In the most recent Department of Alabama Newsletter, Department Commander Brother Howard Poarch suggested a dress code for meetings. I like this idea, although I don’t think it should be mandatory.
Brother Howard suggested a “Kepi Hat” and this is the most appropriate choice for head gear. But what is a “kepi” and what kind of kepi should it be?
I’d like to discuss the history of the kepi and some suggestions for procuring your own, should you decide to do so.
First, let's discuss what was actually issued to our Union ancestors during the War. The US Army’s standard hat for field and fatigue use was the Model 1858 forage cap. It was not a kepi. It had its origins in a tall stiff wool covered, cardboard lined shako that was first issued in 1851. As you can imagine this hat was very unpopular with the troops. It was heavy and uncomfortable and with the first heavy rain the cardboard would saturate and collapse. Although it was against regulations, soldiers would sometimes remove the pom-pom and the cardboard and let the wool collapse to lower the hat.
January 24, 2021
Model 1851 Dress Hat
By 1857, Army Quartermasters realized the design was impractical and began issuing a back felt hat (Hardee Hat) for dress wear and the forage cap for field and fatigue wear. The cap was essentially a shako with the cardboard sides and pom-pom omitted. Thus the ubiquitous M1858 Forage Cap, seen in every Civil War photo, was born.
Reproduction Model 1858 Forage Cap by Kepi Nation (Greg Starbuck). As worn and extended to display its height.
Union soldiers wearing Model 1858 Forage Caps
Meanwhile, over in Europe, the French had also ditched the shako and adopted a wool visored cap with a low flat crown. It was called the Käppi, which simply means “little cap.” Many nations, including the US, emulated all things French when it came to weapons and uniforms. The Kepi began to become popular as a private purchase item for officers, militias and for specialized French Chasseur style uniforms.
With the outbreak of the War, Kepis became one of the most common types of head gear for officers. Some enlisted men also bought them on the commercial market. But the Forage Cap remained the standard for the enlisted ranks until 1872. The Confederate government also made and issued hundreds of thousands of gray kepis during the War.
Many Union officers chose the Kepi for both dress and field wear
The formation of the GAR in 1866 began to bring the soldiers back together. The GAR never had an official uniform. Each camp developed its own culture and uniform requirements (or lack thereof). However, some norms appeared and evolved slowly through the decades. The US Army adopted the Kepi as standard issue in 1872 and these later style caps began to be available on the commercial and surplus market. By the 1880s a US Army surplus Kepi could be had for as little as 75 cents. Out fitted with GAR buttons and a metal or embroidered wreath, they were perfect for GAR functions.
Grand Army of the Republic members wearing post war style US Army Kepis
Reproduction Model 1872 Kepi made by Greg Starbuck (Kepi Nation). Starbuck supplies reenactors, museums and the movie industry. His kepis and forage hats have been seen on major characters in such films a Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, Cold Mountain, Hostiles and Field of Shoes. This hat includes original GAR buttons and a reproduction GAR bullion wreath.
When the SUV was formally established in the late 1880s, a strict set of uniform regulations were adopted and remained in place until 1903. SUV uniforms generally paralleled US Army regulations, so well into the 20th Century the Kepi reigned as the primary head gear for the Sons of Union Veterans.
The Model 1872 Kepi was very similar to commercial kepis made during the Civil War, with the exception it tended to be lower in the front. It had a flat visor and was lined with a cotton drawstring liner. Brass buttons held an adjustable chin strap in place that was stowed above visor.
In 1895 the US Army adopted a new “pillbox” style forage cap. It begins to show up in SUV photos around the turn of the century. However it never gained the popularity of the Kepi.
SUV members wearing Model 1872 style Kepis
Stamped Brass or embroidered bullion wreaths adorned GAR and SUV kepis. They were plain, included the GAR or SUV initials and sometimes included the camp number
Several commercial sources provided GAR and SUV buttons for coats, vests and hats. The small size was often use on the side of the Kepis. These antique buttons can be found on Ebay and other venues.
Some later GAR and SUV photos show members wearing the Model 1895 forage cap. It never gained the popularity of the early Kepi style caps.
So as modern SUV members, which hat should you choose to wear? Again, I think this should never be a requirement. However, I have chosen a Model 1872 Kepi. The M72 Kepi is keeping in the tradition of both our GAR and SUV uniform heritage.
Excellent reproductions of the Model 1872 Kepi are available from several vendors. Prices for these reproduction hats can range from $85 to $150 depending on the vendors and their quality. They are individually hand crafted in the US and often have waiting times for delivery. The quality and authenticity can’t be beat.
There are also massed produced costume grade Kepis being imported that are made of wool and have the outward appearance of a Model 1872. They would be a good option for folks who do not require a exact reproduction of the originals.
When choosing a kepi it should be wool, with a bound leather visor that lays flat. The front should be no more than about 2.5 inches tall. The crown should have a cardboard stiffener. Avoid those caps with the thin curved “baseball hat” style visors.
Here are some sources to consider. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Kepi Nation (Greg Starbuck)
Dirty Billy’s Hats
Miller Hat Company Kepi
River Junction Trade Company, Indian War Kepi
Pvt Richard Taylor Camp #53
For more information about the Sons of Union Veterans, contact me or visit our National SUV webstite