The New Orleans Greys Uniform
A Historical Perspective.

by Ed Miller

 

he New Orleans Greys, making up two companies of European, northern, and southern emigrant soldiers were organized out of a mass meeting at Banks Arcade in New Orleans on October 12, 1835. Starting in November 1835, the Washington Guards, later known as the Washington Artillery, a New Orleans militia unit, also stored military equipment there.1

The two companies, one being Captain Breeces's company, went through Nacogdoches, and the other, Morris' Greys, traveled via the Gulf of Mexico to Velasco, Brazoria, and Goliad. Both companies reported for duty to General Austin in San Antonio in late November, 1835. Both companies also picked up members on the way. Nicholas Kelly joined Breece's company at Alexandria, Louisiana with his own uniform and military gear donated by a local businessman, 2and according to Hobart Huson's History of Refugio, 3 some citizens of the Refugio area also went on to San Antonio with Morris' Greys. Both companies would see action in the subsequent Battle of San Antonio; a detachment would remain at the Alamo and would perish on March 6th with the rest of the garrison. A handful was honorably discharged in January 1836, and most of the remaining members would merge with the Mobile Greys into new companies as a part of the Matamoros Expedition. Many perished in the Goliad Massacre on March 27, 1836. 

In the past few years the New Orleans Greys has received new attention as the result of Natalie Ornish's book, Ehrenberg: Goliad Survivor-Old West Explorer,4 and more recently Gary Brown's book, The New Orleans Greys, The Volunteers of the Texas Revolution.5 Both have brought about new attention on the role of the American volunteer in the Texas Revolution. The Ehrenberg memoir has received notable attention in the past six years, not so much because of a question of its authenticity as with the de la Peña diary, rather the issue is primarily with establishing a reliable English translation since the original account was written in German in 1843. An article written by James Crisp in 1993, "Sam Houston's Speechwriters: The Grad Student, the Teenager, the Editors, and the Historians," in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly opened the proverbial "can of worms" identifying the flawed translations of this memoir.6 Herman Ehrenberg, a survivor of the Goliad Massacre and one of the youngest members of the Greys, published his memoirs in 1843, and published two more editions of the same book in 1844 and in 1845, which has eluded accurate translation into English for over 150 years. Edgar Bartholomae, a graduate student at the University of Texas in the 1920s translated Herman Ehrenberg's memoirs for his master's thesis. An English review of Ehrenberg's work in 1845 only provided selected passages of the book, thus making Bartholomae's translation the first complete English translation after 80 years since its publication in Leipzig. The problem, for Bartholomae was however, a hasty job to finish in time for graduation, which prompted translation mistakes.7 With Crisp's look at Bartholomae's translation problems, in particular, it has also been discovered that the description of the New Orleans Greys uniform was also in need of reexamination. 

Ehrenberg provided a key description of the Greys uniforms. Ehrenberg wrote,"Wir hatten uns alle schleunigst graue, für das Laben in der Prärie passende Kleider angeschafft, welche wir fertig in den zahlreichen Magazinen fanden und denen der Name unserer Compagnie herstammt."8 Edgar Bartholomae translated this section as, "All of us had speedily purchased ourselves grey, for service in the prairie fitting uniforms, which we found ready made in the numerous magazines and from which the name of our company had its origin."9In looking at the original text, Dr. Louis E. Brister, modern languages professor, Southwest Texas State University, and translator with James Crisp for the upcoming translation of Ehrenberg has identified several important points in looking at Ehrenberg's descriptions of clothing and uniforms of the Texas Revolution. Ehrenberg used the German word "Kleider," which was very strictly used for "clothing" to describe the Greys apparel, and that of other Texas troops, and Ehrenberg was very specific in using the word, "Uniform"to refer exclusively to references to Mexican military uniforms. The term,"Magazinen"gets its origin from the French word, "magazin" or the Spanish word, "almazon," meaning simply warehouse or storehouse.10

The description should read,"We all quickly purchased ourselves clothing, grey in color, suitable for life in the prairie, which we found ready made in the numerous stores, [the color] from which the name of the our company was derived."11

This observation is consistent with other historical accounts, both primary and secondary, over the last 163 years, which have described the Greys uniform. Apart from Ehrenberg's account, several members left limited descriptions. Ebenezer S. Heath, writing to his mother in Massachusetts, March 10th, 1836 described their uniforms as a gray jacket and pants and a sealskin cap.12 Charles Bannister and William L. Hunter both left brief descriptions of accouterments, cloaks and hunting shirts being worn by some of the men.13

A recent discovery of an overlooked source has been brought to light by the descendants of Ambrose Fulton, Dr. and Mrs. John D. Tanner, which helps clarify what arms were obtained before the Greys left New Orleans. Ambrose Fulton, a sailor and businessman recounted how officers of the Greys went throughout the city to obtain donations of muskets, rifles, and navy pistols.14  One of only two copies is available at the Center for American History in Austin. The 1845 English review of the Ehrenberg memoir, clearly reveals what kind of apparel the Greys received before leaving New Orleans, "These [the Greys] had ransacked the tailor's shops for gray clothing, such being the color best suited to the prairie, and thence they received the name of "the Greys";..."15 This is significant due to the fact it was written in 1845.Ehrenberg could have provided input to the translation. 

Henderson Yoakum, early Texas historian, provided another account describing Captain Breeces Company marching through Nacogdoches enroute to San Antonio. As the Cherokee Indians watched on, "The appearance of Breece's company at Nacogdoches had a fine effect on the Cherokee Indians...Their fine uniform caps and coats attracted the notice of the chief Bolles. He inquired if they were Jackson's men."16Yoakum provided an account, which was relayed to him by Adolphus Sterne as secondary information, and was twenty years removed from the event. This account has caused some to believe that the Greys wore US Army surplus. There is a danger of reading too much into this account. All that can be assumed from this description was that the Greys were uniform in appearance. 

George Fisher, in writing to Stephen F. Austin on October 20, 1835 stated,"This route [El Camino Real] is the most circuitous, but the appearance of the volunteers from the U.S. has great effect upon the northern Indians and the slave population of the colonies, by making them believe that the Govmt of the U.S. has sent them to aid the Texians, and keep them in check against committing any depredations, upon the frontiers of the Colonies-..."17 American volunteers were sent through Nacogdoches to make a showing, in other words, to neutralize the Indians as a potential source of danger. The emphasis was not on what they wore, it was on their numbers, and where they came from, being the United States. 

According to Ambrose Fulton, the two companies drilled on Customhouse Square before leaving New Orleans.18  They knew, to some extent, the military drill and ceremony of the day by the time they arrived in Nacogdoches. Breece's company had a drummer, they received a flag at the Sabine River,and they also had artillery. Breece's company also came from the direction of the United States along the Camino Real. They did not have to be wearing US Army uniforms for anyone to ask a question if the Greys were Jackson's men in factoring in all of the above considerations. 

This particular tribe of Cherokees entered Texas around 1819. Their concerns from that point onward were keeping their tribal lands. The powers that be, who the Cherokees dealt with, were Mexican authorities. Granted there was some contact with US Army personnel from Fort Towson in August, 1827 with the Osage and Shawnee, but no mention is given that Cherokee chiefs were present at that meeting.19 And most of all, if Chief Bolles knew what a US army regular looked like, why would he ask the question if they were Jackson's men in the first place? It would be glaringly illogical. 

Reuben M. Potter, a retired US Army officer, and a resident of Matamoros, Mexico in 1835-36 interviewed several Texas prisoners of war as they were brought to Matamoros. Potter wrote to Henry McArdle, the famous Texas artist in 1874 that, 

There were probably no uniforms among the defenders of the Alamo, though, as there was among them a remnant of the New Orleans Greys, there were possible in the garrison a few specimens of the dress of that company;...it would be a just commemoration to idealize one or more soiled figures in plain grey jackets, trousers, and forage caps. 20
Amelia W. Williams and Eugene C. Barker in their role as editors of the multi-volume Writings of Sam Houston described the Greys uniform as being simple work clothing found in the local warehouses in New Orleans.21

In 1970 Joseph Hefter, famous military historian, in a letter in the Jackson Barracks Library, New Orleans ( figure 1) also stated in regard to the Greys uniform, 

A casual remark, such as "ready made clothes suitable to prairie life...greyish color...found in the warehouses of the city" reveals to the trained eye, a whole chain of information sufficient to reconstruct the figures of these volunteers. The shape and cut of such stock items found in the warehouses is well known. For example, the dress of the So. Carolina militia of 1836 on its way to the Seminole war, consisted of just such ready-made greyish prairie coats,..."22
The idea of a simple grey jacket and pants, and a hunting cap, is not a new or novel description. Rather, it is consistently the historical description for over 163 years

That the Greys wore US Army surplus cannot credibly stand on Cherokee Chief Bolle's one question whether the Greys were "Jackson' men." The simple question is not convincing enough to establish such a far-reaching notion. There must be more documentation for this view to be believable. Much more! The U.S. army in the 1830's was very strict in the requisition of uniforms for the numerous American frontier posts, and Erna Risch's Quartermaster Support of the Army goes into considerable detail of the procedures that post commanders had to go through in the 1830s to receive and account for new uniforms for their men.23

Stephen Osman, Director of Historic Fort Snelling, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and considered by many as an expert on the 1830s U.S. Army, states, 

I have personally spent one week per year (each March) in the Commissary General of Purchases files at the National Archives for the past 15 years.In that time I have gone through 2000 boxes of documents...there appears to be a gradual using up of the pre-1832 uniforms by the regular army. This is especially true with the service uniforms; perhaps less true with things like dress caps. I have also never seen anything about any sale of "surplus" uniforms after 1832. The Marines got a few items like shoes and caps, but the only items generally sold by the army during that time period were damaged things. This was not the case after the War of 1812, when big sales were held in the teens. However in the 1830s everything was simply expended in use.24
In documents provided by Stephen Osman from the National Archives, it becomes apparent that army records show a definite phasing out of the grey uniforms by 1832-1833, 
August 29, 1832 
Irvine to Peter Fayssouz, Military Storekeeper 

How many shoes will remain in store after completing the orders for that article you may have received up to date. It is desirable that few shoes should remain after completing the issues to the army the present year as shoes in future are not to be supplied. So of such articles in which a change of uniform is made, for instance coats, gray overalls, great coats and roundabout jackets, shakos, and knapsacks.25

March 25, 1833

Irvine to John Garland

The coats of the 1st, 3rd, and 7th infantry will have to be of the old uniform. In my letter the 7th February it was my intention to have said that the underdress, say roundabouts, jackets and woolen overalls, for 2 regiments would be of the new uniform but having been directed to use all the materials on hand in clothing these 3 regiments and also to alter the artillery to infantry coats, I did not mean to have it understood that the coats could possibly be of the new uniform neither can they now be as the coats for those 3 regiments are now all cut out and most of them are in the hands of the makers. It may be considered fortunate that materials for making so many woolen garments were on hand as wool and woolens have advanced considerably within 20 days past and not less than 15% yet I regret exceedingly that my letter of the 7th February was so written as to admit of misconstructions.26

There simply does not appear to be army surplus available in the 1830s. General Persifer Smith, commander of the Louisiana militia in January 1836, only 2 1/2 months after the Greys departed for Texas, published his proclamation (figure 2) for calling up troops for service in Florida. Smith required volunteers to provide for themselves all the necessary clothing, and that arms, provisions, medicines, and camp equipage would be provided for them by the army. Military uniforms simply were not available in New Orleans at this time.27 Even if there was US army surplus available for Texian emigrant volunteers, the choice would have been uncharacteristic for New Orleans militia units, based on Gen. Persifor Smith's descriptions of a vast array of uniforms seen throughout Louisiana in 1835 inspections.28  Ehrenberg's own condemnation of the US army as composed of "whiskey-loving foreigners"29 would cause one to wonder why would he, or any of the Greys would wear a uniform associated with such contempt?30

In looking at recently found federal court records of the trial of William Christy, chairman of the Texas committee, February, 1836, charged with filibustering, federal marshals inspected Christy's Texas donation records for violations of US neutrality laws. In the 23 depositions taken for Christy's trial, only one reference was made to the purchasing of articles of clothing for the New Orleans Greys, nothing about US Army surplus. And in one of the most clearly stated statements concerning the Greys was from Christy's clerk in his deposition, 

The money had been paid to different persons, from whom articles of clothing, provisions, and other articles necessary to those going to a strange country, had been purchased. That some money had been paid for arms, muskets, rifles, knives, canteens, knapsacks, blankets. They did not go as soldiers, and he [Latham] does not know what was expected of them."31
This was from a man who had direct contact with "the Texas business" as a clerk in Christy's office. Latham's statement, an eyewitness, was consistent with Ehrenberg's quote concerning clothing for life on the prairie.
Figure 3. Frost & Co. Advertisement.
A 21 November 1835 Frost & Co. advertisement for assorted items, including men's and youth's seal and fur caps. New Orleans Bee, 21 November 1835.
So, what did the New Orleans Grey's look like? Historically, they wore a simple gray jacket and pants. Alluding back to Ebenezer S. Heath's comment of a sealskin cap, admittedly, this continues to be elusive, since no caps from this period are still in existence today. The style of the hunting cap was chosen based on Potter's description, with smooth leather based upon art of country folk artists such as William Sydney Mount of New York, 32 and advertisements in New Orleans newspapers.33 According to Donald Kloster, Military Division of the Smithsonian Institute, the 1833 leather forage cap, also commonly known as the "hog-killer" cap, was made of Moroccan leather for line companies and goatskin for cadets.34 Civilian sealskin caps were sold on the New Orleans market at this time, and were distinguished from fur caps in at least one advertisement (figure 3, left ) found in the New Orleans Bee in November 1835.35 Fulton described that officers of the Greys went through the streets of New Orleans seeking donations of firearms. He stated they received rifles, muskets, and navy pistols.

Any one who examines all of the available sources, both primary and secondary, describing the New Orleans Greys uniform, will find a common description; that of a simple grey jacket and pants, and a hunting cap suitable and durable for life on the Texas prairies, which was somewhat uniform in appearance as to what they were able to obtain.


 

About Ed Miller

Ed Miller has taught history for 13 years. He now teaches Texas History at Kitty Hawk Junior High School, Converse-Judson where he has been for ten of those years. In 1995, Mr. Miller was nominated as Educator of the Year and recognized in 1996 as Texas History Teacher of the year at Kitty Hawk.

He received his B.A. degree from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and his social studies composite teaching certificate from the University of North Texas. Mr. Miller has also completed graduate work at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and at Southwest Texas State University in history.

Mr. Miller was president of the San Antonio Living History Association for two years, 1996-1998, and is a member of the William Barrett Travis Chapter, Sons of the Republic of Texas. He is also a member of the Alamo PC Club. The Journal of the Company of Military Historians, published Miller's  'The Texas Revolution, Civilian Suits, Whiskey-loving Foreigners, and the New Orleans Greys," and "The New Orleans Greys at San Antonio de Bexar, 1835"  in its Spring 1996 issue.
 

Mr. Miller is presently working on a book dealing with the Texas Committee, the New Orleans Greys, and the Tampico Expedition. Ed lives in San Antonio with his wife Marie.


Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Alamo de Parras