustered out. The First Wisconsin left for Harrisburg, PA on June 9th, and from there were soon transferred to Hagerstown, MD, as part of Major General Patterson’s division. The unit participated in the Battle of Falling Waters on July 2, 1861, near Martinsburg, West Virginia. Milton Ewen later served as a captain with the Twenty-first Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Both this frock and an officer’s jacket used by Milton Ewen are holdings of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.
This frock coat was used less than four months, and is in good condition. Its plain appearance from a distance is deceiving. While it does not have colored piping or other adornments, its construction is of a more complicated pattern typical of civilian coats of the period, with more pieces and tailoring than later issued military jackets. It is well-made, predominantly of good quality wool and cotton blended materials.
The seam sewing was examined with a magnifying glass and eye loupe. Much of the seam stitching appears to have been done by machine, although Bill still feels it is more likely to be a hand backstitch and not done by machine. The liner stitching and button holes are definitely hand-stitched. All top stitching was done with black silk thread, and has retained its original color well. The non-visible stitching is done with cotton thread that has faded to brown with age.
The frock material is a light gray wool satinette. It is a union fabric, i.e., it combines more than one material, in this case wool and cotton. The weft is double-ply wool (about 20 yarns per inch), with a single-ply cotton warp (about 32 strands per inch.) The thin wool weft strands are tightly packed into the thinner cotton warp threads allowing the wool to dominate the appearance, especially after washing, rinsing, and pressing in the finishing process. The back side of the fabric is not finished.
The desired effect was to have it appear to be pure wool, while being built on a less expensive cotton base. The only places you can see the warp threads where deterioration has taken place.
In typical confederate reproduction garments you can usually see the cotton warp threads. That’s not the case with this material. Bill Brewster is not aware of anyone making a fabric similar to this today, and speculates no one would custom make it either, because modern-powered weaving machinery would break the single-ply cotton warp threads too often. Modern weavers almost always use double-ply warp threads. At one time Pat Kline, of Family Heirloom Weavers, did on special order runs, but is no longer making this kind of material.
The color of the fabric has faded very little since it was originally made. A good place to check the original color is inside the cuffs, but the best place is inside the breast pocket. Scraps from the material selvage edges used for these pieces, and you can see how the weavers doubled the edge warp threads when they wove the fabric. This technique is no longer used. Bill suspects what little fading there is occurred soon after the frock was made.
The spots where the wool has deteriorated on the bottom of the frocks skirt are suspected urine spots. The left cuff of the jacket also has a small number of deteriorated spots not present on the right cuff.
The coat collar is ½ inch high in front and 2 inches high in the rear, with a brass hook and eye closer in front.
The split in the back of the frock skirt has triangular piecing on its bottom edge, apparently to add to shape of the jacket. See photos 83 and 88. This is a very odd location for piecing, which is usually only used in non-visible places, e.g., in the armpits of sleeves.
The corporals chevrons are hand made of a high-grade, light-weight, fine black silk, and are stitched onto the sleeves with black silk thread.
The button holes are hand-sewn with black silk buttonhole thread. They are corded button holes, using a blanket stitch over a two-ply cotton gimp thread.
The skirt of the frock is hemmed with hand-stitching of silk thread.
The same sized Federal infantry eagle buttons (with the “I” in the shield) are used for both the front and back of the frock. The buttons have a gold wash which is still intact and protecting the metal from tarnish. They are attached to the frock coat with cotton thread.
Interior:The body of the frock is lined with black, woven wool. It is also a union fabric using a very fine cotton or linen warp with black wool weft threads. The die has faded from the warp threads but is still held by the wool weft. The liner is “set-back” from the edges, top stitched by hand, then folded back. One side of the skirt liner is constructed of one piece of material extending from the waist to the bottom hem, which is cut and folded back at the top of the split, then top stitched shut on top where it joins the other side of lining. The liner on the inside of the frock skirt has ¾ inch darts on both sides of the back that go in the same direction. Scott Frank believes this was a sewing error, and the two darts should go in opposite directions. Some fading of the dark liner has also occurred due to sweat.
Bill recommends using a plain weave, unpolished cotton or linen on any reproductions, because this material will also be impossible to find on the market today
The liner material in the sleeves is a white, light-weight cotton drill, which is readily available in today’s market. The white cotton drill lining material has discolored to varying shades of rusty brown in places. The rusty-brown discoloration on the cotton drill is more intense where it would have been exposed to more sweat.
The frock has one breast pocket, and two pockets in the tail; typical construction for the period.
The stain on the liner of the frock’s skirt appears to be the exact outline of a shako/kepi brim. There is also a similar stain on the right arm sleeve lining that appears to be the shako/kepi chin strap. The stains are well defined and should be used as a template for any reproduction of the shako.