Imagine you are a Union soldier in the beginning of the civil war. You are at your first battle and you can hardly see anything with clouds of smoke and dust blocking your view. In your confusion you shoot at anyone that is dressed in the color of the confederate uniform. You end up killing three soldiers on your own side. This was a common situation in the beginning of the Civil War. Many inexperienced soldiers would fire on anyone who was wearing the enemy's color and end up killing people on their own side because of the variety of uniform.
Soldier's uniforms in the beginning of the Civil war were greatly varied in styles and colors. Some were made in fancy design with bright colors while others were of simple design with plain colors. Scottish Highlands style units, in bonnets and kilts served alongside regiments clothed in the colorful French-style Zouave uniform. Lancers and Dragoons with steel helmets fought against soldiers outfitted in the Italian-style green dress of sharpshooters. Most of these styles of uniform were impacted on by a foreign country. Some of the Union army leadership were veterans in the war of 1812, so they tended not to favor anything British.
Instead, they imitated the Zouave uniform of the French army which was thought to be the most powerful army of that time. This outlandish uniform consisted of baggy red breeches, a purple blouse, and a red fez hat. One of the regiments that wore this uniform was the New York Zouaves. They were reported to be one of the finest units to serve in the Union army. Other aspects of the uniform adopted from France was the cut of the uniform and the hat in 1851.
Some soldiers in other regiments had no specific uniform at all, but wore civilian clothes with stovepipe hats and claw-hammer coats. All this created an odd appearance and many problems on the field of battle. At the first battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861, some southerners in blue fought Northern soldiers in gray. Obviously, this caused great confusion between the two armies. As the war progressed, rules were passed ordering men in the same army to wear the same type of uniform.
The Confederate uniforms were gray or butternut brown and the Union troops wore dark blue and sky blue, the same colors as the United States army's uniform before the war. Both sides made their uniform out of wool. It was a good material to use because it was strong and would last long, but this heaviness caused it to be very hot in the southern climate, so heat stroke was a common occurrence. Also, when the material got wet, it would take long for it to dry.
Another material used in the uniforms was called homespun, which was a lighter material, almost like burlap, but most of the uniforms were made of wool. A soldier's uniform told a lot about the person wearing it. If they were in the Union army, they might wear a corps badge signifying the army corps he belonged to. The use of these started in early 1863. These badges were usually made out of metal and worn on the top of the hat where a passing officer on horseback could easily see the badge. Also, in both armies, the trim of the uniform told the job of the soldier.
An infantryman wore light blue trim, a cavalryman wore yellow, and an artilleryman wore red. This red trim on an artilleryman's uniform gave them the nickname "red leg." A gold colored braid and stars and stripes on the soldier's uniform told their rank. The more stripes a soldier had, the higher rank they were. Distinctions of rank were also indicated by the type of uniform a soldier wore. Majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and all general officer's coats had two rows of buttons while those ranking lower only had one. Overall, the uniform in the civil war was varied in color and style in the beginning of the war, but at the end, it had changed to become pretty much the same between both armies..