Cowboys in Khaki: American Battledress in the Spanish-American War

Cowboys in Khaki: American Battledress in the Spanish-American War

By the outbreak of the war with Spain, the small U.S. Army was being outfitted with the 1898-pattern khaki uniform blouse.

Here's What You Need to Know: Storage and production problems meant that the Army went to war with a hodge-podge of uniforms and supplies.

The post-Civil War era saw a vast reduction in soldiers, and the U.S. Army Quartermaster Department was left with large quantities of uniforms and equipment. At first it was thought that the cache would last for years. However, by the early 1870s many of the most needed sizes were already being depleted. As a result of the shortages, from the early 1870s to the 1890s, there was a general lack of uniformity in army clothing especially for soldiers in the field.

Period photographs note that even men in the same company outfitted in variations. Throughout this period the U.S. Army uniform and headdress underwent a number of changes.

None of this was fully resolved by the end of the nineteenth-century when the U.S. Army found itself engaged in a number of “Uncle Sam’s Little Wars” that included the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion from 1898-1902. In the years leading up to these small wars the U.S. army wore a blue uniform, including the M1884 full dress frock coat, which was in essence an update of the Prussian Blue Campaign Uniform worn a generation earlier. The same year saw the introduction of the 1884 pattern brown cotton canvas fatigue uniform, which proved to be far more practical in the conflicts with the Native Americans.

By the outbreak of the war with Spain, the small U.S. Army was being outfitted with the 1898-pattern khaki uniform blouse. There was still a lack of uniformity in the ranks however, as in just one year there were no less than four patterns of the khaki field service coats being issued. Some of these even included the British Pattern 95 Foreign Service Tunic, which the U.S. Army procured in Hong Kong.

Because of production problems the uniforms were only issued as soldiers deployed, and as a result some units were still issued with the dark blue M1883 sack coat and matching blue trousers. Many soldiers serving in Cuba opted to remove their wool blouses and instead wore just the light campaign shirts, which were a dark blue. The same shirts were also worn in the Philippines, and after the war with Spain soldiers began to sew on rank chevrons. As a result, the Spanish-American War and subsequent Philippine Insurrection could be seen as the last war in which the U.S. Army blue was worn into the field as part of the combat uniform.

Headdress Grand Army of the Republic

Following the American Civil War both the Hardee hat and the kepi were replaced. The U.S. Army followed other nations in adopting a dark blue/black spiked helmet—one closer in design to the British Home Service helmet than the German pickelhaube. This helmet remained part of the dress uniform but was also used in garrison duty in a limited capacity, while the felt campaign hat became the de facto headdress of the U.S. Army in the field.

The hat was reflective of civilian headdress of the era, and by the Spanish-American War the M1885 campaign hat was widely issued and became the standard cover for all ranks. The crown could be formed in a variety of ways, and usually was formed with a regulation “fore and aft” indentation.

Rear echelon troops and some officers wore the M1887/89 pattern sun helmet, which was made of cork and similar in design to the British and French pattern sun helmets. Despite the common misconception to the contrary, the American cork helmets were not made in Great Britain but were in fact made by Horstmann Brothers and Company of Philadelphia, a well-known dealer and manufacturer of military uniforms. In addition to the standard undress and everyday headdress outside the field was the M1895 forage cap, which featured a rounded visor that likely helped it earn its moniker “the train conductor’s cap.” Neither the sun helmet nor forage cap was favored by the troops.

Small Arms of the U.S. Army in its War with Spain

Firearm technology made numerous advances between the end of the American Civil War and the War with Spain. The muzzle-loading rifle-muskets were replaced with a variety of rifles, and American military planners learned from some mistakes made during the Indian Wars of the 1870s to 1890s. As a result in 1892 the U.S. Army held a competition to find a replacement for its aging Model 1873 Springfield “Trapdoor” rifle—which proved most disastrous in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

The Danish .30 caliber bolt-action Krag-Jorgensen magazine rifle won out at the trials at Governors Island, New York. The rifle was approved and production began at the Springfield Armory in 1894, but changes were made to an improved Model 1896 which went into production instead. In fact, many of the Model 1892 rifles ended up being returned to the armory to be rebuilt. A carbine version was also used by the cavalry of the Regular Army as well as by the majority of volunteer cavalry units. Because of shortages many older rifles, including the infamous M1873 Springfield were carried by State volunteer soldiers.

The aging M1872 Colt .45 caliber Single Action Army revolver was issued throughout the war, with many being refurbished, with its 7 1/2 inch barrel shortened by some two inches. It was reissued as the “Artillery Model,” and it was used alongside the more modern Colt New Army and Navy revolvers (the M1892 and M1894 respectively).

U.S. Army Equipment in the Spanish-American War

Numerous variations of equipment and accoutrements were used by the Regular Army and the volunteers during the Spanish-American War. While there were attempts to standardize the equipment, the problems went back to the end of the Civil War when there were large quantities of equipment left in storage. By 1870, due to heat and poor storage conditions, almost all the equipment on hand was condemned as unserviceable and efforts were made to come up with replacements.

Throughout the 1870s a variety of patterns were considered, including a brace system based upon one used by the British Army. In the 1880s soldiers in the then-small U.S. Army were using a mix of old Civil War patterns, experimental items and even equipment made locally. It would take until the 1890s for the problem to be somewhat resolved.

The introduction of the .30 Caliber Krag-Jorgensen Rifle saw that a new Mills double-looped cartridge belt was adopted; and it held 100 rounds of .30 caliber ammunition. The belt was dark blue and secured with a brass C-shaped heavy wire clasp. A cavalry version was also introduced, and it had twelve additional loops, six over six for the .39 caliber revolver cartridges. The Mills belt was distinctive in that it was made of machine woven web canvas rather than leather—and as a result it proved ideal for the tropical climates of Cuba and the Philippines. The Ordnance Department further supplied the soldiers with a stamped metal canteen, haversack, knapsack and eating utensils.

The situation for the volunteer soldiers was a bit more chaotic and virtually every type of accoutrement and equipment used by the U.S. Army dating back to 1874 was used. Canteens and knapsacks dating from the Civil War were also dragged from storage to equip the troops.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

This article first appeared in November 2020.

Image: Wikimedia Commons