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PATTERN 1876 US ARMY BUFFALO COAT – A SPECTACULAR  FRONTIER UNIFORM ITEM FROM THE INDIAN WAR PERIOD IN EXCELLENT CONDITION:  The identical pattern coat as shown in the photographs on page 76 of John Langellier’s More Army Blue, the Uniforms of Uncle Sam’s Regulars 1874-1887, this original US Army Buffalo Coat - a true veteran of the Frontier Army, and one of the most iconic pieces of Indian Wars clothing - presents in excellent condition. 

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 Col. Miles in the winter of 1876-77 which resulted in the capture of Crazy Horse.   

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 troops had begun to wear buffalo moccasins and coats acquired through their own efforts.   

In preparation for his campaign in 1876, Col. Miles requisitioned buffalo coats for his soldiers only to be informed that the Quartermaster Department had but three of the coats remaining in stock.  Rising to the occasion, Miles directed his soldiers to gather the buffalo robes available in their area and the men of the 6Th Infantry Regiment stationed at Ft. Buford, Dakota Territory set to manufacture coats, as well as leggings and mittens.   

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 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.   

Unlike the other items of uniforming issued to the Indian War soldiers, these buffalo hide coats were never issued on an individual basis, nor were they charged against the individual soldier’s annual clothing allowance.  Rather, they remained government property carried on the inventories of the regiment or company, and were issued on the basis of the soldier’s assignment and based on the immediate need determined by his duties and his exposure to the current weather conditions.  At the end of the winter season, they were returned to a quartermaster depot for cleaning and storage until needed the following winter. 

While the buffalo coats continued to be issued well into the 1880’s and 1890’s, by 1879 the buffalo herds, once thought of as an inexhaustible resource, had been reduced severely due to the market hunts and the resulting scarcity of hides caused the army to adopt a brown canvas blanket lined overcoat.  It is interesting to note that the Quartermaster Department’s 1885 Clothing and Allowance Chart quotes the price of replacing a lost or damaged buffalo coat at $12.95 - a strong indication of the value of the hides at the time.   

This particular US Army Buffalo Coat is, as noted above, identical to those pictured in Langellier’s More Army Blue.  Having survived not only the passage of time, but obvious issue from a regiment or company, this coat presents in excellent condition.  All of the seams are intact, the finished edges of the cuffs, front panels, rear vent, and bottom are all present and intact, and the lining of the pockets, sleeves and body is all present and intact with no tearing, mothing or discoloration.  Note: Whatever difference in color of the wool lining you see in the photographs is a function of variances in lighting and shadow resulting when you photograph wool. The color of the  lining is consistent throughout.  

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 rear center of the collar on this coat or on the edges.  The visible white line that 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 ten buttons and the corresponding corded loops are present.  There are two different types of buttons on the coat – one set of the same five buttons in one column and a second set of five matching buttons in the other column.  The ten buttons are the same size, color and overall design and all are attached with period thread, which leads me to believe all of the buttons are original to the use of the coat.  Given that these coats were intended to be worn in rough conditions, and I suspect they were made with a short service life in mind, it is entirely likely that such a variance of buttons was a function of the manufacturer using what he had on hand.   

Of special note is the unit inventory mark “58” stenciled in the shoulder of the right sleeve in white paint.  This inventory number is consistent with the previously noted practice of maintaining these coats on the unit inventory rather than being an item of personal issue to the soldier, and it is evidence that this particular coat was certainly present at one of the frontier forts. 

This US Army Buffalo Coat is an excellent specimen of a relatively rare item of Indian War period uniforming, and one that seldom appears on the market in any condition,  particularly since so many of these coats were used to destruction or subjected to the ravages of time in poor storage.  A specimen that would be almost impossible to upgrade, this Buffalo Coat would make a dramatic back drop for a Frontier army weapon and accoutrement display and will be a significant addition to any collection.  (1010) $4950

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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