The Dragoon Uniform: Fancy vs. Fact
by George Stammerjohan and Will Gorenfeld
The 1850s present a confusing picture of the Dragoon image. On the one hand, the Regulations of 1851 gave a neat picture of what a suitably uniformed, dashing Dragoon should look like: dark blue frock coat, “flower pot” shako, and gray-blue trousers. The frock coat had orange collars and cuffs. The new uniform was intended to be worn for both dress and fatigue duty. For troopers of the First Dragoons, a brass number, “1”, was placed on each side of the collar. The first model (1851) shako bore a brass eagle, orange facing, and orange pompom. The long-tailed frock coat was heavy, and generally scorned by the troops because it impaired the Dragoon when he mounted or dismounted. The shako was stiff, hot, and hard to balance while riding at a fast gait. The orange facings of the coat and shako faded rapidly beneath a bright California sun, creating anything but a uniformed appearance to a line of troopers. Some officers scorned the new uniform because there were only slight differences in the design worn by enlisted men from the uniform worn by officers. No matter to the Dragoon troopers in California, for it would take years before this uniform would be delivered to them.
Army storehouses were filled to the brim with old-style uniforms left over from the Mexican-American War. An economy-driven Quartermaster Department wished to use these until stores were exhausted. In 1852, it was decreed that mounted troops would receive yearly allotments of two jackets–the first would be of the dark blue 1833 pattern, while the second would be of the sky-blue variety, reportedly stripped of its infantry or artillery piping. Indeed, some Dragoon companies received nothing but the sky-blue jackets.
Two items of clothing which would remain in constant use by the Dragoons were the off-white wool flannel shirt and old-pattern 1839 forage cap. The shirt was long in the tails, with a fairly full body and tight sleeves. The neck was a shallow “V” with a single button at the throat. (The dark gray salt-and-pepper woolen shirt, seen in some illustrations, was not issued until 1875.)
On August 10, 1854, a detachment of Company A of the First Dragoons arrived at Camp Canada de las Uvas. Although not located in Tejon Pass, the post soon was designated Fort Tejon. Upon arrival, these rowdy recruits and former infantrymen were put to work in the construction of the post. These Dragoons were dressed in a bewildering kaleidoscopic array of colors. The former infantrymen, who had recently marched overland from New Mexico, wore the light blue infantry jackets. The recruits were wearing old pattern 1833 dark blue jackets. The original members of Company A–all nine of them–wore a mixture of dark blue and sky blue jackets; all the worse for wear. This elite regiment would resemble ragpickers–or even worse, mounted infantry. 1st Lt. Thomas Castor begged departmental headquarters to either send new clothing or else allow him to purchase civilian attire for the ragged troops. The next month, a shipment of 1851 pattern clothing arrived at the fort. The popular image of the Dragoon depicts him in tall boots and brass spurs. This is wrong. The Dragoon generally wore infantry-style brogans. When mounted, the Dragoon wore low-shank bootees with brass stud spurs. The spurs were commonly lost and the unfortunate trooper was charged $1.10 per set to replace them.
In 1854, the regulations did away with the frock coat. In its place was a short shell jacket trimmed with orange piping and brass shoulder scales. This uniform did not reach Fort Tejon until the fall of 1856. The old-style surplus jackets in sky blue or dark blue were continued to be issued to the troops–two per year. If Company A troopers wore out their yearly issue, which was often the case, they had to purchase sky blue jackets, making them appear as worn-out infantrymen. The men of Company F, arriving at Ft. Tejon in 1857, were issued Mexican War surplus sky blue jackets. This troop would not receive the proper Dragoon pattern uniform until it reached Fort Crook, California, in 1858.
Company B wearing the 1851 Uniform
Companies B and K arrived at Fort Tejon on July 7, 1858. Brevet Major (Captain) James Carleton, the commanding officer of Company K, was furious when he learned that the Quartermaster Department had mistakenly sent his unit artillery trousers. He demanded that the Quartermaster take them back and send him proper trousers for Dragoons. The quartermaster officer, temperamental Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, refused to exchange the trousers. This led to a private feud between the future generals Hancock and Carleton. Company B, under the sickly and more easygoing command of Captain John Davidson, still wore the 1850 white buff belt and carried the Model 1833 Ames saber. It was said that the saber would wrap “rubber-like around a man’s head and was only good for cutting warm butter.”
In 1858, a new uniform was designated for the Dragoons: a refined version of the 1854 jacket, dark blue trousers, and the new, so-called Hardee hat of stiff black felt with a folded brim, ostrich feather, orange cord and brass company letter. Of this hat Major Albert Brackett wrote, “If the whole earth had been ransacked, it is difficult to tell where a more ungainly piece of furniture could have been found.”
Company K was, perhaps, the best company in the 1st Regiment. Carleton wished his troop to be correctly dressed and requested the new hats. The Quartermaster Depot in Benicia sent him just ten hats for a company of eighty men. When Carleton demanded to be sent the new fatigue flannel sack coat for these men, he received just forty. Carleton was not the kind to surrender without a fight. He lodged some stinging complaints but was each time rebuffed with the reply that the new clothing was “experimental” and that he should be happy with what he had already received. Only the fact that Lt. Col. Benjamin “Old Ben” Beall of the 1st Dragoons was serving as acting commander of the Department of California saved Carleton from being court-martialed.