Confederate Leather: Black or Brown? How and Where?

By David Jarnagin and Ken R Knopp (originally published in NORTH SOUTH TRADER’S CIVIL WAR Aug. 2007 and Camp Chase Gazette 2009)

As any artifact collector or reenactor knows there are two primary colors when it comes to Civil War era leather- black and brown (“russet”). It was thought for many years that Confederate leather equipment was russet and all black leather was Federal. However, since Paul D. Johnson’s book on cartridge boxes shed light on the Federal government’s inherent problems with hemlock bark tanning we now know that some of the surviving dark browns are just faded hemlock that were originally dyed black. But what about the different shades of russet that are found from chocolate to light brown to yellow? Can we tell what is more likely to be Confederate? In the following paragraphs we will explore the several types of russet to better understand their origins and examine how the Confederacy supplied its leather for equipment production.
Defining what is 19th century russet leather is a difficult and confusing undertaking. So a basic understanding of the vegetable tanning operation is needed. Tanning is a name used to describe the entire process of converting raw animal hides to finished leather. Nineteenth century tan yards had three distinct departments, each designed to transform the raw hide as it passes on its way to becoming useable leather.

Upon arrival at the tan yard, the raw hides were first taken to the Beam house to be prepared for tanning. The Beam house was so named for the split beams, six feet long set on 45 degree angles, on which the operators would place the hides to scrape off the hair, flesh and the remaining fat deposits. Three steps were undertaken here. First, the hides were soaked in a lime water solution and repeatedly rinsed and scrapped by the beamers. The next step was “bating” where the hides were rinsed and placed in a pit containing fowl or dog dung which completed the removal of all unwanted fat deposits and other tissues not needed in the tanning process. Finally, they were put into another pit containing strong acids. The resulting chemical reaction opened up the fibers of the hides and importantly, changed the Ph of the hides so the actual tanning process could begin. (See Drawing 1)

The second and most crucial part of the tanning process was found in the Tannery. Vegetable tanned leather at the time of the Civil War was pit tanned in tubs or holes dug into the ground where the leather was soaked in a heavy solution of water and tree bark. “The sides, when brought from the beam-house to the tannery, are first placed in the stringer (or vats, 9′ x 8′ x 5′) and so tied up as to hang lengthwise in the pits. Seventy sides are put into each vat. There they hang in a weak ooze or infusion of oak bark for seven days. They are then handled daily for about five days more…..taking them out into the air, smoothing them out, sometimes rubbing them to remove ridges and wrinkles.” 1.  The chemical reaction generated from the natural tannin found in tree barks combine to make the leather decay resistance and gave it the qualities that are needed in the finished product. (See Drawing #2)

The final part in processing raw hides to finished leather was called “currying”. There were two important steps. The leather coming in from the tannery was called a “crust” since it was a semi-hard sheet of leather that must be re-wetted before “scouring” (currying operations) begins. “After tanning, the sides for harness leather are half dried to enable them to be worked easily. They are skived. The sides are then scoured, slicked and stoned on the grain side, and …on the flesh side, to remove superfluous moisture, glutinous substance and to stretch them. After these operations have been performed the leather is half dried, stretched and set by the vigorous use of the slicker upon the scouring table, with the grain side down. It is stuffed with a mixture of neat’s- foot oil and tallow, applied with a stiff hair brush to the flesh side, and hung up for a week to dry. 2. The above description was the first part (Fat Liquoring) of what a currier did to tailor the leather to fit the customer’s demands as to flexibility, strength, water resistence and other qualities. The second and final part gave leather its color and finish.  (See Drawing #3)

Drawing #1 (left): Beamer scrapping residue from the hide. Drawing #2 (middle): Tanning the hides in “ooze” solution of bark and water. Drawing #3 (right): Curryer “fat liquoring” and finishing the leather.
In all vegetable leather tanning, then as now, color is nothing more than the natural color of the leather after the tanning processes; that is to say,  whatever color the bark gives to the leather. Various barks were used but by far, the two most common in the 19th  century were oak and hemlock tree bark. Each strikes a unique color and imparts certain qualities to the leather. “Almost every tanning material stamps its own peculiar quality on the leather subjected to its action. The physical characteristics usually affected are the color, scent, toughness, or the power of resisting moisture or decay. Oak bark imparts firmness and solidity to the leather, while other barks give a greater or lessor degree of softness. This (oak) bark gives a lighter color and it is generally assumed better leather than hemlock. Chestnut oak is called “yellow oak” by tanners on account of the yellow color it imparts to the leather. The most desirable kinds of oak are procured from “rock oak” or “chestnut oak”3.  This type of bright yellow color resulted in what is known as “fair” leather, a leather color that only comes from oak bark tanning.

Hemlock bark (which is more acidic than oak), strikes a different color, “is rich in tanning and is little, if any inferior to oak for tanning purposes….[distinguished by] the dark reddish color [darker, browner, skin-toned color] it imparts to leather.” 4. The physical qualities needed in the finished leather product is what determines which bark the tanner uses in the tanning process but, the color that a bark strikes is what gives it the finished term “russet”. (Insert Photo #1)
Now, if yellow, “fair” leather comes from oak bark tanning and red-browns from hemlock tanning, why are there several colors of russet? What about the dark browns and chocolate browns that show up in original items? The answers to these questions are explained through the second step of the currying or finishing process. At this point, the currier decides which leather is left natural (fair) and which is stained or, dyed black, and then polished. The very best hides were left “fair” and  would have brought a higher price. Lesser quality hides that would not have passed for fair leather because of discolorations or blemishes were “stained” on the grain side with a solution of logwood and sal soda applied with a soft hair brush. 5. Staining widely varied the shades of brown found in bark tanned leather and was done for two reasons. The first, to even and enhance the color appearance and second, to increase the weight. Finished leather was sold by weight until the 1880’s. Thus, any and all methods were used to increase weight and profits. (Photo #2)

The currying process also included dyeing quality leather to black using iron mordants and mild acids. Interestingly, oak tanned leather could be dyed a permanent deep, rich black; however, dyeing hemlock tanned leather created unique problems. Due to it acidic nature hemlock tanned leather could not permanently accept black dye solutions. Despite tanners routinely cheating the process with special paints or dyes, Hemlock tanned leather would always eventually (often quickly) fade to a chocolate brown color so often seen in surviving artifacts (insert Photo #3). This was a big problem for the Federal Ordnance Bureau as the hemlock bark tree was very prominent in several of the north’s largest leather production states. 6. However, the problem is only occasionally seen in surviving CS artifacts. Hemlock bark is only found in the upper reaches of the Mason Dixon line so very little Confederate leather appears to have been tanned in this manner. Although official regulations both North and South prescribed leather be dyed black, delivery receipts from many southern tanneries contracted by the Confederacy suggest that this was not routine. In general, early war production tended to include more black dyed leather while russet was far more common later in the conflict. This was especially true of harness leather used in horse equipment. It is not clear exactly why but there are several likely reasons for this including time, cost, a lack of resources and simply, it was more convenient. 7. (Photo #4)

To further confuse the russet issue, another dark brown russet color similar to faded hemlock and quite often seen in Confederate equipment comes from imported English leather (sometimes called “London” leather). This is not a black faded to brown leather but a unique, rich brown color tanned overseas from English oak bark and stained using a staining formula different but likely similar to that used in America (Photos #5 , #6, #7) The Confederacy certainly imported large amounts of British leather for making equipment. Some of it may have been dyed black either here or abroad; however, most would likely have been this London leather color. 8. .
With all of these different types and colors of leather how does the untrained eye tell the difference? Regardless of the staining or dye treatment each can be distinguished by simply looking at the back side of the leather artifact. The two major barks of the time strike unique, entirely different colors. Oak bark always leaves a yellow color whereas hemlock always leaves a reddish skin tone color. (Photo # 8).

CONFEDERATE LEATHER SUPPLY: For the South, obtaining leather regardless of color was an incessant problem. The South’s domestic manufacture during the war was severely limited by a lack of infrastructure, labor and transportation. For example, in 1860 all of the southern states combined to tan only 6.5% of all U.S. leather, while Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania alone tanned 69%. 9. Since it took up to nine months to tan leather and eighteen months to get a tannery into full production new, “start up” operations were obviously impractical. Furthermore, during the war the great tanning industry in the North was fueled by importation of ready to use dried and salted hides that could be stored for months without damage to the hide. On the other hand, Southern domestic leather production was forced to rely on raw or green hides that had a short life span of only 24 hours before bacterial damage set in. Unfortunately, salt shortages and crippling transportation issues quickly rendered many thousands of otherwise good hides useless to the war effort. Labor was also an issue. Tanning was very labor intensive and required high levels of skill and technical knowledge, all of which were not readily available in a manpower-starved South. 10.  As a result leather supplies were always stretched thin.

At the beginning of the war, President Jefferson Davis with his practiced eye for military logistics prioritized the apportionment of leather, establishing a scale by which “first shoes and then cartridge-boxes had the preference; after these, artillery-harness, and then saddles and bridles.” 11.  The two military Bureaus most affected by the supply of leather were the Quartermaster and Ordnance Bureaus. Following President Davis’ directive, the Quartermaster Bureau, with the responsibility for providing shoes and transportation equipment, was given top priority, while the responsibilities of the Ordnance Bureau: cartridge boxes, cap boxes, belts, saddles, bridles, artillery harness, etc., would follow. Under enormous pressure for leather, not surprisingly both Bureaus enjoined the supply issue by contracting for leather with commercial tanneries. Under a typical arrangement the Quartermaster Bureau provided hides to the tanner, who furnished bond for their value, and then gave back one half and later in the war, two thirds of the finished leather. 12.
For the Ordnance Bureau, what quickly developed was a complicated barter system whereby each individual arsenal or depot installation made their own contracts with local tanneries for hides and finished leather. As the war progressed, material shortages forced the arsenals to provide the tanner with supplies of salt, lime, as well as transportation for both hides and finished leather. To this burdensome bureaucratic duty was soon added the difficult task of providing draft exemptions for the tanner’s workers, and increasingly, their food and clothing. 13.      Unfortunately, this kind of procurement policy created a crushing workload within each Bureau that fostered wasteful duplication of effort and often, inter-departmental competition for hides, workers, supplies and even transportation.

Forced to do more with less, one option available to the Ordnance Bureau was to simply replace leather with cloth. Some equipment could only be made from leather, but for many items cloth worked equally as well. By mid-1863, this heavy cotton cloth, “domestic”, was commonly used both East and West. Canvas duck or cloth stitched in three to four thicknesses, then painted with lamp black and finally varnished with one or more coats of linseed oil was used for waist belts, cartridge box belts, bridle reins, cap boxes, ground cloths and later, saddle coverings, skirts and saddle bags. An embarrassing apology to be sure, but serviceable nonetheless. 14.
With domestic sources for leather increasingly strained and demand always high, the South turned to external sources for continued supply. There is evidence large quantities of northern produced leather was purchased by the South prior to and even during the war. In fact, so much leather was sent south in the latter half of 1860 and early 1861 that it caused a shortage that slowed Federal ordnance production. Even after the South was blockaded it was not uncommon for northern tanneries to ship to the Southern ports via the Canadian port of Nova Scotia or secreted through the lines. 15.
However, clearly of far greater impact was the leather imported from England via Bermuda and the Bahamas. Shipping records, including those at the Ordnance Bureau’s main port of entry at Wilmington, show huge numbers of “cases”, “bundles”, “bales”, “boxes” and “rolls” of leather came through the Blockade throughout the war. Still more arrived through Charleston, Mobile, Savannah, Galveston, Apalachicola and Matamoros, Mexico.  Unfortunately, with no means to accurately calculate the quantity or volume of these imports, it is difficult to measure their true contribution to the war effort. Still, the sheer number of listings in foreign import records, cargo manifests, voluminous War Department correspondence and post war accounts suggest it was enough to comprise a significant portion of the South’s overall supply. 16.

By the summer of 1864, “home grown” leather supplies had become critically short. As the number of  hides dwindled so did the need for tanneries. In October of 1864 the Quartermaster General dramatically reduced the number of its contract tanneries. Furthermore, those remaining were now required to work entirely for the Government, tanning hides at a fixed money rate instead of taking their pay in leather. The Ordnance Bureau, long since forced to survive with less domestic leather, had by now established its own tightly controlled contract tanneries, augmented by large volumes of foreign imports and further eked out by alternative replacements. Toward the end of the war, a tightening Federal blockade severely crimped imports, which forced both departments to increasingly turn to impressment.

Nevertheless, in spite of all of these trials, the South never failed to provide enough leather to manufacture an adequate supply of military equipment and accoutrements. On the last day of 1864 Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas wrote the Secretary of War that, “Leather must be imported to some extent by this Bureau, as it has yielded its claim on hides obtained from the Army to the Quartermaster’s Department, in order that the soldiers may be shod. While the supply is scant, there is no absolute deficiency of material.” 17.
Confederate leather production, while paramount to the South’s ability to wage war, was not simple, cheap nor easy. They faced tremendous obstacles. Nineteenth century leather tanning was a complicated chemical process requiring huge resources, labor, time and most importantly, highly skilled technicians. In 1860, Southern leather manufacturing capacity and resources were not up to the task to produce the leather that was required to build an army. Yet, by taking control of domestic tanning capacity, importing huge amounts from foreign or enemy sources, and substituting enameled cloth, barter, impressment, ingenuity and pure resolve, they did. From July 1861 through January 1st, 1865 the Richmond Arsenal system alone issued 6,852 sets of artillery harness; 375,510 sets of infantry and cavalry accoutrements; 180,181 knapsacks; 328,977 canteen straps; 115,087 gun and carbine slings; 69,418 cavalry saddles; 85,139 cavalry bridles and 75,611 cavalry halters. 18. All made partially if not entirely of leather. And, since knowledgeable sources at the time generally believed this constituted approximately one-half of all war-time Confederate issues, one can estimate total military leather equipment production as nothing less than incredible.

In summary, the leather the Confederacy produced clearly differed from that of the Federals. While most Federal accoutrements were made of hemlock or oak tanned leather and dyed to black (albeit with hemlock the color was sometimes only temporary), the majority of Confederate domestic tanned accoutrement leather was oak tanned (sometimes dyed to black and often poorly tanned) and supplemented by large amounts of higher quality imported British “London” leather (again, sometimes dyed to black). (Photos # 9, #9-A)
In a broader sense, when one considers the same type efforts were applied to supplying iron, lead, gun powder, weapons, food and more, the story is all the more remarkable. In arguably one of the most amazing examples of logistical supply in world military history, the Southern people were able to quickly and successfully industrialize an agrarian economy to equip and field a million man army from scratch. A miraculous feat not likely to ever be duplicated.

Color photos can be viewed on the internet via

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AUTHORS’ NOTE: A word of caution: Drawing conclusions about Confederate leather from surviving artifacts can be very misleading. The remaining pieces cannot be fairly representative of the materials, patterns or percentages of what was actually manufactured. Furthermore, these pieces have one hundred and fifty years of being exposed to water, sunlight, dirt, sweat and oils that have certainly altered their original appearance. In some cases, they have been deliberately altered to make them more valuable on the evolving collector’s market. Therefore, the best way to understand Confederate leather tanning methods and equipment is to juxtapose these artifacts against war time records, correspondence and mid-nineteenth century leather industry documents and manuals.  It should also be noted that the leather available today in the United States is not bark tanned in the same manner as it was a century and a half ago. Today, leather is vegetable tanned, but using barks (mostly Quebracho from South America) and chemicals as well as chemical dyes that are completely different from the period. Tanning methods also took longer then than now. Even the cattle raised today for hides are bred and fed differently using accelerated feeds and generally slaughtered at an earlier age than cattle of the period. In summary, it is difficult at best for today’s leather and dyes to truly duplicate that produced during the Civil War period.

About the authors: David Jarnagin of Corinth Mississippi is co-owner of C & D Jarnagin, the nation’s largest manufacturer of 18th and 19th century military reenactment clothing and equipment. For twenty-two years David’s domain has been the company leather shop where they make authentic cartridge boxes, cap boxes, belts, bayonet scabbards, knapsacks, shoes and more. A passion for research in period leather tanning, dyeing, equipment manufacture and of course, handling thousands of artifacts has made David uniquely qualified in the subject of 19th century leather processes and leather equipment.    Ken R. Knopp, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is an Investment Representative for Edward Jones Investments and the author of two books, Confederate Saddles & Horse Equipment and Made in the CSA, Saddle Makers of the Confederacy, as well as numerous articles about Civil War saddlery and other Confederate equipment.


FOOTNOTES:

1. Ordnance Notes, No. LII, The Manufacture of Leather, Ordnance Department. Lt. D.A. Lytle to Chief of Ordnance, May 2, 1876, Benica Arsenal, 358   David Jarnigan, Hemlock Leather- The Federal Ordnance Department’s Other War. Military Collector & Historian, The Company of Military Historians, Washington DC., Vol. 57, No. 1 — (Spring 2005).
2.  Ibid, 359.
3. Ordnance Notes- No LXXII ,Washington, Oct 10, 1877, 572, Chestnut oak was firm but flexible, light resistant and with low water absorption. It was especially suitable for tanning harness and sole leather. A blight in 1904 wiped out the chestnut oak tree in the U.S. Most chestnut oak used today comes from France.
4. Ibid.
5. Ordnance Notes, No. LII, The Manufacture of Leather, Ordnance Department. Lt. D.A. Lytle to Chief of Ordnance, May 2, 1876, Benica Arsenal, 359
6. Professor H Dussance, Chemist, A New and Complete Treatise on the Arts of Tanning, Currying and Leather Dressing. (Philadelphia, Pa.  Henry Carey Baird, T.K. and P.G. Collins Printers, 1867), 428. “A very large majority, perhaps eight tenths of all calf skins taken off in this country are tanned Hemlock bark.”
David Jarnigan, Hemlock Leather- The Federal Ordnance Department’s Other War. Military Collector & Historian, The Company of Military Historians, Washington DC., Vol. 57, No. 1 — (Spring 2005).
7. Files of dozens of tanneries having contracts or business with the Confederate Ordnance Department for the manufacture of hides and leather during the War. Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, (M346), Chapt. IV, Record Group 109, National Archives, Washington, DC. For a complete list contact the authors.
Ken R. Knopp, Confederate Saddles & Horse Equipment, Southern Leather. Publishers Press, Orange, Va., 2110, 44-49.
8. Account Book of Capt John M Payne, Comprising Imported Ordnance Stores at Wilmington, NC, 1863-1865, Eleanor S Brockenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond Va.
Josiah Gorgas Summary of imports. OR’s., Ser. IV, Vol. II, 383
Importations of Leading Articles Arriving at Wilmington and Charleston Since November 1,  1863 (Through December 8, 1864), Huse to Gorgas, OR’s., Ser. IV, Vol. II, 646.
Gorgas to Seddon, Richmond, Dec. 31, 1864, OR’s., Ser. IV, Vol. III,  987-988.
9. Professor H Dussance, Chemist, A New and Complete Treatise on the Arts of Tanning, Currying and Leather Dressing. (Philadelphia, Pa.  Henry Carey Baird, T.K. and P.G. Collins Printers, 1867), 429
10. Thomas, P. Kettell, Eighty Years’ Progress of the United States. (Hartford, Conn.,, L Stebbins), 1867, 231.
11. Gorgas, Josiah, Work of the Ordnance Bureau. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 12, (1884), 78
12. Richard Goff, Confederate Supply (Durham NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1969), 71.
13. Files of dozens of firms having contracts or business with the Ordnance Department for the manufacture of equipment, hides and leather during the War. Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, (M346), Chapt. IV, Record Group 109, National Archives, Washington, DC.
14. Josiah Gorgas, Work of the Ordnance Bureau. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 12, (1884), 78
“Work of the Ordnance Bureau”, by J.W. Mallet, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXVII (Jan. Dec. 1909): 12.
15. Thornton to Craig, New York Arsenal, April 16, 1861, Entry 21, Box 205/T-142; RG 156, National Archives.
16. Account Book of Capt John M Payne, Comprising Imported Ordnance Stores at Wilmington, NC, 1863-1865, Eleanor S Brockenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond Va.
Frank E. Vandiver, Confederate Blockade Running Through Bermuda, 1861-1865, Letters and Cargo Manifests (Austin: Univ. Of Texas Press, 1947).
Richard Goff, Confederate Supply (Durham NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1969), 71.
Charles W. Ramsdell, “Control of Manufacturing in the Confederacy”, Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol. VIII (No. 3): 247.
Overview of Work of Ordnance Bureau by Josiah Gorgas, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. # 12 (1884): 78.
Ken R. Knopp, Made in the CSA, Saddle Makers of the Confederacy, 171-185.
17. Gorgas to Seddon, Richmond, Dec. 31, 1864, OR’s., Ser. IV, Vol. III,  987-988.
18. Josiah Gorgas, Work of the Ordnance Bureau. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 12, (1884), 81.

PHOTOS:

Color photos can be accessed via the Internet at   http://russetleather.bravehost.com/russet%20pictures.htm

Photo # 1:   The top musket sling is made of “fair” leather from chestnut oak. The bottom is a stained hemlock musket sling. The original “fair” color can best be seen in the top sling where the cartridge box loops covered the surface of the sling protecting it from both light and dirt. The darker areas are what happens over time when leather is exposed to light, dirt and moisture. Note its bright yellow “fair” color as compared to the reddish brown of the stained hemlock sling. Courtesy Fred Gaede.

Photo # 2:  Oak tanned “fair” leather cap box made by Confederate contractor G.H. Wyman of Augusta Ga. Note the yellow tinge to its color. During the war both sides often left high quality leather as “fair”- free from both stains and dyes. Photos courtesy The Atlanta History Center.

Photo # 3: Both of these Federal cartridge boxes were made at  the Watertown Arsenal. The box at left was oak tanned, dyed to black. It retained its black color. The one on the right was hemlock tanned and also dyed black but faded to a chocolate brown- a very common occurrence among Federal equipments during the war and one often seen today among surviving artifacts.

Author’s collection.

Photo # 4: This common pattern (.57 cal.) Confederate made cartridge box was oak tanned then dyed to black. It still retains its black color. In general, Confederate accoutrements would have been invariably stained, dyed to black or left “fair” as time and cost would permit.  Author Collection.

Photo # 5: Specifications for some British equipment called for the leather to be in the “English hides” color. This rich, “London” color can best be seen in this British Navy Pistol Box. Confederate imported English leather was likely left russet but some may have been dyed black. Walter Anderson Collection.

Photo # 6: Cap box made by Confederate contractor Wellborn, Nichols & Oliver of Dalton Ga. from imported “London” leather. Compare the texture and color of its leather to the domestic made leather cap box in photos #2 and #9. Photo courtesy The Atlanta History Center.

Photo #7: Note the difference in color. On the left is a rare (possibly a prototype) Allegheny Arsenal 1857 Pattern Federal cartridge box made of “English Hides” or “London” color leather. On the right is another Federal box of the same pattern yet made of hemlock tanned leather. Photo courtesy of Paul Johnson.

Photo # 8: The reverse of the two musket slings from photo # 1 illustrates the way to identifying tanning methods despite their dye or staining treatments. On the top is an oak tanned musket sling and on the bottom is one tanned using hemlock bark. Notice the “yellow” color of the oak vs the reddish color that the hemlock tanning leaves to the leather. Fred Gaede Collection (rear view of photo #2)

Photos #9 (rear view of photo 2), 9-A (Top View): This fair leather Confederate cap box made by G.H. Wymans of Augusta Georgia, is notable for the crudeness of its leather. This leather was “fat Liquored” by the currier before shipping to Wymans but there was no attempt to slick down the grain surface to give it that finished appearance. A sign it was probably hastily made and therefore from domestic tanned rather than imported leather. Photo courtesy The Atlanta History Center.

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