Each semester, the BHS Education Department asks our interns to research at least one object on display and present their findings. I’m very pleased to introduce the following post by guest blogger, Chelsea Trembly, and her excellent research on “Cropsey’s Cap,” now on display in Inventing Brooklyn.
Cropsey’s Cap: Discovering Brooklyn’s Civil War History
Sometimes a hat is just a hat – this is not the case, however, for the Union Army Civil War forage cap that is on display in our newest exhibition Inventing Brooklyn. As part of my ongoing Intern Research Project, I delved into the archives to discover more about this particular chapeau. Tucked in a shadowed corner of a display box, this felt and leather hat (ca. 1860 – 1869), belonged to a reluctant Union Army soldier who began his military career as a private in the Federal army in 1851 and eventually rose through the ranks in the military to the position of Colonel during the Civil War.
This soldier was New Utrecht native Colonel William J. Cropsey. In a re-telling of his military career in 1912 he presents himself as a haphazard, ambivalent soldier. According to the elderly Colonel Cropsey (who, incidentally, told his story while seated next to another well known Brooklynite, Peter Wyckoff), Cropsey only joined the military to escape the inevitable doom of jury duty. This headstrong 25 year-old was so desperate to escape a potential “six weeks” of sitting in court that he traded his life of fishing at the Narrows every day for a daily life filled with discipline and military order.
Cropsey’s New York Times obituary states that he served in the 71st Regiment of New York, which was combined with the 2nd Regiment of General Sickle’s Brigade. His hat imparts a great deal of information about his status. For example, we know that the number “2” on it represents his Regiment number. From looking at various illustrated Civil War uniform guides, we also know that the insignia on the front (two swords with blades faced upwards) identify this hat as a Colonel’s cap in the Calvary. Cropsey’s Regiment was mustered in between June 20 and July 18, 1861 and mustered out on July 30, 1864. They fought in battles such as Bull Run and Gettysburg. In fact, given when Cropsey was commissioned Colonel (February 1863), he may have worn this hat during the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).
We can also learn a great deal from the physical dimensions of the hat – it’s 6 ½ inches tall in the back, and 4 ½ inches tall in the front. These proportions indicate the hat was of the unique “McClellan” style, named after General George B. McClellan who was a West Point graduate, veteran of the Mexican-American War and mythologized Civil War general who led troops into famous battles in the peninsula of Virginia, as well as Gettysburg and Bull Run. McClellan was probably first issued this particular style of hat while at West Point, where it was distributed in the 1830s. This style was not distributed among soldiers in the Federal Army until 1851, the first year of Cropsey’s enlistment. (Remember: Cropsey would not have received this hat until 1863 because that’s when he became Colonel, and the hat’s insignia indicates that it was a Colonel’s cap).
Also, this hat can teach us about patterns of American consumption and taste during the American Civil War. For example, we can tell from the style of this hat that it was modeled after the French forage cap or “kepi.” In fact, French military dress inspired a number of uniform styles we see in the American military, especially in the early years of the Civil War.Perhaps the most striking example was the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry, which wore Zouave-style French uniforms, originally modeled after North African dress (read: red, M.C. Hammer-style, parachute pants). In the early years of the war the Union Army ordered 10,000 uniforms from France and also imported uniforms from other places in Europe, a decision that cost a cool $800,000.
The Union Army accumulated quite a few uniforms throughout the early years of the war. By 1862 it is documented that the Union Army had over 500,000 pairs of shoes and 600,000 overcoats to its name. When I stumbled upon this statistic, I immediately thought that it was wrong. My limited understanding of military dress during the Civil War (prior to this research project) was that soldiers were often inappropriately dressed or shoe-less. Why, I thought, is there a myth that Civil War soldiers were poorly dressed if there was so much clothing? After some research, I discovered that these uniforms were not distributed because the Union Army was so disorganized. Once the Union Army did figure out how to distribute the clothing, the soldiers found that the materials were so “shoddy” that they often fell apart after weeks. To add insult to injury, the uniforms’ materials were so difficult to clean that often vermin and insects would embed themselves in the fabric, and infest the soldier’s clothing. To remedy this enormous problem, soldiers often burned their uniforms after being issued a new set of fatigues (an occasion that only occurred once a year; new hats were only issued once every five years). Luckily for the soldiers, mid-way through the war the Union began manufacturing their uniforms domestically, and apparently the quality of the uniforms improved.
Wondering what happened to Colonel Cropsey? He retired from the Army during the 1870s and went on to serve in local government in Brooklyn and New Utrecht.