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 tricorn hats to using Kevlar. After nearly 20 years of collecting original historic military uniforms and equipment, reading books, talking to historians, and doing research, this military buff has 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 US 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 attire for cavalry, artillery, dragoons, medical personnel, scouts, officers, engineers, and other specialists, as well as privately purchased uniforms. Equally vast are the apparel and equipment of the US Air Force, Navy, Marines, Special Forces, and Coast Guard.

For now, enjoy the pictorial history of the American Army combat uniform.

Photo:

  • Revolution! The Continental Army

    Revolution! The Continental Army
    Photo: H. Charles McBarron / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The American Revolution flung colonial Americans into war without a universal, standard uniform. As a result, clothing and equipment varied greatly. The ideal basic uniform and equipment kit consisted of:

    • Knee-length navy blue coat with red facings
    • White or off-white breeches
    • A linen or cotton pullover shirt
    • A waistcoat (vest) of cotton, linen, or even wool

    Civilian and hunting clothes were also used due to shortages. A tri-cornered hat was the ideal, but men wore a wide variety of similar military and civilian headgear. 

    The most common long arms were the British Brown Bess flintlock musket. Other weaponry might include:

    • French flintlock muskets
    • Hunting rifles (muskets) 
    • Leather cartridge boxes with leather slings (others used a "belly box" cartridge pouch carried on a belt)
    • Cotton or linen haversacks
    • A triangular socket bayonet and scabbard with sling
  • The War Of 1812: The Age Of The Shako Headdress

    The young United States was ill prepared to fight Great Britain in 1812, but American regulars and state militia units went to war with what they had on hand. Substitute clothing and equipment items were used when no other alternatives were available. The ideal basic uniform and equipment kit consisted of:

    • Model 1812 blue and red coatee
    • Model 1812 wool-felt shako
    • Broadfall-front white cotton trousers
    • Gray wool broad fall front trousers
    • Tarred canvas button up spatterdash gaiters
    • Low-quarter lace-up shoes. 
    • Shoes and lace-up boots, brought from home or purchased
    • Model 1813 blue wool coatee
    • Model 1813 leather shako
    • Cotton or linen shirt
    • Models 1797 and 1808 flintlock muskets
    • Lherbette knapsack
    • Wooden or metal canteen, cork, and linen or leather sling
    • 1808 leather cartridge box and leather sling
    • Cotton haversack and sling with pewter buttons
    • Triangular spiked bayonet with scabbard and sling
  • The War of 1812: Late War Gray Short Jackets

    The War of 1812: Late War Gray Short Jackets
    Photo: H. Charles McBarron, Jr. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    As the War of 1812 progressed and the Americans realized it was going to be a difficult fight, resources became scarce. To cut costs and production time, a waist-length, gray roundabout/shell jacket came into use when the older pre-war and wartime blue wool coatees ran low. 

    The expediency model short gray roundabout jacket is pictured above during the Battle of Chippawa

    Equipment seems to have not changed significantly in this period.

  • 1814 To The 1830s: Tailcoats To Shell Jackets

    1814 To The 1830s: Tailcoats To Shell Jackets
    Photo: H. Charles McBarron, Jr. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    After the fight with Britain was over, the US Army collected itself and returned to producing coatees, but without the red trim and with a somewhat shorter coattail in the back. The dark gray trousers continued in service. Overall, the kit consisted of: 

    • The 1825 dark blue coatee, which replaced the war time 1814 blue coatee
    • A privately purchased shirt
    • White broadfall cotton trousers followed by… 
    • Sky blue or dark gray broadfall front trousers
    • Pattern 1822 lace-up boots and low quarter lace-up shoes 

     Equipment seems to have not changed significantly in this period. 

  • The Second Seminole War

    The Second Seminole War
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    In an attempt to remain free from American control, the Seminole people (comprising various individual Native American tribes) of the southeastern US went to war against the US 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 US government returned its focus to expanding its power into the lands it obtained as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. 

    As soldiers were sent into the wilderness to set up forts or protect traders, the densely wooded forests and swamps 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 simpler and cheaper to make. 

    Slowly, the tailcoat as well as the tall leather shako were semi-retired and retained only as parade and dress uniforms 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 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 the army adopted a taller boot, called pattern 1822, which 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

    The US-Mexican War: 1846 To 1848
    Photo: Henry Alexander Ogden / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When President James K. Polk bullied Mexico into war in 1846, the army had been transitioning from flintlock muskets to faster and better quality percussion cap long arms. This change began to affect the uniform and 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 “US” belt plate 
    • Tarred canvas haversack and army issue red wool blanket
    • Black leather percussion cap box
    • Tin drinking mug