Alongside the more famous kepi hat, the humble forage cap was one of the most widely used hats among Civil War troops. This unassuming headgear lacked the flair of slouch hats or Hardees, but its practicality and comfort made it a staple for soldiers on extended marches and in camp.
The forage cap traces its origins to simple military fatigue caps of the early 19th century. Made of wool and loosely fitted, these caps were utilitarian accessories for work details and fatigues. The name “forage cap” came from their use when soldiers went “foraging” for firewood, food and other supplies around camp. They were not intended to be combat wear.
When war erupted in 1861, many volunteer regiments brought forage caps from state militia service into Federal and Confederate ranks. The U.S. Quartermaster Department also issued simple blue wool caps early in the war, though they were often replaced by more stylish kepis once in the field.
While the kepi was the standard headgear for drill, review and battle, the humble forage cap remained essential gear for labor, guard duty and PT. Soldiers often preferred the soft caps for sleeping and off-duty wear as well. Made of wool broadcloth or knitted wool, they were warm but light and allowed good air circulation in hot weather. The rustic design and cheap production also made replacement caps easy to procure. While kepis were decorated to denote branch and rank, forage caps were unadorned.
By 1863, a pattern for a standard Union forage cap was approved, though individual variation remained high. The rounded crown, stiffened visor and narrow bound edge gave a neat uniform appearance. The cap band was occasionally piped in the branch color. Confederate caps followed a similar template, though shortages sometimes led to odd variants. The Columbus Depot cap had a high tapered crown more like civilian headgear. Homespun yarn and knitted caps appeared as wool and mills became scarce in the South.
Though indispensable in camp, forage caps were rarely worn in battle. The loose fit and minimal visibility made them ill-suited for combat conditions. However, there were exceptions when situation and necessity dictated. At the 1862 Battle of Antietam, many Union wounded returned to battle in bloodied forage caps rather than regulation dress.
This illustrates how forage caps epitomized the hybrid identity of the Civil War soldier – part civilian, part soldier. Most recruits were volunteers more accustomed to homespun woolens than stiff military kit. The forage cap’s simplicity evoked farm and field more than parade ground or review. They were worn-in, rumpled and crude reflections of citizen-soldiers.
This threadbare, homespun nature also made the forage cap a potent symbol as the war dragged on. Grimy caps mirrored the deteriorating uniforms, morale and conditions of the stalemated armies locked in total war. As fancy kepis were battered beyond recognition, forage caps emerged as true headgear of the people’s armies.
Though overshadowed by more dashing hats such as the Hardee hat, the humble forage cap served a crucial, if unglamorous role for Civil War troops. On long monotonous marches, through nights spent shivering on picket, while laboring to erect tents and dig latrines, this simple cap offered basic comfort and warmth when needed most. Like the citizen-soldiers themselves, it was worn, crude and unremarkable – but essential.