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November 4, 2011

William LeDuc’s Civil War Body Armor

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Matt Anderson @ 11:53 am

Civil War body armor

When Captain William G. LeDuc, of Hastings, Minnesota, reported for duty to the Union Army Quartermaster’s Department in 1862, he brought with him a bit of insurance: a vest made from jointed steel plates. Made by the Atwater Armor Company of New Haven, Connecticut, the vest consisted of eight separate plates connected by slotted rivets and hinges, worn over the shoulders with cotton web straps that fastened at the back. It certainly wasn’t physically comfortable, but it brought some psychological comfort – for a little while, at least.

Steel vests were not standard issue during the Civil War, but were sold by private sutlers that followed the armies on their campaigns. While they were wonderful in theory, the vests had a few drawbacks in practice. First and foremost, they were heavy. Everything the soldier took with him had to be carried on his person. A 10-pound vest – in addition to the required 50 pounds of standard equipment – became a burden very quickly on a long march in the summer sun. Likewise, in the heat of battle a steel vest restricted a soldier’s movement. (LeDuc, as an officer, could have transported his vest by wagon on marches, but that wouldn’t have helped him in battle.)

Second, the vests were of dubious value. They were produced by any number of manufacturers, to various levels of quality. Undoubtedly some of the vests did protect against bullets, but others were shot clean through when exposed to gunfire. There are stories of vests being damaged by bullets, and their resulting jagged edges tearing into wounds, making them worse. There were a few, too, made of “steel” that was nothing more than flimsy tin.

Third, a soldier with an armored vest was liable to be labeled a “shirker” by his comrades, scared to face the enemy. An armored vest might stop a bullet, but it was useless protection against any of the coward’s thousand deaths. (It should be noted that LeDuc’s vest only has plates in the front. Coward or not, any soldier wearing it certainly wasn’t planning on being shot in the back.)

For any or all of these reasons, most Civil War body armor simply was abandoned along the way. Complete, surviving pieces are somewhat rare today, making LeDuc’s vest a particularly special piece in our collection. Not surprisingly, the vest shows little sign of use. LeDuc didn’t need it, in any event. He survived the war (having been promoted to Brigadier General along the way) and returned to Hastings. He served a term as U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture in the Rutherford B. Hayes administration and involved himself in various business concerns – to mixed results. LeDuc passed away at age 94 in 1917.

Matt Anderson
Objects Curator

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2 Responses to “William LeDuc’s Civil War Body Armor”

  1. spencer johnson Says:

    thanks for putting this on line so we can all enjoy it. its a great part of the leduc story. steve osman told me awhile ago about finding it. I will share this with my students here in hastings
    spencer Johnson
    Social Studies
    Hastings Middle Schoool

  2. Heidi Langenfeld Says:

    Thank you for posting this unique artifact owned by William Gates LeDuc. It is not surprising that it shows little wear after reading the description you include with the piece. Also, as Quartermaster LeDuc’s risk of being shot in battle would have been minimized. His battles centered more around getting food to the men through flooded rivers, washed out mountain roads and trails blocked with fallen trees compliments of the Confederate Army.

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