Clothes May Not Make the Man, But These Commanders’ Personal Effects Are Instantly Recognizable
Like it or not, war can sometimes be a fashion statement. Among the multivarious uniforms that distinguish one unit from another, senior officers may indulge in the privilege of distinguishing themselves with individual touches—to be identifiable to their own troops, though hopefully not to the enemy. History records Hannibal Barca going to battle dressed as a common soldier, less conspicuous to his Roman enemies but still recognizable to his men. During the Napoléonic wars the namesake French emperor, Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher and British Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, favored the casual route, confident they’d be recognized by the right people when it counted. For every such low profile, however, there were extroverts who, aided by singular flourishes, went the distance to be unmistakable to all.
By World War II General Douglas MacArthur had his own formula down with this combo of crushed hat, aviator glasses and corncob pipe. These signature personal effects are preserved for posterity in the collection of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Va. From 1943 on British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery made his presence known with this black Royal Tank Regiment beret trimmed with gold braid. The beret is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London. Reminiscent of the way Roman centurions distinguished themselves with transversely aligned crests on their helmets, Napoléon Bonaparte wore his bicorne hat (like this one in the collection of Berlin’s German Historical Museum) ear to ear across his head. After being persuaded to quit the field at Mollwitz on April 10, 1741—and almost losing the battle as a result—Prussian King Frederick the Great made a point of always accompanying his men into the fray. At least three of his uniform coats have been preserved, including this one, also in Berlin’s German Historical Museum. Theodore Roosevelt was already making a name for himself and his pince-nez spectacles by 1898 when he added the headgear of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry “Rough Riders” to his trappings. This slouch hat of the “Cowboy President” hangs at New York’s Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. When rendering this 1772 portrait of then Colonel George Washington—the earliest known depiction of the future president—Charles Willson Peale captured the hilt of this sword now preserved at Mount Vernon, Va. Washington is believed to have worn the sword when he resigned his commission as commander in chief in Annapolis, Md., in 1783 and when inaugurated on April 30, 1789. On May 14, 1916, during Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico, 2nd Lt. George S. Patton Jr. used this ivory-handled .45-caliber Colt Single Action Army revolver in a gun-fight with three Villistas and claimed two of them. Patton’s “Peacemaker,” with twin notches on the grip, is preserved in the General George Patton Museum of Leadership at Fort Knox, Ken. Clotheshorse George Armstrong Custer made an impression during the Civil War with his far-from-standard-issue black velvet uniform and continued to dress as he pleased on the frontier as lieutenant colonel of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. In his wardrobe was this buckskin coat, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. When assigned to the trenches near Ploegsteert, Belgium, in 1915–16, Lt. Col. Winston Churchill of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers took to wearing a French Adrian helmet. When visiting the Western Front as World War II British prime minister, Churchill relied instead on this Mark II Brodie steel helmet (whereabouts unknown). Free French General Charles de Gaulle’s kepi, preserved in the Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération in Paris, kept him in the Allied public eye from 1941 to ’44. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign hat, also on display at the National Museum of American History, reflects 1858 Army regulations with its gold general’s cord and silver “U.S.” on black velvet.
This story appeared in the 2023 Autumn issue of Military History magazine.
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