Civil War Hat
The tragic story behind this hat has its roots in an overlooked theater of the Civil War—the action west of the Mississippi.
Ozem Gardner, chaplain for the 13th Kansas Infantry, found the hat on a little-known but important battlefield in Arkansas. In late summer of 1863, Union and Confederate forces clashed over control of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The fort was important because it lay along an old military road, it was located on the Arkansas River, and because Native Americans--many of whom were loyal to the Confederacy--lived just to the west.
Confederate troops used the fort as a base from which to raid federal supply trains, interrupt lines of communication, and skirmish with Union soldiers. Their strategy was to draw attention and, most importantly, troops from the eastern theater of the war. But by late 1863, this approach was failing. Union forces succeeded in winning Fort Smith back from the Rebels in a series of encounters in late August.
Ozem Gardner mustered in with the 13th Kansas Infantry on September 1, replacing the previous chaplain who had died of disease. It is unclear whether Gardner actually witnessed any of the action at Fort Smith, but at some point he did venture onto the battlefield to collect souvenirs. He picked up this hat and a sword from the body of a dead Confederate soldier.
This style of hat is called "slouch" or "beehive," and was common in all theaters of the war. Made of olive-green wool felt, it has a wide floppy brim with traces of brown grosgrain ribbon to stiffen the edge so it could be worn flat or slightly turned up. Fade lines on the pointed crown indicate it probably was creased during wear. It may have lain on the Fort Smith battlefield for days, suffering the elements before being picked up by Rev. Gardner. This would account for its present distorted shape.
Ozem Gardner was born in Ohio to parents who were staunch abolitionists. He later trekked to Iowa, married, and moved his family to Kansas in the late 1850s during the Bleeding Kansas era, founding the town of Gardner that still bears his name. By 1860 Ozem had moved to the far northeast corner of the territory, preaching in the area around Elwood. This small town overlooked the Missouri River and the bordering slave state of Missouri. Years later, one of Gardner's friends related the story that Ozem spied a rebel flag flying from a tree in Elwood, along with a notice claiming any man removing it would be shot. It is telling of Ozem's character that he climbed the tree and took down the flag anyway. Perhaps Gardner's strong abolitionist beliefs later persuaded him to muster in as a Union chaplain.
Western Arkansas During the War
Life was miserable in western Arkansas by the summer of 1864, nearly a year after Gardner enlisted in the 13th Kansas. Confederate Colonel Stand Watie (a Cherokee) initiated a series of attacks on Fort Smith in late July, with an eye towards recapturing it. He nearly succeeded. On at least one occasion, Watie's Cherokees tangled with African American troops of the First Kansas Colored Infantry--an incident unparalleled in the war's eastern theater but not uncommon in the west. According to one report, these attacks "became so numerous and bold in the vicinity of . . . Fort Smith, that small squads dare not venture beyond the line of entrenchments except at the peril of life or captivity."
The Civil War west of the Mississippi River differed from the eastern theater in that it was more of a guerilla conflict. Private citizens in western Arkansas had to endure the harassment of Watie's Confederate forces, but even more demoralizing to Union supporters were attacks by guerillas who roamed the region in small bands. These opportunists stole livestock, destroyed property, and even murdered people who supported the Union cause. Refugees began flooding Fort Smith and other nearby federal garrisons. Rations were short because Watie had disrupted supply lines, and now the garrisons were responsible for hundreds of Union sympathizers. The refugee camps were crowded and dirty, and disease spread quickly. Faced with these conditions, soldiers began escorting refugees northward to safer territory.
Rev. Ozem Gardner accompanied at least one such expedition. The trip proved successful for the refugees, but on the return Gardner and a detachment of six soldiers made a fatal mistake. They separated from the command to take a shortcut to camp. Guerillas attacked before they could rejoin the larger group. Four people were killed, including Ozem Gardner. He thus entered history as one of perhaps 70 Union chaplains (out of 3,000) who died in the service of their country during the Civil War.
This hat was donated to the Kansas Historical Society by Solomon Miller, who received the souvenir from his friend Ozem Gardner while on military leave in 1863. It is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Civil War Hat
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: September 2008
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.