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Historical Vignette 031 - The History of Army Corps of Engineers Headgear

On 14 June 2001 the U.S. Army adopted a new form of headgear, the black beret, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) soldiers began wearing it during the Corps’ Army birthday celebration held at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C. The new headgear prompted the Corps' Office of History to mount an exhibit of historical Army Engineer hats from its rich and extensive collection of Army Engineer artifacts stored at the Humphreys Engineer Center in anticipation of the eventual opening of a USACE museum. The exhibit is on display in two cases located in the main hallway of USACE headquarters at 441 G Street, N.W. Photographs of the hats on display and extensive descriptions of the headgear are also posted on the Office of History's website:

Military uniforms and headgear historically have performed a variety of functions, some official and some unofficial. First and foremost, hats protect the head from the elements and the hazards of combat. Hats also should be comfortable to wear, which has sometimes not been the case with Army headgear. And last but not least, hats should look good or at least present a military appearance.

Fashion has always played an important role in military uniforms and headgear. The U.S. Army, from its beginnings in the American Revolution, looked to European armies as its models and, in particular, emulated the French army. The chapeaux and shakos of the nineteenth century show a distinctly French influence culminating in the elegant and expensive 1872 General Officer’s Chapeau du Bras with its carrying case and rain cover.

One of the most familiar historic hats in the display is the 1858 Enlisted Forage Cap or "McDowell Cap," because of its association with the Civil War. Modeled after the French kepi, it was serviceable and popular with the troops.

Fashions change, however, and the disastrous French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, ushered in a brief fascination with Prussian uniforms. The most dramatic hat in the exhibit, the 1881 Mounted Engineer Officer’s Helmet, with its red horsehair mane, had an undeniably military appearance and also was surprisingly comfortable.

Comfort was always important to soldiers. The 1858 Enlisted Engineer or Hardee Hat was quite flamboyant looking but it also was heavy, hot, and unpopular. Made of heavy black felt and lacking a chinstrap for non-cavalry models, the hat littered many a parade ground on windy days.

The MQ-1/M1951 Winter Pile Cap, on the other hand, was both comfortable and functional. The earflaps protected the soldiers from the bitter cold of Korean winters and the soft construction meant that the hat could be worn under helmets for an additional layer of warmth. In fact, the hat was so comfortable that many soldiers preferred it to their helmets even though the pile cap offered little protection during combat.

Because it was based on a quintessentially American design–the baseball cap–the Hot Weather Field Hat introduced in 1962 should have been popular and comfortable, but it was made from a heavy polyester/rayon blend. In Southeast Asia, soldiers found the hat to be hot and useless during monsoon rains.

Whatever its appearance or level of comfort, the most important function of headgear was protection. American soldiers went to France in World War I wearing the 1912/1921 Service Hat with its distinctive "Montana peak" (left), but the hat provided little protection in the trenches. Turning to our allies for models, the
Army adopted the British-styled Steel Trench Helmet (right).

The 1917 helmet was well designed to protect heads from the greatest dangers in the trenches—falling shell fragments, dirt, and debris. But it did not provide good protection for the sides and back of the head. For the more mobile and open warfare of World War II, the Army adopted the famous M1 Steel Helmet in 1941, which covered more of the head. It was heavy and hot, but it provided good protection and was useful for a wide variety of other "unofficial" purposes, such as pounding in tent stakes or boiling water.

Army hats tell many stories about the institution and the men and women who wore them. From the photographs and descriptions on the Office of History's website, you can learn more about the appearance, comfort, and utility of a variety of hats worn by Army Engineers during the past 150 years.


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August 2001