June 24, 1998
This is a brief guide to the uniforms of the Spanish-American War, written expressly for those painting the smaller scales of wargames figures. Anyone making an investment in 20mm or 25mm figures will probably want to have a more detailed guide. One such book, Greg Novak's Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain, distributed by Ulster Imports of Champaign, Illinois, has more complete information. The Osprey Men-at-Arms book The U.S. Army 1890 - 1920 gives much more detail on the U.S. forces, and should be easy to find.
Anyone who has studied contemporary photographs and prints from this period will notice that the campaign uniforms of combatants on both sides were extremely varied - there was a great deal of improvisation in terms of equipment, particularly. To the hobbyist, this is good news, particularly if conversions of figures from other conflicts is performed.
All branches of the Spanish armed forces, including colonial troops, wore a basic uniform consisting of shirt and trousers made of "rayadillo," a white cotton cloth with thin blue pinstripes. The headgear was a straw hat with a black band, sometimes with a red-yellow-red cockade, help in place by a button of the branch-of-service color, or metallic for officers (gold for infantry and artillery, silver for cavalry). Equipment was a grey blanket, a raincoat, a haversack of white or similar neutral color, and a light-colored pack. Shoes and boots were of black leather, although rope-soled sandals were very common. Other aspects of the uniform were specific to the branch of service:
Infantry: Color for branch of service was green, for both Rifles/Light Infantry, and line infantry. This was sometimes seen used for garrison troops and volunteer units on the cuffs, collar, shoulder "wings," and trouser stripes, piped in yellow. Belting was of black leather.
Cavalry: Belting was brown, but sometimes appears to have been white. Branch of service color was red, which is sometimes seen on collar, cuffs, and trouser stripe, but apparently less often than in the infantry. Black leather boots or brown leather false leggings were sometimes worn. Horse furniture was of brown leather with brass fittings, and a saddle cloth of white, blue, or brown color. Scabbards appear to have been of a silver metal. (Sabre-hilt appears to be of brass in the color images I have seen, but these may not be reliable.)
Artillery: Belting is black; branch of service color is blue, which may be used on collar, cuffs, and trouser stripe.
Officers: Officers basically dressed like their men, but wore a small metal gorget in the same color as their hat-button, depending on the branch of service. Rank distinctions were generally not worn in the field.
The regulation headgear was actually a sun helmet of the French pattern, with a yellow or white metal badge on the front. This helmet was worn by the Puerto-Rican volunteers, and possibly by other infantry units. One assumes that the metal color would have been dictated by the branch of service: yellow metal for infantry and artillery, white metal for cavalry. The rest of the uniform was as described above.
Another infantry uniform that I have seen in contemporary prints appears to be based on the continental Spanish uniform of the day. This was modelled after the French uniform of the same period, and consisted of baggy red trousers, white gaiters, and a long grey-blue coat. The coat had green wings and cuffs. Headgear was an oddly-shaped low shako, taller in front than in back, covered with white cloth, and worn with a neckcloth. Belting and equipment is as for the basic uniform.
While apparently not carried in the field, garrisons and fortified posts did fly the Spanish flag. This was a rectangular pattern, with a broad yellow horizontal stripe between two thin red horizontal stripes (1/5 - 3/5 - 1/5 vertical division). About a quarter of the way from the staff, centered vertically, are the arms of Spain. Novak describes these as "a gold crown on a red background, over an oval device. The right half of the device had a red lion on a white field, while the left half had a yellow castle on a red field." (p. 75, Remember the Maine, and to Hell with Spain ). (The lion looks in the accompanying illustration to be sitting up, like a dog begging for table scraps.)
The U.S. uniforms were in a period of transition when this conflict occurred, from the uniform of the Plains Indians wars to the khaki-colored model of Pershing's expedition south of the border and WWI.
The basic infantry uniform at the start of the conflict was a dark blue shirt and sky-blue pants, with a white trouser stripe (or none at all). Rank markings would be white. Light brown leggings were worn, with a slouch hat creased fore-and-aft, that was of a light brown, tan, or grey color. Belting was brown, although the cartridge belts were supposed to be dark blue (they are often brown in color illustrations). Shoes were brown. The blanket was white-grey; the pack was a black color. Canteen cover and haversack were a white-grey or tan color (canvas). Troops are often depicted with light-colored suspenders.
Although this was the uniform most often seen in the field, regulation had started to require a khaki version of the same thing. For the infantry, the khaki-colored trousers were much more common than the shirts or jackets - the dark blue remained in use throughout the war.
At Guantanamo Bay, the 1st Marines wore a traditional field uniform, which was soon replaced with a more typical uniform. The marine uniform was a dark blue jacket piped red at color, cuffs, and down the front. Trousers were sky blue, worn with tan gaiters. Headgear was the 1895-issue cap, which had a visor. This was sometimes worn with a white cover, and the coat was discarded, leaving a white undershirt. Belting was black, and a cartridge box was used instead of a cartridge belt.
This uniform was replaced rapidly with one that more closely resembled the infantry's: grey slouch hats were issued, cartridge belts came into use (presumably brown) as the older rifles were replaced, and dark blue shirts were worn. Khaki jackets were issued, but these did not see much use, most troops fighting in just their shirts.
The cavalry started the war with the Plains Indians wars uniform, but when the change to khaki was mandated, they were better equipped: existing "stable uniforms" in khaki akready existed. This meant that in the field, cavalry was seen wearing khaki trousers, but, as with the infantry and marines, the dark blue shirt was worn in the field, without the khaki jacket. Chevrons and so forth were yellow, that being the cavalry color. Apparently, trouser stripes were not found on the khaki trousers. Cartridge belts were of a tan color, and boots were of black leather. Horse furniture was also black, with a dark blue saddle blanket. The slouch hat was the same as for the infantry. Scabbards were of silver metal. Other equipment was as for the infantry.
The artillery dressed much as the infantry, although instead of white, the color of the trouser stripes (when appearing - mostly just noncoms) and chevrons was red. Volunteer artillery units wore a khaki jacket, with red collar, cuffs, and shoulder straps, but with sky-blue trousers with red trouser stripe. The slouch hat was often worn with a red cord and tassel. The Astor battery wore a completely khaki uniform, with red trouser stripes, epaulettes, and pocket flaps. They also wore a khaki sun helmet instead of the usual slouch hat, although some depictions have them in the more usual headgear.
Note that machinegun crews were generally made up of infantrymen, rather than artillerists.
Officers bought their own uniforms, so there was a great deal of variation seen here. They tended to dress like their men, but with more use of the branch of service color on the collar, cuffs, and trouser-stripe, and with the khaki jacket more often in evidence, usually with shoulder straps.
The U.S. troops absolutely believed in carrying battle flags (without smokeless powder, why not? It's not like the enemy can't see you...) These were of the pattern familiar from the American Civil War and Plains Indians wars: both the dark-blue regimental and "stars and stripes" national colors were carried. (Photographs show cavalry using the rectangular patterns, rather than guidons.) According to Novak, Montana and North Dakota used the volunteer's battle flags as the basis for their state flags.
A very large proportion of the U.S. troops that fought in this war were from colored regiments: the entire regular colored infantry participated, as well as colored cavalry regiments. Look at some orders of battle before deciding to paint everyone's skin white!