Wearing Army Blue: a 200-year Tradition
By Walter H. Bradford
TODAY’S Soldier wears uniforms of green and tan, plain and camouflage, and Army Blue.
During the American Revolution, when the British Army of King George III turned out in red, Gen. George Washington specified blue for the Continental Army uniform coat in 1779. Regulations of 1821 reiterated that the Army would wear the national blue, and blue remained the only color of the Army uniform until 1902, with the adoption of the khaki and olive drab service dress. In 1954, the Army adopted the Army Green.
Still, Army Blue has remained in service as the service uniform, and its story is that of the Army and the nation.
Army Blue emerged from 18th century warfare, when battle formations required Soldiers to stand elbow to elbow with smoothbore muskets, and colorful uniforms provided unit cohesion amid the clouds of black-powder smoke.
To distinguish among units of the Continental Army after 1779, uniforms displayed colored facings on the collar, cuffs and lapels of the blue coat, by group of states, not regiment, as in Europe.
For example, Soldiers from New York and New Jersey wore buff facings. Soldiers from the New England states had white facings, while red distinguished the Soldiers of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and blue identified Soldiers from the Carolinas and Georgia.
As the new nation grew, the government provided each Soldier with an annual uniform. It consisted of a single blue wool coat and seasonal issues of white wool and linen or cotton waistcoat and overalls.
There was no distinction between a dress and undress uniform. A Soldier’s daily attire for field service was also his parade dress, and the rank-and-file lived out of their knapsacks until the next issue.
By 1810 Napoleonic fashion had changed the cut of the uniform worn since the Revolutionary War. The coat now fastened in front and no longer exposed the waistcoat. That garment had become the roundabout fatigue jacket with sleeves, in winter gray or summer white. The skirts of the coat were cut in, straight across, without color facings.
To avoid the stains of winter mud on Soldiers’ white pantaloons or overalls, annual clothing allowances, as early as 1817, provided for the issue of more practical grey, and by 1832 Soldiers were wearing light blue trousers. This established the traditional contrasting color scheme that avoided the difficult color-match of blue coat and trousers worn by generals and staff officers. Encouraged by the excess of military dress in Europe, American uniforms became more elaborate.
Returning were epaulettes for Soldiers of all grades and the facing colors established during the Revolutionary War. Army officers and noncommissioned officers wore stripes on the trousers, and metal insignia for each branch also appeared on Soldiers’ tall, felt uniform caps.
Earlier, in 1829, officers had received an undress garment, a full-skirt frock coat to replace non-regulation civilian attire. In place of epaulettes, this coat introduced the shoulder strap. Refined in 1835, from the lace bridle used to secure the epaulette to the shoulder of the uniform coat, it helped develop the gold and silver officer insignia of grade.
However, with undress and fatigue uniforms being worn in the Seminole and Mexican Wars and the costs of the old-style elaborate uniforms becoming a concern for officers, a radical new uniform concept appeared in 1851.
A French-pattern, full-skirt tunic or frock coat with black-leather waist belt accoutrements began to replace the old body coat and the white shoulder belts worn since 1810.
By the time of the Civil War, years of field service encouraged the use of practical and comfortable uniform components. The forage cap borrowed the metal insignia from the uniform hat, and the tailored frock coat soon gave way to the loose-fitting sack coat or blouse, first adopted in 1858 for fatigue duty.
After 1872 regulations acknowledged distinctive uniforms for the field and for ceremonial occasions. This confirmed a five-button blouse for general-duty wear and a frock coat or tunic, of European style, for dress occasions and not campaign. Adopted also from Europe was a black felt helmet with plume for mounted troops and a metal spike for others.
By the end of the 19th Century, the Army Blue uniform had weathered the extremes of frontier duty and tropical fights. It traveled from garrison to the field by merely exchanging the natty blue forage cap for the wide-brim slouch campaign hat and by securing the sky-blue trousers cuffs with a pair of cavalry boots or infantry canvas leggings.
But in 1902 foreign duty and the advent of smokeless powder required a service uniform for wear in both garrison and the field, and in seasonal fabrics of summer khaki or winter olive drab.
Traditional blue remained but only for dress, with officers authorized full, special evening and mess service uniforms, while enlisted issue ceased in 1917.
Experiments after World War II sought to look to the future and reinvent the dress of the American Soldier. The old service olive drab became the new Modern Army Green in 1954, and black shoes became a common shade for all services, ending the russet worn since the Spanish-American War. That same uniform, with some modifications and the addition of the black beret, is essentially the Class A uniform of today.
But that time also saw Army Blue return to stay. For more than 200 years Soldiers have enjoyed the distinct honor and privilege, first established by George Washington, of wearing the national blue – Army Blue.
(Editor’s note: Walter H. Bradford is a museum curator with the U.S. Army Center of Military History.)