Cavalry Scarf

“Therefore he rides in a loose flannel shirt that will not cramp him as he whirls the coils; but the handkerchief knotted at his throat, though it is there to prevent sunburn, will in time of prosperity be chosen for its color and soft texture, a scarf to draw the eye of woman.”- The Evolution of the Cow Puncher: Owen Wister, Harper’s Magazine, 1895.

The Yellow Cavalry Scarf is another Cav tradition whose origins are all but lost in ambiguity. First, let me start by saying that like most Cavalry traditions, the scarf, bib, ascot, foulard (to keep foul weather off your head), handkerchief, neckerchief, or whatever you want to call it, is a symbol. It may not be listed in the army uniform regulations, but for the Cav community, it symbolizes and represents the Cavalry, regardless of where it originated. The scarves are still used today for parades and ceremonies.

In the earliest days of the American Light Cavalry, the guidon was referred to as a cornette, (a French term referring to the standard). A scarf or long piece of silk was tied to the cornette whenever the Cavalry went into action, “in order to render the standard conspicuous, that the men might rally around it.” – William Duane: A Military Dictionary, 1810.

Cav soldiers, and most soldiers in general for that matter, know a good idea when they see it. When the frontier Troopers recruited Indian Scouts back in the 1860’s, the Indian Scouts would wear scarves. This was not to identify them. They were used for more practical purposes. They covered the face to keep from breathing in the dust while on the trail. They protected the neck from the bitter winters. In the hottest of days, they could be soaked with water to prevent sunburn and keep cool, a practice used even today by our troops overseas. These were makeshift bandages, tourniquets, even coffee filters in a pinch! In 1876 during the Battle of Little Bighorn, Major Marcus Reno lost his hat and used a handkerchief to simply cover his head.


In 1890, First Lieutenant Ed Casey wrote to the Secretary of War and proposed an official Indian Scouts uniform. He requested that the standard dark blue shirt be modified with a deeper collar “to hold a neck-handkerchief”. There was no specific color designated at this point. When soldiers needed a bandana, they simply got whatever the local sutler could procure. White was a popular color, but most ended up the color of the trail before long.

In typical Cavalry fashion, Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his regiment of Rough Riders were known for wearing unauthorized items of clothing and incorrect insignia. Their choice of uniform was not questioned on the battlefield where their heroic actions earned them a reputation that lives on today. In short, a scarf was not an accoutrement, but a necessity in the field or on a campaign, and rarely if ever seen worn in garrison.

Here is one of several images of Roosevelt wearing a blue polka-dot scarf with his uniform.

During the Spanish Civil War, Roosevelt met a war correspondent and illustrator by the name of Frederic Remington. The two became lifelong friends. Remington, who produced more than 3,000 drawings and paintings, became known for not only the authenticity of his illustrations, but also his romanticized image of the West. He is most known in the Cavalry community for his portrait of Sergeant John Lannen, who we all know as “Old Bill”. He has created several scenes of Cavalrymen charging into battle with yellow scarves around their necks. Yellow was the branch color of the Cav.

Enter John Ford and the Cavalry Trilogy. Ford directed over 125 films throughout his career. He is famous for his three films depicting Cavalry life on the Western frontier, for which he has received great praise and also criticism. The movies were “Fort Apache”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, and “Rio Grande”.

During research for the films, soldiers of the Fifth Cavalry were observed in the field in 1876. Journalist Martha Summerhayes described the troopers as wearing loose handkerchiefs tied about the neck. In one of the films, the main character is wearing a bandanna around his neck. While this practice ran contrary to uniform regulations of the day, the neckerchief was a common item for several years. Bandannas of varying color and design were often worn by the frontier Cavalry. In “Fort Apache” most of the troopers and officers wear a various assortment of kerchiefs, which is realistic for that period.

While Ford sought realism in his films, he wouldn’t sacrifice a good story in the interest of historical accuracy. Years later, famous actor Jimmy Stewart would summarize his director’s technique by stating, “And that’s what John Ford does. He prints the legend—and that’s a fact.” He was a huge fan of Frederic Remington’s art and was good friends with Western artist Charles Russell, both of whom he drew a great deal of inspiration for his films, and could possibly be a source of the yellow scarf! Another theory is that the old movies used yellow scarves because they appeared better on black-and-white film, and when movies were produced in color, the yellow just stuck.

Remington, Lieutenant Powhatan H. Clarke, Tenth Cavalry, 1888.

Oil on canvas (fragment).  Collection of the Frederic Remington Art Museum.

There were times when Regiments might adopt a ‘style’. For example, several of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders wore the dark blue bandana with white polka dots and many of General Custer’s men in the 7th Cavalry wore a red bandana to emulate him.







The U.S. Constabulary, created to enforce occupation rules after WWII, was formed using Cavalry and Armor units who also wore yellow scarves to further identify their unit. Soldiers of the 545th MP Company (1st Cavalry Division) were assigned to secure POW’s in Japan after WWII. Some of these soldiers were so dedicated to their tradition, that when they couldn’t get the yellow gear they needed, they actually used yellow malaria tablets to dye their lanyards, gloves, ascots and leggings Cavalry yellow!

When actual scarves were issued in the 1960’s as a TA-21 item, they were folded into a triangle and attached in the back with a safety pin. The wearer would neatly tuck the rest of the scarf under his shirt. The PX sold an easier to wear and more preferable “bib” that fastened in the back with snaps.  The ascots actually helped soldiers maintain a “head and eyes straight forward” appearance during parades, even though they were unpopular with the soldiers and loathed by those who didn’t shave close or had a five-o’-clock shadow.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. Cavalry soldiers had a new weapon: the Air Cavalry. With it, the tradition of the Stetson itself evolved and the yellow scarf gained momentum.

These images from the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association depict Troopers Don Callison and Larry Brown with their much worn yellow scarves.

Mr. Callison also has an awesome tale of the Order of the Scarf on his website here:

Today, the color yellow still represents the Cavalry branch and modern-day enlisted troopers wear the yellow hat cord on their Stetsons. Branch scarves are covered in paragraph 28-20 of Army Regulation (AR) 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. It states that personnel may wear branch scarves with service and utility uniforms, only when issued and prescribed by the local commander for ceremonial occasions. They are a bib-type design and fasten in the back with snaps or Velcro. Branch scarves are provided without cost to all personnel, when prescribed for wear. (However, they are not authorized on the enlisted Army green dress uniform)

Gold Spurs Awarded to Cavalry Scouts
(US Army photos, Staff Sergeant Susan German, 122 Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

“Members of the Scout Platoon, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment – serving with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division – were awarded yellow ascots and spurs in a ceremony at Camp Prosperity in Iraq in November 2004.”

“The photo shows Staff Sergeant Chris Haag of the Scout Platoon tying a traditional yellow ascot around the neck of scout Corporal Brent Nice.  Haag, from Spokane, had traditional crossed sabers added to the ascots by his aunt.  Corporal Nice hailed from Pullman, Washington.  Gold spurs were also awarded at this ceremony.  The black hats are also a traditional affectation of United States Army cavalry units.”