• Weird History

A Visual History Through 24 American Military Uniforms

The history of the American army uniform is a fascinating subject. You might wonder how the military went from wearing tri-corn hats to using Kevlar. After nearly 20 years of collecting original historic military uniforms and equipment, reading books, talking to historians, and doing research, I have realized that all uniforms descend from others in one way or another, somewhat like a family tree. 

For the sake of clarity and coherence, this list will focus on the campaign (combat) clothing and personal equipment of the average enlisted soldier in the United States Army from the American Revolution to the present.

The history of all American army uniforms for both men and women is too vast to condense on this platform as it includes the history of the cavalry, artillery, dragoons, medical personnel, scouts, officers, engineers, dress uniforms, other specialists, and privately purchased uniforms in the army. Equally vast are the uniforms and equipment of the United States Marines, the Navy, Special Forces, the Coast Guard, and the Air Force.

Now, enjoy the pictorial history of the American army combat uniform...

  • The Second Seminole War

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    In an attempt to remain free from American control, the Seminole people (made up of various individual Native American tribes) of the southeastern United States went to war against the United States again in 1835 under the leadership of Osceola.

    The practicality of the short, gray wool jacket of the War of 1812 was evident and in the years following the war, the United States government returned its focus to expanding its power into the lands it obtained as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. 

    As the army was sent into the wilderness to set up forts or protect traders, the densely wooded forests and swamp lands forced both US regulars and militiamen to resort to guerrilla warfare. The tailcoat proved to be unsuitable, particularly during the First Seminole War, because of the long coattails in the back, whereas a short jacket was easier to move in. Additionally, it was easier and cheaper to make. 

    Slowly, the tailcoat as well as the tall leather shako were semi-retired and retained only as a parade and dress uniform for special or official occasions.

    Beginning in the mid-1820s, a new style of headwear was adopted: the 1825 pinwheel forage cap. It was a low-sitting, navy blue wool cap with a wide, stiff crown, much like a pinwheel. It had a button on the top of the crown with stitching emanating out from the center. The bill was made of leather and square-shaped. 

    During periods of less large-scale military activity, the army was often reduced in size, while also being relatively spread out. Often, regular and militia units were clad in uniforms that were mixed and matched. 

    It was also around this time that a taller boot was adopted for the army, the pattern 1822, that was black in color, rough-out leather with a square toe and made on straight lasts. 

    The ideal standard infantry uniform was meant to be as follows: 

    • Pattern 1825 pinwheel forage cap, navy blue
    • Leather folding forage cap
    • Pattern 1831 sky blue roundabout shell jacket with white trim
    • Sky blue dismounted foot trousers
    • 1822 boots
    • Shirt brought from home or purchased on the market
    • 1808 flintlock musket
    • White three-button cotton haversack and sling
    • Triangular bayonet, scabbard and leather sling
    • 1820s pattern black leather cartridge box and leather sling 
    • Military issue blanket worn as a ‘blanket roll’ across the body
  • The US-Mexican War: 1846 To 1848

    Photo: Public Domain / via Cultivoo

    When James K. Polk bullied Mexico into war in 1846, the army had been transitioning over from flintlock muskets to faster and better quality percussion cap long arms. This change began to affect the uniform and the personal equipment kit. The ideal infantry uniform and kit included the following:

    • Pattern 1833 sky blue shell jacket
    • Sky blue broadfall front foot trousers
    • Enlisted pattern 1839 wheel cap
    • Privately purchased shirt 
    • 1822 pattern boots or low quarter lace up ankle boots 
    • 1842 Springfield musket or 1808 flintlock musket
    • 1839 or 1842 black leather cartridge belt and white leather sling
    • White cotton haversack
    • Triangular socket bayonet with black leather scabbard and white leather frog 
    • White buff leather waist belt and first pattern ovular ‘U.S.’ belt plate 
    • Tarred canvas haversack and army issue red wool blanket
    • Black leather percussion cap box
    • Tin drinking mug
  • The Great American Civil War: 1861 To 1865

    Photo: Public Domain / via Civil War Academy

    It is a common misconception that during the American Civil War, the northern Federal forces strictly wore blue and the southern Confederate forces strictly wore gray. The truth is much more colorful, figuratively and literally

    The outbreak of war in April of 1861 saw enormous fanfare, pageantry, and romanticism associated with the drama of war. Hundreds of newspapers and broadsides ran printed sketches of dashing young officers charging into battle with shimmering sabers. Because of this enthusiasm and bravado, the regular army and militia units went to war clad in uniforms ranging from drab and simple to flashy and intricate. Union army regiments wore standard blue uniforms, gray militia uniforms, zouave uniforms that were influenced by the French North African colonial troops, and over a dozen other uniform designs. It is far too expansive to go into in detail here. 

    The regular US forces went to war wearing the pre-war knee-length Prussian blue frock coat and hardee hat. Additionally, the more common four-button sack coat and sky blue trousers were issued by the millions with a more practical forage cap that was styled after the French army kepi. 

    The older white buff leather equipment had already begun to be phased out by this time in favor for a set of black leather and tarred canvas equipment.  The ideal Union army uniform for infantry was meant to be as follows:

    • 1858 four-button Prussian blue sack coat, knee-length frock coat or short dark blue shell jacket
    • 1858 pattern sky blue, wool dismounted foot trousers
    • Military issue white linen or cotton pullover shirt
    • 1855 navy blue forage cap or McDowell pattern forage cap
    • Black hardee hat or black slouch hat. 
    • Dismounted, sky blue, wool greatcoat
    • Rough-out leather "Jefferson" pattern brogans (short boots) 
    • 1855 black leather waist belt with second pattern "U.S." ovular belt plate
    • Federal issue tarred canvas haversack and sling
    • .57 or .69 caliber black leather cartridge belt with oval "U.S." belt plate
    • Black leather sling for the cartridge box with circular federal eagle plate
    • 1857 triangular spike socket bayonet with leather scabbard and black loop "frog"
    • 1858 bullseye canteen with a sky blue, dark blue or brown wool cover and white linen or leather sling
    • Tin drinking mug
  • The Plains Wars: 1866 To 1891

    Photo: Public Domain / via National Cowboy Museum

    The unexpected suffering during the American Civil War affected military thinking, which then affected uniform and equipment development. From 1866 to the late 1870s, supplying the same uniform to each soldier was difficult and soldiers were often clad in mixed uniform pieces. 

    The four-button sack coat, forage cap, and sky blue trousers continued in service until the early 1870s, when they began to be phased out for the 1872 and 1874 fatigue uniforms. 

    The short-lived 1872 fatigue blouse is a strange and uncommon garment. Made to fit loosely, this nine-button, single-breasted tunic was entirely pleated, perhaps as an experimental uniform that would allow for more movement for the soldier. Very little information about it survives and it seems to have been disliked. Therefore, it likely had a short life in the history of American military uniforms.

    By 1874, the ideal US army infantry uniform was meant to include the following: 

    • 1874 five button fatigue tunic
    • 1874 sky blue dismounted trousers
    • 1850s Civil War era brogans (short boots) 
    • Military issue or private purchased shirt
    • 1874 forage kepi, 1873 Andrew’s hat or 1876 black campaign hat. 
    • 1873 Springfield trapdoor rifle. 
    • 1874 black leather waist belt and rectangular "U.S." belt plate. 
    • Leather "McKeever" pattern black cartridge box
    • 1873 socket bayonet, black metal scabbard and black leather swivel frog with brass "U.S." or state rosette
    • 1872 two-piece mess kit
    • 1878 canvas and leather knapsack
    • Hagner pattern black leather cartridge box, worn on the waistbelt
    • 1874 canvas haversack with Chambers pattern sling
    • 1872 canteen with cotton duck canvas cover and linen sling