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FRONTIER ARMY OFFICER’S BUFFALO COAT, PATTERN 1879 MUSKRAT FUR HAT, AND BUFFALO MITTENS – IDENTIFIED TO LIEUTENANT H.M. MILEY, ACTING ASSISTANT SURGEON, US ARMY - A VERY SPECIAL FRONTIER UNIFORM SET FROM THE INDIAN WAR PERIOD – ALL IN EXCELLENT CONDITION:  This is a very special grouping from the estate of First Lieutenant Harry Melville Miley of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, who served as an Acting Assistant Surgeon during the Spanish American War.  This complete winter outer wear set consisting of a US Army Officer’s Pattern Buffalo Hide Coat, a pair of Buffalo Hide Mittens, and a Pattern 1879 US Army Muskrat Fur Hat presents in excellent condition, with the added value of being originally obtained from the Miley family estate in Chambersburg.   

The army was well aware of the need for improvements in cold weather protection for the troops, particularly for those serving in the extreme climates of the Western Frontier where temperatures of 50 below zero were recorded during campaign conducted by Gen. Miles in the winter of 1876-77 which resulted in the capture of Crazy Horse. 

JANUARY 1877

Gen. Miles (center LEFT) & OFFICERS

Cantonment Tongue River

As early as 1875, already concerned for the welfare of the soldiers, General Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Army, initiated a survey of the current uniform being provided to the soldiers, soliciting evaluations and comments from officers serving in the field regarding the serviceability and durability of the uniform currently in use.  As a result of the survey, it was determined that the blanket lined great coats provided insufficient protection against the weather encountered throughout much of the frontier and it was recommended that sheepskin or buffalo coats be issued.   

As was often the case, the soldiers were far ahead of the decisions of the uniform and equipment boards of the Quartermaster and Ordnance Departments, and in the case of clothing themselves against the winter on the northern plains, many of the officers and enlisted men had begun to wear buffalo moccasins and coats acquired through their own efforts.   

I am a firm believer that when confronted with “the elephant in the room”, the best choice of action is to remove the peanuts immediately before things get out of control and the furniture starts being broken.  So, let’s take care of this right from the start…. 

……..why… exactly…..a young lieutenant – a doctor no less – would find it necessary, or even a good idea, upon being appointed to the ranks of an army preparing for deployment and battle in tropical theaters of war, to run right out and purchase heavy winter gear is well beyond our understanding.  We simply must accept that it occurred and that it is part of the historical record.  That Lt. Miley did so, and that he purchased a very high quality buffalo coat of the accepted officer’s pattern, matching buffalo hide mittens, and one of the standard issue Pattern 1879 US Army Muskrat Fur Hats, and then that he and his descendants cared for the set and stored it properly to survive in the excellent condition in which it presents today, is indeed a fortunate turn of events, especially for the benefit of modern collectors.  This is one of those circumstances in which the “how” and the “why” of historical events defies explanation and will forever remain a mystery.  

Dr. Miley was born during the Civil War, on July 24, 1864 in Washington County, Maryland.  He received his medical education much like many other doctors of the period did, by studying with a practicing doctor and eventually attending lectures at the Medico Chirurgical College in Philadelphia, where he graduated with an M.D. in 1893.  He began practicing in a partnership with the doctor with whom he had studied in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  In response to the mobilization for the Spanish American War, in August of 1898 Miley received an appointment as an Acting Assistant Surgeon in the U.S. Army, and was assigned to army hospitals in Camp Meade, Philadelphia, Pottsville, Lebanon, Reading, and Baltimore.  According to his military records, Miley contracted typhoid fever and was placed on sick leave in October of the same year.  His service ended in November of 1898, brief in duration as was that of so many of the volunteers for this notably short war.  Miley returned to private practice, and during his professional career served on the Chambersburg Board of Health, was admitted to the Medical Society, and served on the staff of the Chambersburg Hospital.  Dr. Miley died March 16, 1938 at the age of 76, and is buried in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  A file of biographic material detailing the doctor's life will accompany the sale of this set.  The file includes copies of his appointment as an assistant acting surgeon, his sick leave, his discharge, and a military patient and hospital status report he authored during his period of service.   

In spite of his brief period of service during the Spanish American War, Dr. Miley acquired and retained an impressive military outfit which was not released from the family estate until the passing of his heirs in the 1980’s.  He kept his dark blue campaign shirt, khaki trousers, tan campaign hat, dark blue five button blouse, interestingly - a Krag Rifle and a tan woven web cartridge belt, and of course this Buffalo Coat set.   

While the army never issued a formal description or specifications for the buffalo coats, it is most likely the coats were purchased from civilian contractors who were already engaged in making the coats for the civilian marketplace.  The pattern of the Enlisted Men’s coats followed a general style that were ankle length, double breasted with five sets of large, black, hard rubber buttons, each closed with a twisted cord loop.  The coats were set with two deep slash pockets lined with dark blue wool.  The sleeves and body were lined as well, some with dark blue and blue-gray wool shirting and some with heavy brown cotton twill.   

The overall cut and styling of the Officer and Enlisted Men’s coats was basically the same, and this Officer’s Coat is every bit as heavy and substantial as an Enlisted Man’s Coat.  This Officer’s Buffalo Coat is identical to the one detailed in Randy Stephan’s The Horse Soldier, Volume 2, on page 149, Figure 187.  The Officer’s Buffalo Coat differs from the Enlisted Man’s Buffalo Coat in that the officer’s coat has a quilted polished black cotton lining instead of the blue wool or brown cotton lining, and the buttons on the single breasted officer’s coat are cloth covered wooden toggles rather than the round hard rubber buttons on the double breasted enlisted version.  Its worth noting that the toggle buttons on this coat are identical to the style which was used on the regulation Pattern 1884 Officer’s Woolen Overcoat, which further confirms this coat as one which would have been purchased by an officer of the Indian War era.   

Having survived the passage of time and years of storage, this coat presents in excellent condition.  All five of the toggle buttons and the corresponding corded loops are present.  The fur has retained a pleasing color and texture without any remarkable discoloration or fading and the hair is not brittle.  From the coats I have seen in period photos, a certain amount of rub marks were common where the fur was folded over on a sharp seam or edge, such as can be seen on the edges of the collar on this coat.  The visible white line of hide which demarks the seam or edge is completely appropriate for these coats and is not evidence of heavy wear or abuse, but rather the character of working with, and wearing, buffalo fur.  Overall the quality of the fur on this coat is excellent with no patches of hair loss and thick curly hair throughout.  

All of the seams are intact, the finished edges of the cuffs, front panels, rear vent, and bottom are all present, and the lining of the pockets, sleeves and body is all present and intact with no tearing, mothing or discoloration.  There is very minor wear along the inside edges of the sleeve cuffs and along the bottom edge – evidence of having been worn, but not severely.  The inside lower edge of the right sleeve arm hole has been reinforced with a period repair of a piece of rounded buckskin which was sewn over the lining.   Note: Whatever difference in color of the lining you see in the photographs is a function of variances in lighting and shadow resulting when you photograph material. The color of the lining is consistent throughout.  

The regulation Model 1879 US Army Winter Muskrat Fur Hat with this set is an excellent specimen of a uniform hat which did not survive in great numbers.  There are no tears or seam separation, the hide is still supple, and there is no loss of fur or wear spots to the hair.  The full length black tie strings attached to the ear flaps are present.  The red wool chintz lining and grosgrain sweat band present in like new condition, and apparently this hat was worn very little.   

The matched pair of Buffalo Hide Mittens which complete this set have survived in very nice condition in spite of signs of obvious use.  The fur is overall completely intact on both mittens save for the area immediately along the matching edges where the thumb and index fingers would meet.  It occurs to me that the most likely cause of this wear is the result of holding a set of reins while riding a horse or driving a wagon or sleigh, where the reins would work back and forth through the mittens as the animals were in motion.   The finished black leather palms of both mittens are soft and supple, showing minor scuffing.  Only the right hand palm shows any significant wear where a small ¼” hole is worn through just below where the tip of the middle finger would rub against the inside of the mitten.  The mittens are fully lined – with a light brown wooly surfaced material in the hand sections, and with a brown corduroy material in the cuffs.  The lining is in overall excellent condition, showing little evidence of wear except for the point where the lining is worn through to match the hole in the right palm.  Overall, this is a very nice set that matches the coat.    

This complete set is an excellent specimen the type of protective winter clothing worn by officers serving in the Frontier Army as they endured temperatures and conditions far beyond our ability to imagine or appreciate.  A relatively rare set of Indian War period uniforming, it has the added value of being identified to an officer of the period - albeit one who did not serve on the frontier – however, the identification confirms that this set is the exact winter clothing worn by officers in the West.  None of these three pieces appear very often on the market in any condition, particularly since so many of these coats, hats and mittens were used to destruction or subjected to the ravages of time in poor storage, and these three specimens would be almost impossible to upgrade.  This Frontier Officers Buffalo Coat Set would make a dramatic addition to any Indian Wars collection.  (0506) $4250 For all three pieces

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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