The Myth and Reality of the US Cavalry Stetson
The Current Story of the US Cavalry Stetson
The US Cavalry Hat, often referred to by soldiers as a "Stetson", is sort of an American military tradition on par with the feathered hats of the Italian Bersaglieri or the tall bearskin caps of Britain's Grenadier Guards.
Although not an official part of the US Army uniform, members of any US military unit with a cavalry designation may privately purchase a black, wide-brimmed hat in a shape often associated with cowboys on the American Great Plains. Cords, insignias, and unit badges are added. These hats are typically worn with the army uniform at special events (or on Fridays). They can be worn with any uniform at the commanding officer's discretion. The purpose of this hat tradition is to generate esprit de corps among cavalry troopers who hope to distinguish themselves in some way in their respective brigades and divisions. If you have seen the film, Apocalypse Now!, you will remember Robert Duvall as the commander of an "air cavalry" squadron wearing a "Cav Hat" in combat.
But the question I'm hoping to answer in this essay is how much tradition is really tucked away in this historic headgear of the US Cavalry? The Grenadier Guards and other European units that are steeped in tradition typically have not changed their uniforms at all since those units were first created. US Cavalry leaders seem to make a similar claim regarding their hats. The lore purported by cavalrymen is that the Stetson's tradition began with US Cavalry regiments wearing these hats since the 1700s. The wearing of the hats disappeared with the extinction of horse cavalry in the 1920s, but was later revived. Obviously, there are some missing details to this vague lineage that I think we should look into. We should ask the questions: When did the "cavalry" hat originate? Who wore it? What did it look like? When did soldiers stop wearing it? When and why did they start wearing it again?
The Stetson Legacy
I guess the first point worth making is that the Cavalry "Stetson" is a misnomer in many cases. A Stetson is not a type of hat. It's a brand name in reference to the Stetson Manufacturing Company. The name stuck in army culture because the Stetson Manufacturing Company made many of the first custom cavalry hats ordered by Army officers in the mid 20th Century. Today, few cavalry hats are manufactured by Stetson and Stetson's primary lines are of civilian headgear. Stetson’s
iconic Boss of the Plains Hat was introduced for wear in the western US territories in 1865. But there is no evidence that Stetson hats were purchased by US Cavalrymen or that Stetson had any contract to provide hats to US Cavalrymen in those days. It seems that the Stetson hats came to be purchased by Cavalrymen in the revival period of the cavalry hat.
Reality of the Early US Cavalry
The reality of the situation is that, first, the US Cavalry did not properly exist until 1855. Prior to that, there were dragoon regiments and a regiment of mounted riflemen. Dragoons were considered to be infantrymen who travelled on horseback and sometimes fought on horseback. The War Department was always careful to add the prefix light at the beginning of each dragoon regiment's official name in order to underscore the fact that these men were to be infantrymen first. It was implied on all cases that one day they might or might not receive funds for horses. Mounted riflemen were just that: infantrymen equipped with rifles instead of muskets who traveled on horses provided by the War Department. These units were not permanent establishments until the 1830s. Since the foundation of the US republic, mounted units were raised by Congress and then discharged on several occasions. From 1812 to 1815 the Regiment of Mounted Rangers existed. Although professional soldiers, they fought as irregular troops with an assortment of their own weapons and equipment. The rangers had no prescribed uniforms, but their civilian headgear consisted typically of top hats, slouch hats, coonskin caps, or bandannas. By the 1820s, all mounted units were dissolved to save money. Prior to the re-establishment of the dragoons in 1833, US mounted units had been equipped with leather riding helmets--not hats.
The purpose of wearing any wide-brimmed hat would have been to keep the rain and sun off one's face. Prior to 1841 and the end of those Indian Wars taking place east of the Mississippi River, the US Army did its fighting in the dense forests of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Sun was not a problem and so no wide-brimmed hats were ever officially authorized by the War Department. However, infantrymen, dragoons, and artillerymen often purchased civilian slouch hats or top hats for fatigue wear or while on a campaign in search of Creek warriors. But this practice was certainly not exclusive to the mounted units. Mounted volunteer units and militia were known for riding with top hats into combat and this practice was most likely emulated by the regular troops. Again, however, top hats were not exclusive to the mounted volunteers.
1855 Cavalry Hat
Better Hats for the Army of the Deserts and Plains
In the 1840s, the War Department shifted its focus to the treeless prairies and deserts west of the Mississippi. Here, wide-brimmed hats were often privately purchased from local Mexicans during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. Again, this practice was common to all units--mounted or not. The official hat worn by soldiers up to this time was a felt, visor campaign cap. Though soldiers during the war preferred their own civilian hats, this is never depicted in artist's renderings of the Mexican-American War. In 1851, the War Department finally authorized a hat deemed more practical for fighting Comanche, Apache, and Lakota Tribes in open terrain. The hat was known as the "Andrews Hat". More closely resembling a 17th-Century Massachusetts Pilgrim's hat than a Stetson, it saw almost no distribution to the units posted on the distant frontiers. Incidentally, the US Dragoons stationed in Texas were the first to receive the hat to any degree of regularity or quantity.
In 1855, Congress created the 1st and 2nd US Cavalry Regiments. These were units equipped with horses who were expected to fight and travel on horseback to cover the great expanse of the American steppes. They were equipped with a unique form of headgear, closely resembling the Andrews Hat, though one side of the brim was pinned up into place with a gold-colored eagle and black ostrich feathers adorned the other side. The two cavalry regiments wore their specialized headgear until 1858, when the entire US Army was issued a similar hat with a few minor changes. This hat, known as the "Hardee Hat" was very unpopular to the preferred forage cap of the kepi style (iconic to the American Civil War).
In 1861, both of our dragoon regiments and our mounted rifle regiment were re-equipped and re-designated as cavalry regiments. A sixth cavalry regiment was also added, thus marking the beginning of the cavalry age of the US Army. Headgear across the army was universal with only minor decorative differences between infantry and cavalry. In the Civil War, Union generals most often had custom wide-brimmed hats made for themselves. Soldiers sometimes purchased and wore back civilian slouch hats instead of wearing the forage caps. This was most common with units fighting the Apache and Sioux west of the Mississippi River.
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, general officers serving in the volunteers reverted to their pre-war lower officer ranks within the US Army. Although they were now colonels, majors, and captains, they were reluctant to give up their custom hats they had proudly worn as generals. Soon, field-grade and company-grade officers out west were wearing their non-regulation headgear as the normal practice. Their enlisted soldiers, in an attempt to beat the harsh elements followed suit by still purchasing newer and better civilian slouch hats. As always, this practice was universal and was not only done by US Cavalry regiments.
Civil War Hats
1872 Campaign Hat
1876 Campaign Hat
1883 Campaign Hat
Campaign Hat of the 20th Century
The Evolution of the Model 1876 "Cavalry" Hat
From 1864 to 1869, Ulysses Grant, possibly the shabbiest-dressed military officer in service (since his emulated hero Zachary Taylor) served as the Commanding General of the US Army. Naturally, his example created a brief era of non-conformity in the rank and file in terms of uniforms and headgear. All regiments stationed in forts on the distant frontiers remained in a state of undress with odd assortments of headgear when not dressed for inspections. While on campaign, they often wore no prescribed uniform at all. Field grade officers, like George Custer, were even designing their own non-regulation uniforms.
With the Indian Wars in the west reaching a peak, the Congress of 1866 created a whopping four new cavalry regiments--two of them comprised of only African Americans. Although there were now ten US Cavalry Regiments on the frontiers, there were still a total of twenty five infantry regiments. Thus, the cavalry were not doing all of the Indian fighting out west.
After Grant became President in 1869, General of the Army William Sherman became the Army's Commanding General. He and the War Department tried to bring some semblance of order to the swagger toward regulations occurring out west. He moved his headquarters from Washington to St. Louis. In 1872 a new campaign and garrison uniform was introduced and was distributed by the War Department. It was a simple short blue blouse or "sack coat". It would be worn with an official wide-brimmed campaign slouch hat of the same color. This hat was issued to all types of units; cavalry, infantry, or others. The Army's campaign hat design was tweaked slightly for a new 1876 Model that most-closely resembles the "Cav Hats" worn by soldiers today. This hat was dark blue, but drab (an olive color that looks tan) was authorized as well and came to see wider distribution than the blue hats.
After General Sherman's retirement in 1883 when the Indian Wars were drawing to a close, Philip Sheridan became the Army's next Commanding General. With soldiers still looking for cooler and more casual options for clothes on campaign, the War Department authorized a blue long-sleeved shirt for campaign or field service. The sack coat became a standard garrison service uniform that was now to be worn with a new visored cap. Plumed helmets were worn with full-dress uniforms. The campaign hat was retained and was paired with the new blue "overshirt" and the color of the hat was officially switched blue to drab. Thus, blue wide-brimmed hats were gone. With this new assortment of uniforms for many occasions, the practice of donning civilian gear on campaign slowly died away and discipline became more strict with regards to uniform enforcement.
Interestingly, the drab campaign hat remained the army's standard campaign hat for all combat units (including cavalry) from the 1880s until US entry into World War I in 1917. After the US conquered the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, a sturdy cotton uniform became more desirable than traditional blue wool. In 1902, the blue overshirt was officially replaced with an olive-drab service uniform that was to be worn with the matching campaign hat. The Service Uniform (or Class-A uniform) was a lightweight tunic intended for campaign or combat use, particularly in the jungles of East Asia and Latin America. The blue sack coat was promoted to the level of a "dress" uniform. Meanwhile, the Civil War era "full dress" frock coat was worn only on the most formal or ceremonial occasions. The drab campaign hat itself went though a few cosmetic changes of its own. The crown was pulled up into a point to allow tropical rainwater to more easily pour off. It now more closely resembled a rough-looking park ranger hat.
During World War I, the US Army briefly discarded the campaign hat for little caps and steel helmets provided by the British. The Army Campaign Hat was again distributed after the war, though a new visored cap came to be more prevalent with the service uniform (now made of wool again). The campaign hat became more of a field service hat. The hat went virtually extinct in 1942 and stopped being issued to the new troops in World War II. However, old Army officers and sergeants would still wore the Army's campaign hat as a mark of experience. Drill Sergeants wore the hats while training raw recruits to show that they were senior soldiers who were in the military prior to US entry into World War II. In fact, the old campaign hat is still in use today by US Army Drill Sergeants at training installations. This is a long-lost nod at a tradition dating back to the Second World War. So, in truth, the old campaign hats of the plains never went away. They merely evolved until they became the headgear of drill sergeants.
Today's US Army Campaign Hat
Poster of a Cavalry War Film
Origins of the Cavalry Hat Tradition
The current tradition of US cavalrymen wearing "cavalry hats" dates back to the Vietnam War. Horse cavalry had been extinct in the US Army since the 1920s. Horses were replaced by armored tank units. In World War II, the defunct regimental system of the US Army also fell apart. In place of the large and unwieldy regiments, independent battalions and squadrons that had only historic affiliations with the old regiments became the standard. With the army's adoption of the troop-carrying UH-1 Iroquois Helicopter in the 1960s, Air Mobile (Air Assault) Squadrons were created that were given a historic affiliation with the US Cavalry regiments that no longer existed. These were new crack units where excited squadron commanders generated new ways to express esprit de corps.
The impetus for the first squadron commander and others to don the old Model-1876 Campaign Hat was derived from the explosion of Cavalry War films of the 1950s and 1960s. These Indian War films were sub-genres of the popular westerns and war movies that dominated action films in those days. Between 1950 and 1970, I count about 44 of these films being made--not including the hit TV show F Troop. That is an average of over two per year hitting theaters. The actors portraying officers leading the cavalrymen in these films all wore blue campaign hats, while the enlisted men usually wore drab hats. Army morale in the early and mid-1960s was low. Since 1942, its ranks had been filled of unwilling and disinterested conscripts. Compared to the Air Force and Navy, the Army was losing funding battles in Congress for new weapons. The Army had been humiliated in Korea. The Navy, Air Forces, and Marines had taken credit for defeating Japan, while victory over Germany had to be shared with the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and the US Army Air Forces (now an independent force). World War I was not solely a US Army victory, nor was the Spanish-American War thanks to the Navy. In fact, the last time the US Army ever really succeeded in a war on its own two feet had been against the Plains Indians in the 19th Century. That seemed to be a "Golden Age". The Army had to admit that the Vietnam War was not going so well by 1968. But a few years before that time, certain commanding officers were buying replicas of Model-1876 Army Campaign Hats and wearing them for fun. The hat-wearing was contagious and soon all ranks were purchasing them to celebrate a cavalry "tradition" that never really existed. Enlisted men bought the same color hats as their officers, who themselves were incorrectly buying black hats instead of dark blue ones. Thus, another American tradition was founded on myth, Hollywood, and false assumptions.
To this day, it is all but mandatory that a US Army officer or senior-level sergeant serving in a Cavalry Unit purchase and wear a "Cavalry" Hat--usually erroneously referred to as a "Stetson". But while they think they are carrying on a revived tradition, they have actually just invented one. Meanwhile the true Army Campaign Hat still lives on in the form of a drill sergeant's hat.