Among the many iconic uniforms and gear associated with the American Civil War, the Hardee hat stands out as unique hat adopted by troops on both sides of the conflict. Distinguished by its wide, flat brim and high rounded crown, the Hardee had a utilitarian yet rakish look that encapsulated the spirit of the war’s citizen-soldiers.
The origins of the Hardee hat can be traced to the 1850s when it was adopted by the U.S. Army based on the hat designs of the Hungarian revolutionary Kossuth. It replaced taller, heavier shakos that offered less functionality for active duty. The Hardee was first issued to soldiers in the West and soon became popular army-wide, including with many future Civil War generals.
The hat was named after William J. Hardee, a cavalry officer who wrote the first official manual on tactics for the U.S. military in 1855. Hardee had favored wider brims and lower crowns for cavalry headgear to provide shade and visibility while riding. The hat that now bore his name had a broad 6-inch brim and a tapered crown approximately 4 inches tall. It was made of black felt with a leather brim binding. The Hardee was lightweight, durable and well-suited for field use.
When war erupted in 1861, the Hardee hat was still general issue across the U.S. Army. This meant both Union and Confederate forces were initially outfitted with the distinctive headwear. It remained popular throughout the war, though often with variations in color and materials. Gray wool versions were used by Rebel troops while Yankees continued producing black hats. The brim binding also evolved, with front and rear binding giving way to full brims edged in branch colors – sky blue for Union infantry, red for artillery, for example.
Cavalry forces in particular took to the Hardee due to its practical design. The wide stiff brim provided shade and rain protection while riding long hours on campaign. It also helped define the distinct silhouette of the cavalry branch, becoming almost synonymous with the image of the mounted Civil War soldier. Two famous cavalarymen who exemplified this were Union General George Armstrong Custer and Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, both of whom wore personalized Hardee hats.
In infantry service, the Hardee competed with various caps and slouch hats during the war’s early years. But as conflicts evolved from parade ground maneuvers to prolonged field engagements, the Hardee’s benefits for active duty made it indispensable for the rank-and-file. Like cavalry versions, infantry Hardees were often adorned with hat cords, brass insignia and other decorations to convey branch affiliations and ranks.
While valued for its functionality, the Hardee wasn’t without drawbacks. Its stiff, cylindrical crown resisted being folded or stuffed in a pocket. The high crown and broad brim also made it unwieldy in close-quarter fighting. In wet weather, rainwater would soak through the felt, dripping down soldiers’ necks. Still, for regular field activities, the advantages far outweighed any inconveniences for most troops. The Hardee provided valuable sun and rain protection while allowing freedom of movement and vision. And its rakish silhouette had an undeniable panache.
By the Civil War’s end in 1865, the Hardee hat reigned as one of the conflict’s most ubiquitous and iconic pieces of headgear. Alongside kepis, slouch hats and other diverse styles, the Hardee served valiantly through countless battles and hardships. In modern memory, it remains fixed as a distinctive symbol of Civil War soldiers – a testament to their grit, valor and sacrifice. The jaunty, weather-beaten hats seem to personify the citizen-soldiers themselves, who left home and hearth to fight for causes greater than themselves, indelibly shaped by the harsh crucible of war.