Scholarships and Awards Help UNLV Historian Research Civil War Uniforms

May. 26, 2020

MAY. 11, 2020 History may be written by the victors, but sometimes the vanquished weave their views into the story, too. Shae Smith Cox is examining the ways in which the narrative of the U.S. Civil War was affected by how Confederate uniforms were sewn and celebrated – not just during, but after the war, too.

Cox, who earned her Ph.D in history this spring, found that the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups funded uniforms for Confederate veterans to wear in parades after losing the war that were, in fact, much nicer than their actual uniforms had been. This created a legacy that wasn't accurate.

“Confederate soldiers mostly had shoddy clothing. That image of (Confederate General) Robert E. Lee in the fitted uniform is propaganda. Sometimes they would take the uniforms from dead Union soldiers and try to change the blue color to something more faded to look like gray; they’d rub them with walnut shells and iron to try to change the color,” says Cox.

Post-war, the Confederate veterans’ uniforms were made to be gray and fitted; and that’s often what you see in movies. But they weren’t really consistently gray.

“After the war ended in 1865, veteran’s organizations, and primarily southern womens’ service organizations, preserved the notion of the South being noble,” she says. By funding better uniforms for veterans, and displaying them in parades, the defeated didn’t look quite so defeated.

“Those organizations were fabricating history. They were perpetuating a false version of history with the physical representation of the Confederates never losing. So in this way, the Confederates lost the actual war but they won the culture war,” she says.

In the 150+ years since the end of the Civil War, many of the ideals espoused by the Confederate South have survived due to the commodification of images like the “stars and bars” on the Confederate flag, and have been adopted by some groups in today’s political and culture divides.

Cox suggests this was the idea all along – that the veterans’ groups intended to manipulate the narrative. “They fully did this on purpose – changed the memory machine. They created systemic concepts with materials that people wear.”

Her research has been boosted by support from numerous awards and scholarships. These include the Elli H. Cooper & LauraLee Ledbetter Public History Scholarship, the Jerry Lodge and Robert E. Clark Scholarship, the Hal K. Rothman Doctoral Research Award, and the Harold & Judith Boyer History Student Scholarship.

In addition to her doctoral studies at UNLV, Cox has been active as a public historian in Nevada. She served as the interim curator and other roles at The International Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (The Mob Museum) in Las Vegas, and is the former deputy director for the nonprofit organization Preserve Nevada.

Cox was set to walk in graduation this May, but like everyone, her path has been altered by COVID-19.

“While it may not be exactly what we pictured, speaking for myself I am not letting a pandemic completely derail years of hard work. I may not get to be hooded by my advisor at a graduation ceremony on May 16th, but, for me, that does not diminish the accomplishment of earning a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.”