Thursday, February 8, 2024

I've always thought George Meade's slouch hat was awesome. We asked experts to weigh in on it and five other iconic Meade items kept at Gettysburg

Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
CWMP 86.13.33, Slouch hat; Meade photos Library of Congress and National Archives
If I ever get around to writing “Cool Hats of the Civil War,” my top choice (spoiler alert!) will go to Union Maj. Gen. George Meade’s slouch hat, followed closely by those of Ambrose E. Burnside and J.E.B. Stuart.

While the hero of Gettysburg and commander of the Army of Potomac is sadly overshadowed by many in the pantheon of Civil War commanders, Meade and his hat will always stand tall to me.

There are great images of him with that headgear: In front of his tent, seated among a throng of soldiers, or perched on a bench at the famous Grant “Council of War” at Massaponax Church in Virginia.

The Gettysburg Foundation operates Gettysburg National Military Park’s visitor center and museum. It also owns and curates thousands of items, including those of Meade from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia: The slouch hat, a kepi, frock coat, flags, field glasses, sash and swords, among other fascinating items. Meade wore the hat and frock coat at Gettysburg in July 1863.

Kepi-topped Gen. Meade (center) with members of his staff (National Archives)
Meade’s slouch hat certainly was attention-getting.

“I am not sure if Meade had a preferred style of hat but, maybe his preference was more utilitarian; e.g., wearing the slouch hat on active campaign because it kept the sun and rain off of him; whereas wearing the kepi in static locations such as a winter quarters and formal occasions,” says Mike Kwolek, museum exhibition specialist for the foundation.

The general’s hometown was Philadelphia. For more than 70 years after his grandchildren donated them in 1937, Meade’s belongings were housed at the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. Other items at the museum were donated by former Union officers, members of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). Meade died in 1872 at age 56.

Museum officials had hoped to erect a new building after it closed in 2008, but funding never came through and hundreds of artifacts went to the Gettysburg Foundation. (Paper documents relating to the officers are kept by the Union League of Philadelphia)

Gettysburg’s collection has many sources, including what was at the Philadelphia museum. (Photo at left, Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia; CWMP 86.13.32, Frock Coat)

I spoke with Kwolek – whose duties include designing and executing museum exhibits, collections management and registration – about a half dozen items in the Meade inventory. (I am grateful for his help and patience when I peppered him with myriad follow-up questions)

Here’s a close look at the six artifacts:


Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
CWMP 86.13.33, Slouch Hat
Talk about a close call. The general came to Gettysburg with two bullet holes in the hat, from fighting several months before at Fredericksburg, Va.

Army regulations allowed for officers to wear black felt hats. The height of the crown could be a little over 6 inches. The bindings were made of black ribbed silk. It features a bullion hat cord and insignia.

“These examples were similar, yet more elegant than the 1858 Hardee hat; however, many officers went to the private market and purchased black felt hats in a variety of shapes and sizes. The one that Maj. Gen. Meade wore, and housed at the Museum and Visitor Center, is one of those privately purchased hats,” says the foundation.

Meade, seated at far left, at Massaponax Church (Library of Congress)
His slouch hat has a pinched crown (click to enlarge)
The park doesn’t know when Meade got the hat, which he wore with the brim down. Kwolek said this headgear may have been produced in Philadelphia by the hatter William F. Warburton; who, in 1862, held three patents for military caps and hats.

Conservation was performed on the hat in 2012. The bullet holes, above his major general’s insignia, were stabilized during that work, said Kwolek.  

C. Paul Loane, co-author of “US Army Military Headgear, 1812-1872,”.recalls seeing the hat when it was at the museum in Philadelphia.

“It appeared to be the standard black felt headgear with black silk edging around the brim worn by most officers, he said. "His hat cords were all gold as called for in regulations for a general officer."

The hat and coat have been off-exhibit since 2016, following the park’s Treasures of the Civil War” exhibit.


Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
CWMP 86.13.34, Kepi
Of the Meade-associated items described here, only the wool kepi is currently (February 2024) on display. The exhibit has the words “Old Snapping Turtle,” a nickname given to the commander because of his famous ill temper.

Text below the kepi reads:

“Although often seen in contemporary photographs wearing his favored slouch hat in the field, Meade wore this regulation officer's cap (with gold trim for general officers) for dress and ceremonial occasions." 

National Archives, Library of Congress photos of Meade wearing a kepi; click to enlarge
This is the French style of cap that Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan advocated that officers use after his observations during the Crimean War, says Kwolek. Meade’s kepi was made by Wanamaker’s of Philadelphia, his hometown. The company was founded in 1861 and operated at Market and Sixth streets. Meade purchased it in 1862 or 1863.

Loane told the Picket the cap is “a slightly brighter blue than most examples (which flirt with being a midnight/almost black shade) and had a subtle ‘bagginess’ about it we collectors like. Two silver stars of a major general were affixed to the front within a gold embroidered wreath backed with black velvet. Staff officer buttons secured the chin strap and narrow black tape trimmed the sides and top.”

The classic-period kepi went through restoration in 2012, which included cleaning and stabilization.


Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
CWMP 86.13.32, Frock coat; Meade photo Library of Congress
The maker of this dark blue frock is not known, but Meade is known to have worn it from at least Gettysburg onward. Kwolek wondered whether it was made by Brooks Brothers, which made uniforms for Federal officers. Brooks Brothers. told the Picket in an email it has no existing record of Meade.

The coat conforms to 1861 regulations and bears the rank of major general on its epaulets. For that rank, the coat had two rows of buttons on the breast, nine in each row, extending to the waist. Four buttons were on the back and skirt of the coat, according to the Gettysburg Foundation. The interior chest/torso region of the jacket exhibits quilting with patriotic motifs.

The coat went through extensive cleaning and stabilization 2012. Its condition before treatment exhibited extensive use, according to Kwolek.


Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
CWMP 86.2.4, 34‐star Headquarters Flag
This flag has the distinction of the one that flew at Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg. His descendants provided the provenance for this 34-star silk flag.

Kwolek says Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker may have flown it before Meade took command of the army in late June 1863, just days before Gettysburg.


Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
CWMP 86.2.5, Army of the Potomac Headquarters Flag 
This short-lived flag was most likely made by Sisco Brothers of Baltimore, according to the Gettysburg Foundation. It was made of faded soprano silk with a dark blue laurel wreath surrounding a gold eagle with arrows and laurel in its talons.

It has a swallowtail design with silk ties. It was used only in May 1864, in Virginia, and was replaced by a small national flag. According to Kwolek, this reversal might be due to Gen. Grant’s reaction to it, which was recorded by artist Alfred R. Waud: “What’s this! Is Imperial Caesar anywhere about here?”


Courtesy of Gettysburg Foundation, from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
CWMP 86.23, 5th Corps flag
Meade commanded the corps for only a month, six months before Gettysburg. The flag conforms to the Army of the Potomac's general order No. 10 that specified flags to be used for corps headquarters as blue swallowtailed, with the number of the corps in red on a white botonee-style cross.

Kwolek believes Maj. Gen. George Sykes may have flown it at Gettysburg when he led V Corps. The flag was probably returned to Meade once the 1864 style of headquarters flags were issued. The flag was donated to what was then the War Library and Museum in 1937 by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

Other Pennsylvania venues that highlight Meade

Meade’s legacy is covered at several institutions in Philadelphia, including the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum & Library. It has an exhibit on the general, including many photos, and another unusual item – the head of Old Baldy, Meade’s war horse.

The National Constitution Center, while it has no Meade items in its permanent collection, does have several on loan from the Gettysburg Foundation for the exhibitCivil War & Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality.” Those are the general’s sword and scabbard, dress spurs and field glasses with case (shown in photo below among other artifacts).

From the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, on loan from Gettysburg Foundation
 and National Constitution Center, photo courtesy NCC
sword is a M1839 Topographical Engineers sword used by Meade and supposedly the one where he broke the tip of the blade off while striking a soldier at Fredericksburg,” said Kwolek.

The Union League has multiple papers, orders, photographs and other items related to Meade. Click here and here for examples.

“Our archives and collections are available to the public through research appointments,” Keeley Tulio, archivist and collections manager with the group’s Heritage Center, said in an email.

Meade was awarded The Union League of Philadelphia Silver Medal in 1863 and The Union League of Philadelphia Gold Medal in 1866.

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