Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Confederacy

Last week, I was talking with a good friend of mine who I met years ago through our shared interest in the material culture of the Civil War. We are both fascinated by uniforms—how soldiers chose to represent themselves and their cause through clothing, how wartime realities of material shortages and life in the field shaped what clothing soldiers wore, what the clothes tell us about the man inside them.

My friend, a Marine officer currently stationed overseas, mentioned one of KHS’s finest pieces, Confederate Colonel Joseph P. Nuckols’s uniform. “That,” I said, “is the beau ideal of a Confederate officer’s uniform.”

It is. And it isn’t. Aesthetically, it is most certainly not the beau ideal of Confederate clothing. KHS has better. The coat is a mousy light gray, fraying with moth holes, trimmed in chipping dark blue on the collars and cuffs, with tarnished colonel’s gold braid up the sleeves, stars hanging onto the collar by a thread. This coat has gone to war, and looks like it.

One of the sleeves has a bullet hole from Nuckols’s wound in the elbow while commanding the Orphan Brigade’s skirmish line at Chickamauga. When I was a park ranger there in graduate school, that was my favorite spot on the battlefield to interpret. Nuckols’s 4th Kentucky Infantry contained a company of soldiers from my hometown in Trigg County.

That coat speaks to places I have lived, stories I told to park visitors, friendships I made. It connects past and present in my life in touching ways. Nostalgic ways. I feel about Nuckols’s coat more or less the way I feel about the Confederacy.

Let me unpack that statement.

KHS has another Nuckols uniform, too, one that tells a very different, but related, story. In the late 1870s, Nuckols became the adjutant general, commander of the Kentucky State Guard. As such, he had a coat made in the traditional militia gray. Trimmed in gold, heavy bullion epaulettes and aguilettes hanging from the shoulders, encircled with a gold embroidered belt with the state seal as a buckle. The whole ensemble is topped off with two choices of headgear, a rakish feathered chapeau or a gray kepi with as much gold on it as gray.

I call it Joseph’s Amazing Confederate Dreamcoat.

It is, in another sense, the beau ideal of Confederate officer’s coat. It is what Nuckols could never have had in the field in the 1860s. It is the Confederacy remembered as it never was. Grand, traditional, courtly, dashing. Its wool is of higher quality, a darker blue that hasn’t picked up any of the browns of the 1860s coat as it aged. Its Kentucky state seal buttons speak to a time where former rebels held the reins of power in Frankfort in ways that were never the case during the war.

Nuckols’s 1880s Dreamcoat was made at the beginning of the decade during which the Confederacy would get a major makeover. Veterans organizations and pro-Confederate revisionist authors began to rewrite the history of the South and of the war. They began to downplay slavery, gloss over the sins of Reconstruction and Redemption, and speak nostalgically about a genteel world of moonlight, magnolias, and a glorious lost cause.

Nuckols wore that lost cause daily while he was on duty. Not the actual cause, mind you, the ragged, dirty, shot-up one. That stayed in the closet. He presented his best Confederacy to the world in the 1880s. Just as memorial groups such as the United Confederate Veterans and, locally, the Orphan Brigade association did in popular culture.

And after Nuckols retired and eventually died, family members sold the his 1880s State Guard coat to a costume rental shop, where every Halloween someone went sporting out as the unblemished, Technicolor version of the Confederacy that Nuckols wanted to project two decades after the shooting stopped.

That Confederacy wasn’t real. It was built on romantic fantasy, not chattel slavery. Yet it is alluring, attractive, and more fixed in our cultural imagination through literature and film than the Confederacy of the 1860s.

I grew up as a southern white boy in love with the 1880s Technicolor Confederacy. I imbibed it. I embraced it. I never questioned it.

As I have matured as a person and as a historian, though, I find myself more at home with the 1860s moth-eaten Confederacy. Which is to say this: I recognize its flaws. I have studied them. I know how they came to be. I understand how those knots, tears, and tarnish shaped me as a person, what I thought, what I believed, how I acted towards others.

It is important that we keep these two Confederacies in mind and keep them separate. One calls us to be dazzled and to celebrate, the other compels us to examine, deconstruct, and understand. That is the work of public history institutions like KHS. We do not collect, enshrine, and commemorate. We analyze, interpret, and teach. KHS is the place where we are able to look at the rips and tears in our history and see how the threads come apart and who did the work of weaving them together.

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