Bulletproof vests and the stigma of cowardice in the Civil War

This advertisement appeared in Harper's Weekly on March 15, 1862.

The Soldier's Bullet Proof Vest has been repeatedly and thoroughly tested with Pistol Bullets at 10 paces, Rifle Bullets at 40 rods, by many Army Officers, and is approved and worn by them.

It is simple, light, and is a true economy of life -- it will save thousands. It will also double the value and power of the soldier; and every man in an army is entitled to its protection. Nos. 1, 2, and 3 express the sizes of men, and No. 2 fits nearly all.

Price for Private's Vest , $5. Officers' Vest, $7. They will be sent to any address, wholesale or retail.

Sold by MESSRS. ELLIOT, No. 231 Broadway, New York, and by all Military Stores. Agents wanted.

During the Civil War, bullet-proof vests were mass-produced for the first time and available to all soldiers and officers. The vests were not standard issue for the army, but soldiers could buy the vests for $5 (roughly $108 in 2010) from companies like Messrs. Elliot, G&D Cook Company, and Atwater Armor Company.

The vests weren’t as popular as you would think, though. For starters, the vests were heavy and cumbersome. The average soldier carried about 50 pounds, and a bullet-proof vest added about 12 pounds to the load. On a hot day, that extra weight made a huge difference. Many soldiers abandoned their vests as they marched; they would rather face enemy fire unprotected than suffer the heat and fatigue the vests warranted.

Though the Messrs. Elliot ad claims that the vests had been “repeatedly and thoroughly tested with Pistol Bullets at 10 paces, Rifle Bullets at 40 rods, by many Army Officers, and [were] approved and worn by them,” the vests were not very effective at a close range. The vests often failed to save lives, but they were useful in identifying the dead because soldiers would engrave their names or initials into them.1

Furthermore, the vests were associated with cowardice. In one account, a colonel promised his wife he would consider wearing a bulletproof vest, but later confided that the vest was uncomfortable and “looked upon as indicating timidity, if not cowardice.”2

During the Civil War, cowardice was grouped with offenses such as desertion, theft, sleeping on guard duty, spying, and even murder.3 A soldier could be executed, branded, or dishonorably discharged for any of these offenses. Though it is doubtful a soldier would be punished for wearing a bulletproof vest, the “stigma of cowardice” attached to the vests kept many soldiers from buying and wearing them.

Being considered a coward, liar, or scoundrel implied a lack of manliness. A soldier’s manliness was linked to his honor, which constantly had to be proven to his comrades.4 It was important for a soldier to be respected by his comrades because “military justice during the Civil War was so ambiguously defined by military documents and within the army itself.” When a soldier was put on trial for cowardice he was convicted based on the subjectivity of opinions and judgements of others. For instance, Captain Henry Krausneck was charged with cowardice by Colonel Adolph von Hartung. Von Hartung reported that Krausneck abandoned his position as acting Field Office of the regiment and protected himself from enemy fire by hiding behind a tree. This was viewed as a shameful and cowardly example for the men. Krausneck was found guilty of cowardice based on Von Hartung’s testimony and was dishonorably discharged; the leniency of his punishment was likely due in large to his officer status.5 Others were not so lucky. In his personal journal, Union infantryman Joseph Ward described the punishments of several deserters. In an entry labeled Friday the 6th of January, Ward wrote that two men were executed for desertion.6 Two weeks later, he wrote that another man was shot “in the attempt of desertion.”7

Though bulletproof vests would initially seem like a godsend, they were tarnished by their technological inefficiency and the stigma of cowardice attached to them. It would be decades - not until World War II - before flak jackets, the first genuinely “bulletproof” vests, won wide acceptance among American troops.

-- Hannah Jarrett ‘12 and Stephanie Walrath ‘12

1 David McCormick, “Knights in Binding Armor,”
America’s Civil War 53 (2010): 56-59.
2 ibid.
3 “Discipline in the Civil War Armies,” Civil War Home, accessed February 15, 2012, (http://www.civilwarhome.com/discipline.htm)
4 Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs (New York: NYU Press, 2010), 100.
5 “Stories of Cowardice,” Gettysburg Civil War Institute, accessed February 15, 2012, http://gettysburgcwi.posterous.com/the-court-martial-of-captain-henry-krausneck
6 Joseph R. Ward Jr., An Enlisted Soldier’s View of the Civil War, ed. D. Duane Cummins and Daryl Hohweiler (West Lafayette: Belle Publications, 1981), 195.
7 Ibid, 204.


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