A forage cap is a type of headgear that is used predominantly by military personnel. During the early to mid 1800s, certain styles of military caps worn in the field began to be called forage caps because soldiers would use the hats to hold food and supplies found while foraging. Over time, the term forage cap was used to refer military headgear that is used for situations that do not require a formal, or dress, uniform hat.
The term forage cap may also refer to the specific style of uniform hats worn by the armies of the United States of America and the Confederate States of America during the period before and after the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The forage cap used during the American Civil War period was often referred to as a kepi, which is a visored hat of French origin, that consists of a stiffened circular top and straight, structured sides. The French developed the kepi in the early 1800s as a substitute for a military hat known as a shako.
Like the kepi, the shako is a visored hat with a stiffened circular top and structured sides. The shako is a tall hat, however, and not very suitable for field or fatigue use. The kepi incorporated the cylindrical design and structure of the shako but reduced the height, making it a more practical design. As France was one of the dominant military powers of that era, French uniform design influenced the military uniform designs of other nations, including the United States, which adopted the kepi.
Although commonly referred to as a kepi, the forage cap of the American Civil War actually evolved separately from the kepi. Like the kepi, the forage cap was an attempt by the United States military to make the shako more practical and appropriate for situations that did not require a formal dress hat. Forage caps retained the visor and stiffened circular top of the shako, but did not possess the stiffened vertical structure. Without the structure provided by the sides, the top of the forage cap often appeared to flop down and forward and were often referred to as slouch caps or bummer caps.
While not typically considered as smart in appearance as the kepi, the forage cap was often believed to be more comfortable and provide more protection from the elements than the kepi. Both sides in the conflict used both forage caps and kepis, although forage caps were predominantly worn by Union forces while the Confederate armies mainly wore variations of the kepi.