Colonel Albert Brackett’s Body Armor

Albert Gallatin Brackett (Library of Congress)

The notion of a bullet proof vests during the Civil War is almost universally mocked. In my experience giving battlefield tours, I’ve found that kids are the only ones to ask, “did they use body armor” or “why didn’t they have bullet proof vests?” That usually draws a chuckle from the rest. Occasionally a museum visitor will see an armor artifact on display, but the accompanying panel will explain its ineffectiveness. Sometimes that message is reinforced with a large bullet hole pierced through the steel plating.

The ability for body armor to stop a bullet should not be questioned. There are plenty of examples of a diary, bible, or pack of playing cards stopping a minie ball. The heavy weight on the march, unwieldiness in combat, and high cost kept armor off the torsos of the average Civil War infantryman. However, Colonel Albert Gallatin Brackett, 9th Illinois Cavalry, was fortunate to wear a steel plate on June 27, 1862.

A native of Otsego County, New York, Brackett fought in the Mexican War as an officer in an Indiana regiment. He afterward served as captain in the U.S. Cavalry on the Texas frontier. He returned north after the outbreak of war in 1861 and took command of the 9th Illinois Cavalry. The regiment was part of the Army of the Southwest’s expedition through northeastern Arkansas during the summer of 1862.

Major General Samuel R. Curtis wanted to transfer men to the Mississippi River and send a message in doing so. The column lived off the land as it marched from Batesville to Helena. Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman boasted that the Union force would not survive Arkansas, calling on every local resident to withhold supply and contest every inch of the journey. Though no large Confederate force offered resistance, the Army of the Southwest was frequently interrupted by small skirmishes and guerrilla attacks. Living off the land threatened the livelihood of the Arkansas residents. Large numbers of contrabands joined the column, to the delight of Union soldiers who embraced abolition for practical or moral reasons, and further upset the area’s white residents.

Army of the Southwest Expedition through Arkansas, June-July 1862 (map by author)

On June 27th, Brigadier General Frederick Steele, commanding a Union division, sent an escorted wagon train to capture grain stored at Old Ranch Place, located south of Jacksonport on the White River. The foraging party encountered little resistance on the way to Old Ranch Place but ran into an ambush near Stewart’s Plantation during their return. Unable to pick out targets concealed in the cane break along the river, the Union cavalry fell back toward Jacksonport. Brackett received orders for the 9th Illinois to ride to Stewart’s Plantation, destroy the ambushing force, and retrieve the damaged wagons. Brackett reached the plantation that evening without a fight and continued his pursuit. Further down the road, the column ran into another ambush, where the terrain continued to favor the outnumbered Arkansas soldiers.

Brackett refused to yield. Captain Charles S. Cameron observed his commander under fire: “Col. Brackett directed every movement that was made, and this he done in person, exposed all the time to a galling fire from an unseen foe.”[1] As muzzles flashes illuminated the darkness, the colonel fell from his horse. Astonished onlookers watched as he shook off his suffered gunshot and continued to lead the men. Afterward they realized Brackett had worn a steel vest under his uniform. Cameron noted his commander “was struck with a ball, inflicting a severe injury, his life being saved because he was protected by a steel vest.”[2]

Surgeon Charles Brackett, Albert’s brother, also noted in his diary, “Col. A.G. Brackett struck in left side below heart with heavy minie ball; saved by steel vest. Concussion severe—Ball deflected passing out through coat carrying handkerchief two thirds through ball hole.”[3] The surgeon noted it was only instance he knew “of a steel vest saving life.”[4] Brackett had additional luck in the battle, a correspondent noting that he was also struck “through the gauntlet of his left hand, so near the arm as to graze the flesh. Happily he escaped unhurt.”[5] Other accounts suggest that the bullet fractured one of his ribs.[6] Bugler Edward B. Cook of the 9th Illinois later provided more context for the National Tribune postwar veteran newspaper, noting that some vests had been procured for the regiment, “but the boys never drew them.” However, he commented, “one of them saved the life of Col. A.G. Brackett… for the writer saw the dent made in the plate by a bullet.”[7]

The 9th Illinois returned to camp with the wagons, claiming victory. The Arkansas soldiers meanwhile declared they had driven away the column. Either way, the expedition continued on to Helena, where Brackett’s remarkable tale was quickly conveyed back to hometown papers.

“Col. Brackett came literally within an inch of his life,” an account stated in the Rock Island Argus and Daily Union. “A ball struck on a breastplate, which he wore under his vest, within an inch of the margin, and glanced off, passing out through the coat a few inches from where it entered.”[8] A correspondent for the Chicago Tribune claimed the musket ball “penetrated his clothing and would have killed him but for a steel vest which he wore.”[9] A published private letter likewise commented, “and if our colonel had not had on a steel vest he would have fallen on the spot.”[10] A soldier correspondent for my own hometown Geneseo Union Advocate meanwhile wrote, “A rifle ball struck Col. Brackett’s steel vest and glanced off, having come within an inch of accomplishing the fell design of the traitor that sent it.”[11]

Brackett himself would later write an article about Curtis’s expedition for the National Tribune in 1887. “The Arkansas soldiers showed themselves to be good skirmishers and were well managed,” he recalled. “One thing quite noticeable was the rapidity and precision with which the enemy fired, the combatants being very close to one another.” Curiously, he did not mention his steel plate, simply commenting, “While the fight was at its height I was shot in the left side by a rifle-ball, which wound afterward gave me a good deal of trouble. I did not leave the field, however, and continued with my men until after their return.”[12]

Despite Brackett’s own downplaying of the event, there is at least one well-documented example of Civil War body armor effectively saving a soldier’s life.

 

Sources:

[1] Charles S. Cameron to “Editors of the Chicago Tribune,” June 25, 1862, “The Recent Fight of the Ninth Illinois Cavalry,” Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1862.

[2] Charles S. Cameron to “Editors of the Chicago Tribune,” June 25, 1862, “The Recent Fight of the Ninth Illinois Cavalry,” Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1862.

[3] Surgeon on Horseback: The Missouri and Arkansas Journal and Letters of Dr. Charles Brackett of Rochester, Indiana (Carmel, IN: Guild Press of Indiana, 1998), 145.

[4] Ibid., 161.

[5] “From Curtis’ Army,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1862.

[6] “Some War Stories,” Louisville Courier-Journal, September 28, 1884.

[7] “Steel Breastplates,” National Tribune, April 4, 1895.

[8] “The Ninth Cavalry,” Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, July 21, 1862.

[9] “From Curtis’ Army,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1862.

[10] “From Gen. Curtis’ Army.” Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1862.

[11] T.S. to “Friend Hosford,” July 29, 1862, “From Brackett’s Cavalry,” Geneseo Union Advocate, August 1, 1862.

[12] Albert G. Brackett, “Arkansas Travelers,” National Tribune, April 7, 1887.

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4 Responses to Colonel Albert Brackett’s Body Armor

  1. Dale Fishel says:

    This story brings to mind (hopefully not inappropriately) the heavy burden contemporary fire fighters and police officers carry to provide additional life-saving protection. Firefighters routinely carry about 80 pounds of “gear” of various description, including air-tanks and recently have added “bullet-proof” vests for protection from gunfire. One can imagine the strength and endurance it takes to work a fire call that may require hours of intense activity under that load. Even if steel armor had been available for Civil War infantrymen that extra weight would have brought unbearable fatigue on long marches and certainly in battle. The accounts of men disposing of necessities during long marches speaks to the impracticability of adding armor, even if universally available. The good Colonel can also be thankful for his faithful horse carrying the load.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      Yeah, there’s no way to feasibly armor your average Civil War infantryman, but my experience in public history is that people find the idea of body armor as preposterous because they assume it wouldn’t stop a fired bullet. If a pack of cards in your pocket can stop a minie ball, of course a steel plate could. It’s the impracticality of wearing body armor that makes it unreasonable to equip the soldiers.

      • Edward S. Alexander says:

        Though I’d imagine in most instances it’s probably a spent ball that’s lost speed, but could still possibly be fatal.

      • Dale Fishel says:

        Edward Alexander…good point! Civil war books are full of accounts of men spared by “spent” bullets!

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