Articles

The Civil War's Union Army is the reason beat cops wear blue

By the end of the Civil War, Los Angeles was still a relatively new U.S. city. It was ceded to the United States with the rest of California in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. In 1869, the population was up to 5,000, with more coming in all the time.


They had one City Marshal and a Sheriff to police them. Soon, the murder rate and public drunkenness demanded more police officers. Six men wore the badges and Winchester lever-action rifles of the new LAPD.

LA in 1869. Somewhere a drunk cowboy is complaining about Mercury in retrograde while his buddy asks for gluten-free hummus.

Early LAPD Sheriffs had a short lifespan. The second-ever City Marshal was murdered in 1853. Sheriff James Barton was assassinated in 1857. The murder rate was as high as one every day, with many coming from LA's 400 gambling halls and 110 saloons. Until these six men were deputized in 1869, mob rule and vigilantism were the usual method of justice.

These days, flash mobs rule LA. (LA Film School photo)

This was when the American police department received its iconic dark blue uniforms. The Los Angeles Police Department's first official uniforms were Army surplus — the dark blue of the Union Army of the American Civil War. And they looked exactly like Union soldiers too.

All they need is a bayonet. Nothing inspires law and order like a bayonet.

Still, that didn't ease much for the City Marshal, who was also the dog catcher and tax collector. Marshal William C. Warren didn't even get along with his deputies, one of whom shot and killed him six years later.

Go ahead. Try to take an Angeleno's dog away from them. That's probably what Marshal Warren did.

LA had 16 police chiefs between 1879 and the turn of the 20th century, averaging almost a new guy in the position every year. By 1893, the cowboy hat in the Union Army uniform was replaced with a stovepipe hat — the helmet in the style of British "Bobbies" — for the beat cops and flat tops for the sergeants and officers of the force.

There should be more than six guys twenty years later, right?

Many cities like Los Angeles adopted the same practice of using Union Army surplus uniforms in the days following the Civil War. Similar photos of NYPD officers wearing the old uniforms and "Bobbie"-style helmets can be seen as early as 1893.

Leave it to Los Angeles to set the first vintage clothing trend.

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