Kepi - North American Usage

North American Usage

In the United States, the kepi is most often associated with the American Civil War era, and continued into the Indian Wars. Union Officers were generally issued kepis for fatigue use. A close copy of the contemporary French kepi, it had a sunken top and squared visor. It was often called a "McClellan cap", after the Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, G.B. McClellan. For field officers, the caps were often decorated in a French-influenced style, with a dark velvet band around the base and black silk braiding on the crown. The kepi was also popular with various state units and as privately-purchased headgear; e.g., it was standard issue in 1861 for New York infantry regiments. The kepi is not to be confused with the model 1858 forage cap, which evolved directly from the shako used by the regular army earlier in the 1850s (see the design of the crown, chinstrap, brim, and buckle). Essentially, the forage cap, described by some troops as "shapeless as a feedbag," was a less-expensive and more comfortable version of the earlier shako with the stiffening removed. The forage cap became the most common form of cap worn by U.S. regulars and volunteers during the American Civil War, though it is most commonly associated with the eastern theater of the war, since western troops generally preferred broad brimmed felt hats (see photos of Sherman's army parading through Washington D.C. at war's end). The forage cap appears in films such as Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and Glory. Some Union units wore coloured variants, as some illustrative examples show:

  • 14th NY (from Brooklyn) – dark blue base, red sides, dark blue top, red circular insert
  • 12th NY – red base, grey sides, red top, white piping and later – dark blue base, light blue top and sides, white piping
  • 11th Indiana – all red cap
  • U.S. Sharpshooters – dark green (also used forage caps)

While some Confederate troops wore the forage cap (Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson wore the plain dark blue round-visored forage cap from his days as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute), Confederate uniform regulations specified a French-style kepi. These were to be trimmed as follows:

  • Confederate Regulars:
    • 1st pattern
      • Infantry – light blue base, grey sides and top
      • Cavalry – yellow base, grey sides and top
      • Artillery – red base, grey sides and top
    • 2nd pattern
      • Infantry – dark blue base, light blue sides and top
      • Cavalry – dark blue base, yellow sides and top
      • Artillery – dark blue base, red sides and top

The regulations were often ignored because of the scarcity of materials and the need for rapid production. The average Confederate kepi usually was a simple gray or butternut cap made of wool or jean wool. To save leather for shoes and accoutrements, by mid-war Confederate kepi brims often were made of tarred cloth; chinstraps were sometimes omitted. Many Confederate units wore unique versions of the kepi. These included:

  • Winchester Zouave Cadets (of South Carolina) – all red
  • Kentucky Brigade cavalry – all yellow
  • Alexandria Rifles (of Virginia) – dark green

After the war the U.S. Army issued a series of kepi undress caps, characterised by their increasing smartness and decreasing practicality. The last model was issued in 1896. When the United States introduced a revised blue dress uniform in 1902, the kepi was discontinued in favour of a conventional visor cap with wide top and a steep visor.

The Army's current field cap, with its flat top and visor, is a variation of the kepi. It was adopted after World War II and was "blocked" with heavy starching and ironing until it was replaced with a baseball-style cap during the Vietnam War. The present-day Army cap was introduced in the 1980s with the adoption of the old-style BDU uniforms, and was retained when the ACUPAT digital-pattern camouflage uniforms were introduced in 2005.

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