21 July 2021
Edward Hallett looks at the typical uniform and equipment carried by a cavalryman at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and on campaign during the Indian Wars.
The popular idea of a US cavalryman at the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is heavily influenced by Hollywood and the image in most people's minds will be of a heroic cavalryman, dressed in blue with a smart grey hat and a yellow neckerchief. Reality for the cavalryman on campaign in the mid-1870s was rather different and this account from Charles King of the 5th Cavalry paints a more realistic picture, ‘We had fallen back on our comfortable old Arizona scouting suits, and were attired in deerskin, buckskin, flannels and couduroy... you could not have told officer from private.’
The Battle of the Little Bighorn was just one battle in a larger series of campaigns fought by the US Army in the aftermath of the Civil War as westward expansion brought colonists into conflict with the indigenous populations of the American interior. Although infantry and artillery had their place, the huge plains of the central United States meant that the Indian Wars were predominantly cavalry conflicts, men on horseback being the only ones who could cover the distances quickly enough to be effective against the warlike Native American tribes. The men and officers who fought in this war suffered from the disadvantages of being at the end of an extensive supply line and fighting for an army that had not yet recovered from the Civil War. The country, as a whole, was very short of money following the war and there was little appetite for military spending. Added to this there were huge quantities of clothing and equipment in warehouses that was left over from the Civil War.
Much of this equipment and uniform had been hurriedly acquired during the conflict and contracts had been issued to many unsuitable firms who, in peacetime, would not have been chosen, due to their poor workmanship. With this material now being used up to save money, many cavalrymen found the uniforms and equipment from stores fell apart quickly on campaign so replaced them with privately purchased, civilian items of better quality. This combination of civilian and military clothing was then patched and repaired to keep it serviceable throughout a campaign. Sgt John Ryan described the appearance of cavalry on 1868, ‘… almost destitute of clothing, our trousers being patched with seamless meal bags. A large number of the hats belonging to men were made of the same material. The legs of our cavalry boots were terribly scorched and burned from standing around camp fires and as substitutes we used leggings made from pieces of tents. A number of men had to use woollen blankets in place of overcoats.’
Like all armies of the time, the US Cavalry had different qualities and styles of uniforms for both its enlisted men and officers. This difference reflected both the differing status of these men in the army and their different social statuses in society at large. Officers also had a large degree of leeway in how they wore their uniforms on campaign and many acquired personal affectations such as straw hats, or expensive spurs that were not part of the army's official dress regulations.
The most common cavalry jacket was the shapeless sack coat. This was a single breasted unlined woollen coat that came down to the waist, secured by four brass buttons. Many older soldiers still preferred the old shell jacket, which was a waist length, tight fitting jacket with a high collar and gave a more military appearance. Both of these jackets were supplied from stocks left over from the Civil War and were paired with an issue grey or blue shirt. This was almost universally replaced with a civilian-manufactured shirt which was more comfortable and popular designs included both full and half butttoned shirts whilst the fireman’s shirt was particularly popular with its flap that buttoned across the chest.
Sky blue trousers were issued made of kersey wool with metal buttons to secure the fly and attach the braces to. These trousers were supposed to have yellow piping down the edges to indicate the wearer was a cavalryman, but it was common for the piping to be omitted at this date. The trousers were universally decried for being of particularly poor construction and they wore out in the seat and inner thigh very quickly from the everyday wear and tear of riding. Where possible, white canvas was used to reinforce these areas, otherwise it was the ubiquitous burlap feed bags that were used instead.
An issue woollen great coat was available and this was a dark blue woollen coat with a single breasted front fastening and a half cape over the shoulders. It was completely inadequate for the cold nighttime temperatures in the winter and was frequently dropped in favour of coats made from buffalo skins that were warmer. The cold was a constant problem to US Cavalrymen and the issue clothing was never adequate to protect soldiers, so traditional frontiersmen's clothing, such as skins, were used extensively to supplement and replace the issue uniforms. Buckskin was very popular with officers due to it being virtually indestructible and, in wet weather, the tassels, left hanging down, quickly channeled rain water away allowing the leather to dry rapidly.
Headgear and boots
Officially the US Cavalry was still equipped with the Hardee hat at this period. This was a black felt hat, with a flat top and a broad brim to help keep the sun and rain off. It was worn with yellow cords to indicate the cavalry arm of service and often had brass insignia pinned to the front to show which unit a man belonged to. Also, still in service was the famous Civil War era kepi cap. This was a low cap with a leather peak and one cavalryman commented that wearing a clam on one’s head would have been about as useful as the kepi! It offered no protection from either rain or sun and was only issued as there were large quantities of them in stores left over from the Civil War. They were never popular and troopers did their best to get rid of them at the earliest opportunity.
As with so many other items of uniform, men quickly replaced these issue caps with privately purchased civilian models, straw hats being especially popular. Straw boaters were the preference of officers and one soldier recalled, ‘…in the field we see no forage caps, but in their stead hats, white hats, brown hats, black hats, all kinds of hats except the service hat, for that too is unsuitable.’
Boots were a continual problem for the cavalry throughout the Indian Wars. Initially, cavalrymen were issued with short bootee type boots that came up to their ankles and, when in the saddle, the fall of their trousers fitted neatly over these boots. When walking on the ground, though, the ends of the trousers fell further and trailed in the mud. Wherever possible men tried to get hold of proper calf length boots and as the Indian Wars progressed these began to be issued by the US Army. Compared to modern boots they were made of very thin leather and had squared off toes, there being no distinctive left and right boots. The boots had a small Cuban heel and were made of blackened calfskin. The quality was poor and, despite the uppers being sewn to the soles, it was common for them to come apart easily and for the heels to be ripped off. If any sort of walking was required, then they were not expected to last more than a month before needing to be replaced. One mounted infantryman recalled that he and his men, ‘… staggered into Fort Laramie, that is what was left of us, our feet wrapped in torn blankets, as our shoes were gone.’
Officers purchased their own boots and could afford better quality footwear than their men. They often wore knee high boots with the tops turned over. Canvas or buckskin leggings were also popular.
Spurs were worn with the boots to help the cavalryman control his horse. Officers’ spurs tended to get smaller during this period and they wore more delicate and lighter versions of the same brass and leather spurs made popular during the Civil War. Enlisted men were issued with brass-bodied rowel spurs but again if they could afford it some upgraded to ornate examples made of Mexican silver.
Cavalrymen carried less equipment on their bodies than infantrymen, instead slinging many items over the saddle of their horse. Typically, a cavalryman would carry a round bullseye metal water bottle, covered in a tan felt or canvas and marked US. This design had been around for many decades and would see service right through to the end of the century and, as with much equipment used by the US cavalry in the 1870s, many of these bottles would be Civil War surplus supplemented by new manufacture as supplies began to dwindle. Simple tinplate mugs were also commonly carried for both drinking out of and as an improvised mess tin.
Cavalrymen frequently carried revolvers as well as their carbines to give them a short burst of intense firepower. These revolvers were carried in leather holsters on either the waist or the saddle. Many Civil War era holsters were retained in service, modified as circumstance dictated; top flaps were frequently cut back to allow easier access to the gun and newly manufactured examples tended to have smaller top flaps than earlier designs.
This holster was frequently worn on a sabre belt. This belt held the cavalryman’s sabre, holster, pouches for ammunition and percussion caps. It was usually made of blackened or dark brown leather with a large brass buckle to secure it at the waist.
Some specialist accoutrements were developed for the cavalry in this period to take advantage of metallic cartridges. Traditional box pouches were hard to access on horseback and it was easy for cartridges to fall out, but the advent of robust metallic cartridges allowed loops to be used instead. The M1874 Hazen Cartridge loop was one of these; this was a special leather pouch designed to be worn on the belt that had loops for rounds of 45.70 ammunition. Later canvas belts were completely filled with similar loops that allowed the cavalryman to have a large number of rounds held securely but within easy reach if the need should arise.
For communication on the battlefield, bugles were essential and their distinctive sound could be heard over the noise of gunfire, shouting and horses’ hooves. Bugles were frequently kept as souvenirs by buglers on retirement and passed down through families. This means they are fairly easy for the collector to find today and they are quite attractive objects so remain popular.
Gloves were essential for protecting cavalrymen’s hands whilst riding. Simple soft leather gloves were issued in shades of buff or yellow. Officer’s gloves were very similar but made of white leather.
Collecting the US Cavalry
As might be expected for uniforms that are now over 150 years old, original US Cavalry uniforms from this period are rare and expensive. Most of these items survive in the United States and an original shell jacket can fetch over $3,000, caps are around $2,000 and a sack coat is slightly cheaper at around $1,000. For collectors in the UK, the cost of having these items imported and insured must not be forgotten. Various military dealers in the United States specialise in Civil War and Indian War uniforms and equipment and these are excellent places to look for original pieces. For those who cannot afford these original items, modern reproductions are easily available and far cheaper; they also allow a mannequin display to be put together with no fear that an irreplaceable original will be faded by sunlight or eaten by moths. Whilst they lack the history of the originals they retain the visual impact of uniforms of the period and allow the enthusiast a more cost effective way of collecting the period.
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