By Michael J. McAfee
The U.S. Army Regulations of 1861 were very specific on what trim should be placed on the 1858 forage cap. Section #1493 specified “yellow metal letters in front to designate companies.”
In all my decades of collecting, I do not recall having seen that regulation put into practice. The closest illustration to the regulations appears in this carte de visite, right, which shows an early war soldier with his company letter AND the regimental number pinned to the front of his cap. In general, most soldiers either left insignia off their caps or placed branch insignia, regimental numerals, or company letters and later corps badges, on the tops of their caps. Even regular soldiers were photographed with “non-regulation” insignia on their caps. So much for official regulations…
A few soldiers however, clearly felt a need to express themselves by decorating their headgear beyond the regulations. Pvt. W.B. Smith of the 14th Illinois Infantry, for instance, detailed his experiences in his biography, “On Wheels and How I Came There.” He wrote, “As for myself, I purchased a silver-plated laurel wreath, about two inches in diameter, and a silver-plated company letter, K, and State letters and the number of my regiment, 14, which were all placed on top of my cap, the letters and numbers all going within the wreath, and all appearing very neat.”
Unfortunately, a photograph of Pvt. Smith and his cap does not exist. But the accompanying photographs clearly show other soldiers had the same impulse.
The decorations range from the basic to the extreme. How long the trimmings lasted beyond the photographer’s studios is unknown. We know from Smith though, that his decorated cap did not last long. “On reaching my regiment I noticed that the veterans had no distinguishing marks on their hats.” The soldiers advised him to remove the adornments so that he might not become trapped and caught by the enemy while on a foraging expedition.
Smith’s individuality was trumped by a wise decision to blend into the masses. Still, decorated caps make for much more interesting photographs.
Sgt. Henry I. Small, Company C, 6th Vermont Infantry, has topped out his cap, much as did Pvt. Smith, with a wreath, his state, regiment and company.
Pvt. Henry B. Morris, Company I, 56th New York Infantry, also used a wreath, but was content to place only the company letter and regimental number on the hat.
Men of the 44th New York Infantry often trimmed their caps with the letters “P. E. R.” early in the war. The “People’s Ellsworth Regiment” also went by “Ellsworth Avengers,” in honor of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth.
Wilson Jones, an unassigned private in the 19th New York Cavalry (1st Dragoons), spelled out the full nickname of his regiment in metal letters.
MI Senior Editor Michael J. McAfee is a curator at the West Point Museum at the United States Military Academy, and author of numerous books. He has curated major museum exhibitions, and has contributed images and authoritative knowledge to other volumes and projects. The photographs reproduced here are from his collection.
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