Over the 240 years since American colonists first took up arms against the British Empire on Lexington Green, the branches of the military and their various uniforms have played an important role in our country’s history. SDPB’s Jim Kent recently visited a military uniform display at the 1881 Courthouse Museum in Custer to explore that history and the changes in how our servicemen – and women – dress…both on the front lines and off.
As the 4th of July approaches, images of “minuteman” in tri-corner hats carrying long muskets to face down British regulars often come to mind. And though the various state militias that took part in America’s fight for independence were often clad in whatever clothing its members showed up in, there was an effort to provide a standard uniform for the Continental Army
I’m at the 1881 Courthouse Museum with Gary Enright. Besides being director of the Custer County institution, Enright is also something of an expert when it comes to military uniforms. It’s that interest in and appreciation of the men and women in our armed forces that led to the creation of the museum’s Military Display Room which includes 21 uniforms covering a span of 240 years.
Gary Enright explains…
“We felt this spring when we were doing some work and trying to improve a few of the themes in the museum,” Enright recalls. “That a room that was devoted just to the military. And then we said, ‘Well, then what do you do? What kind of a display do you make?’ And the idea came that what we ought to do is take every one of the 9 major wars that America has been in since the beginning of the country.”
Gary Enright says it’s an honor to have the uniforms in the museum.
“Because the families or the individuals who served themselves,” Enright explains. “But mostly the families...have chosen to preserve those memories and that honor that these people bestowed upon this country by serving their country… and brought the uniforms to us. We probably have an equal number more of these uniforms in storage…because we picked the ones that would be most definitive of the various eras.”
The uniforms on display include examples of every era from the American Revolution to the present day. The only major conflict that’s missing is the Spanish-American War, which Gary Enright says he would like to acquire.
As for how the uniform from the American Revolution found its way to the Black Hills - that, admits Enright, is the question.
“It was given to the museum by a family that someone has lost the records of,” Enright offers. “We do not know who gave this to us. But when the museum was built…there it was. But this is typical of the kind of uniform that was patterned after the British uniforms. Everything looked like Britain’s stuff. And that didn’t change for probably 50 or 60 years after this country became a country.”
The dark blue uniform with tan trim is similar to that which George Washington wore. Enright says that indicates the owner was from the south since the southern, middle and New England colonies each had different colored fabrics.
But they were all very dressy and of a heavy cotton material, which sometimes led to troops suffering from heatstroke during battles that took place in hot weather, says Enright.
“And they didn’t take their jackets off and they didn’t go short-sleeved and that was one of the problems that they had was people were just too formal,” explains Enright.
Things were even worse during the Civil War when troops from the north found themselves in uniforms made in the New England woolen mills.
“And this became the uniform for the Union Army…summer and winter,” Enright observes. “ These pants are so heavy that every soldier wore a pair of suspenders underneath it…even though he had a belt on. We have never been able to find a Confederate uniform.”
But no matter what they were wearing, says Enright, southern troops from the “Land of Cotton” tended to breathe much easier whatever their clothing.
America’s military uniforms didn’t change much between the Civil War and World War I. High, tight collars, heavy wool material and a formal dress style. Enright says the only major difference was a shift from the color blue.
“The uniforms were more brown than they were olive…or olive drab…which became sort of the theme of the military in the United States…and other countries,” Enright notes. “The reason why American went with the brown uniforms in the First World War was because the only company in the world who made olive drab dye…was in Germany.”
And the Germans weren’t about to help the allies with anything at that time – especially their military.
With World War Two came a new understanding of the American military uniform in significant areas.
“The uniforms became a little more stylish,” says Enright. “There was more of a blend of the kind of fabric that was used for the uniforms. It made the uniforms snappier. They looked better. They were more comfortable. And then at that point in the military history, we started wearing different uniforms in combat than we did for dress. Before that…everybody wore the same uniform for everything.”
Enter the combat fatigues which eventually led to the basic camouflage battle dress uniform worn by all branches of the military today. The U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force also maintain their traditional olive-drab, khaki, white, blue and green uniforms – for servicemen and women.
Gary Enright notes his goal in creating this exhibit was to honor the men and women who served their country – whether from big cities or small towns. Being able to share their history with the public is a heartwarming experience says Enright, especially when observing an elder pointing out the uniform he wore “back in the day” to his grandchild.
Tour the 1881 Courthouse Museum's Military Display Room with director Gary Enright.