Less is More: Hat Insignias
By Craig L Barry
June 2010 Civil War News - The Watchdog

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Union infantryman with brass
insignia on forage cap.
(Library of Congress)

The image with this column is pretty straightforward and was selected to make one particular point. Ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War, some changes were made to U.S. military insignia.

The War Department issued metal insignia which went on U.S. accoutrements, while the Ordnance Department issued insignia which soldiers wore on their clothing.

Hat hardware has been and continues to be one of the most overdone aspects of mainstream Civil War reenacting. Hat insignia was found in use during the war, just not nearly to the extent it is in use now.

The photo shows a Union infantry private with the generally accepted placement of the brass insignia on a forage cap. His infantry horn insignia is odd, and it appears to be one of the so-called “false metallic” horns with tassels at the bottom which were for officers. Enlisted men’s branch insignia were stamped in brass and made to be worn on the front of the 1858 enlisted dress hat, the Hardee hat, sometimes called the Jefferson Davis hat.

The style of the forage cap made it difficult to affix the insignia to the front of the cap above the brim. It was a practice of some soldiers to affix brass insignia on the top of a forage cap as seen above. However, this was not prescribed by U.S. Army regulations.

Regulations stated that forage caps were only to have “…yellow metal letters in front to designate              companies.” The brass infantry horn, regimental number and company letter were intended for the enlisted dress hat only.

There were different insignia for engineers (castle), cavalry (crossed sabers) and artillery (crossed cannon barrels). You will sometimes see crossed rifles on the crown of a kepi or forage cap at reenactments, where it may be purchased on the sutlers row.

Crossed rifles replaced the infantry horn in the mid-1870s. The only Army insignia with a rifle or musket on it is the Combat Infantryman’s Badge which became the infantry branch insignia in the mid-1920s. Neither, of course, would be in place at any Civil War living history or reenactment.

Hat hardware was not as common in the Western Theater of operations, as there were more civilian-style hats in use. From the soldiers’ perspective these affected a more veteran appearance. If a regulation hat was worn, it was often shaped to suit the owner and found with minimal trimmings or hardware, if period images are to be trusted.

In the mid-19th century, hats were a symbol of status, manliness and style. Any careful study of period images will yield numerous examples of the kinds of headwear in use.

In fact, a review of over 400 period images of Western soldiers where the hat could be made out showed 83 percent of the soldiers in some kind of civilian hat, 7 percent wore plain kepis or forage caps and the remaining 10 percent wore Hardee hats, only some of which carried the regulation brass hardware, according to a March 1991 Camp Chase Gazette article by Kurt Holman.

In other words, over 90 percent of the Western soldiers did not wear any brass hat insignia at all.

In the Eastern Theater of operations, a study of Army of the Potomac (AoP) images showed 64 percent of the hats were plain, about 19 percent had insignia and 17 percent had corps badges, according to Holman.

Corps badges were originally worn by AoP soldiers on the top of their army forage cap (or kepi), left side of the hat, or sometimes over their left breast.

The corps badge idea is attributed to Maj. Gen. Phil Kearney, who once reprimanded some officers who were not under his command. To avoid this mistake in the future, Kearney ordered the men in his division to sew a two-inch square of red cloth on their hats to avoid confusion on the battlefield.

Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker adopted the idea after he assumed command of the AoP, so any Union soldier could be identified on the battlefield at a distance. Somehow, this simple act was said to improve morale, which was understandably low based on what was happening on the battlefields of Northern Virginia at the time.

When Grant took over the AoP he reorganized the army and the system necessarily changed. By that time there was a dizzying array of corps badges. Herein lies the biggest challenge with extensive hat decorations — they are a limiting factor in terms of time period portrayed as well as which unit one represents. The Confederacy never initiated a badge system for identifying their infantry units.