From reenactments to museums, you can find beautifully preserved artifacts detailing the daily lives of Americans during the Civil War. In fact, something as simple as the Civil War hats that you can find perched atop a person's head in a 19th century photograph can give you incredible insight into where the sitter came from and what their responsibilities were. If you've got a good eye and a few empty hours on your hand, you should browse some antique stores or the internet to see just what types millinery treasures you might find.
Civil War Military Dress and Civilian Clothing
During the early to mid-1860s, the American country was embroiled in a national conflict between two warring parties: the Union and Confederacy. Since these groups came from the same general market culture, their military dress was really similar. This meant that both the Union and the Confederacy couldn't easily be defined by their general silhouettes, but more so by their separate color schemes - blue for the Union and gray for the Confederacy. Additionally, soldiers and officers frequently added personal touches to their uniform, bringing hats, cloaks, pendants, and kerchiefs that came from their homes to the battlefields. Granted, officers and generals had a greater leniency to incorporate these items into their dress, as well as the generational wealth a person needed to afford high-quality luxury items like hats, gloves, and kerchiefs.
Civil War Hat Styles
There are five common styles of hats that you'll find on Civil War soldiers, each of which served their own purpose while simultaneously indicating some characteristics about their wearers. Hats were a customary item, worn both as a compulsory piece of the uniform as well as a protectant against the natural elements of the world, like sun exposure, heat, and rain. Of course, finding any one of these six hats would be an incredible opportunity and could become the highlight in someone's personal collection.
- Kepi hats - Kepi hats were one of the standard issue hats for all privates in both the Union and the Confederate armies. These wool hats came with a short, black brim and a slightly tipped forward indented top. This indentation displayed a noticeable circle in the fabric, which was canted towards the forehead.
- Forage caps/bummer hats - Forage caps were the second standard issue hat for both armies, and really resembled the Kepi hats in their construction. The major difference was that their circular flat tops weren't indented in any way, so you won't find any rim around the canted circles themselves.
- Slouch hats - If you've ever seen an artistic rendering of Confederate calvary man J.E.B. Stuart, then you've probably seen a slouch hat. These hats looked kind of like cowboy hats, but were positioned with one side of the hat completely vertical. These hats were often used by generals and cavalrymen, and are still used in the military today.
- Hardee hats - The Hardee hat, although it could be used at any time/occasion, was best used for formal dress. These stiff felt hats had a conical, pilgrim-like shape, and the same ninety-degree vertical side as the slouch hats had. Both sides of the war wore these hats and would adorn them with feathers and embroidery for an extra touch.
- Planter hats - Planter hats were more commonly seen among Confederate units, thanks to their association with agricultural labor. Many of these enlisted and conscripted men came from farming communities, and had their own wide-brimmed straw flat-topped hats to protect them at home that they brought along to the front lines.
- Bicorn hats - Bicorn hats are typically associated with Napoléon, but they were often used by Naval officers as part of their uniforms during the war.
Civil War Hat Manufacturers
Several different manufacturers contributed to the cause by producing military hats during the Civil War, and you can occasionally find authentic examples of hats from these makers in the wild.
- Lewis J. & Isaac Phillips of New York - They manufactured approximately 800,000 forage caps during the war.
- Geo. Hoff & Co. of Philadelphia - They made approximately 620,000 forage caps from 1861 to 1865.
- Thomas Murphy and William Griswald & Company from New York - They manufactured 583,000 forage caps from 1862 to 1865.
- G. & S. or Griswald and Son of New York - Their hats are notable for the chin straps they crafted onto them.
- Brooks, Matthew of Philadelphia - They made approximately 26,000 contract caps for the US Army from 1862 through 1865.
- Thompson, Goodrich, & Co. of Cincinnati - They made approximately 86,000 forage caps.
Dig Deeper Using Civil War Hats
Aside from the basic distinctions of these popular hats is the unique way that the stitchwork, embroidery, and accessorization could express fundamental qualities of the individual wearing it. Nearly all hats were color-coded to their individual sides, and accompanying insignias, cordings, and numbered embroidery could indicate an individual's rank, position, and unit, among other things. Similarly, goose, ostrich, and peacock feathers added to slouch or Hardee hats communicated a certain sense of financial and social status. Ultimately, these hats can tell you so much more than just what someone's head's circumference was, and it's one of the reasons why people continue to preserve these pieces of cultural history for future study.
Civil War Hat Values
Given the cultural fascination with the Civil War, collectors are willing to pay a lot of money for items directly related to the war, particularly since items like these hats don't come available as frequently as other collectibles do. It's really unlikely to find hats in mint/unused condition, so those that normally come to auction are lightly used at best. Average kepis and bummers can sell anywhere between the low $100s to the low $1,000s, depending on their condition. For example, one pristine Confederate kepi recently sold for nearly $2,500.
In addition to the hats themselves, you can also purchase accoutrements that came with these hats to mark certain militaristic distinctions. Things like cords, badges, and embroidery patches can sell for substantial amounts as well. These items, depending on how well they've fared the past 150+ years, can sell around $50-$100. One collector bought an unissued infantry hat cord for $55, while another bought a kepi hat unit number for almost $45.
Where to Collect Civil War Hats
Due to being made out of natural fibers, Civil War hats are rather fragile, and a lot of them weren't properly stored over the many decades since their creation. This means that there aren't as many of these hats as there are other Civil War artifacts available for collectors to find. That being said, if you ever find yourself on the eastern coast of the United States, you'll be able to find a lot of Civil War artifacts in antique stores in the area. It's less common to find Civil War artifacts listed on traditional auction websites like Ruby Lane or 1st Dibs, so these individual-seller based platforms are a better place to start.
- eBay - This is the easiest, and most successful, place for collectors to find Civil War hats. Of course, their pricing ranges vary depending on the individual sellers, but they're the most likely place on the internet to actually have some of these hats available.
- Etsy - Though Etsy doesn't specialize in sellers with antique items such as this, you can occasionally find Civil War hats on their website. So, it's a good resource to keep in your rotation when you're looking to collect these antique hats.
- Tortuga Trading Post - The Tortuga Trading Post is a lesser-known antiques operation which both buys and sells items, such as Civil War hats.
Reproduction Civil War Hats
Since the vast majority of people can't find authentic Civil War hats for sale, there's always the option for having a reproduction hat created to your custom specifications. A few reputable craftsmen that create these reproductions include:
Dirty Billy's Hats
At Dirty Billy's Hats, you can have several different hats made by a legendary millinery craftsman. With work featured in Hollywood productions including North and South, Rough Riders, and Gettysburg starring Sam Elliot and Martin Sheen, you can't find a reproduction with a higher quality than one from Dirty Billy's. These hats cost around $100 on average.
Clearwater Hat Company
The Clearwater Hat Company is based in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. This hat company, which has received several grants from the National Endowment of the Arts to collect folklore, has also outfitted Hollywood. The family-owned business provided the hats for Jude Law in the movie Cold Mountain. Most of Clearwater's Civil War-style hats sell for $90. One of their standard hats is a custom sSlouch hat, marked by a ribbon on the brim and a rounded crown.
Miller Hats, which claims to be the world's largest online men's hat store, sells authentic design Civil War hats as well. The Houston-based company sells hats with enlisted insignia and authentic-style hat cords for approximately $100.
Tip Your Hat to These Antiques
The American Civil War is shrouded in a fantastical cultural legacy, defined by the epic scope and country-altering events that took place during the conflict. Yet, even the most mundane antiques, like uniform hats, can let people like you get a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived - and died - over 150 years ago.