"Well, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Yes, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Well, you must tell me, baby
How your head feels under somethin' like that
Under your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat."
Bob Dylan was poking fun at the overly fashion conscious with these lyrics. So what would he make of this ensemble? This is one of my favorite confederate photographs: the outlandish and resplendent Captain Samuel J. Richardson, commander of Company F, 2nd Texas Cavalry (2nd Mounted Rifles). Captain Richardson's photograph is housed in the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy and was reproduced in The South Besieged; The Image of War 1861-1865 by the National Historical Society (1983).
As with an earlier post, the caption that accompanied this photograph doesn't quite ring true. It asserts that Richardson was "probably the only confederate of the war outfitted in leopardskin." I will grant that a pair of spotted fur trousers with matching holsters was probably singular attire for a combatant in the Civil War, but I am confident that the big cat in question was not a leopard.
Let's start with the basics. Captain Richardson was evidently a man of means, appearing in this image superbly armed with a Sharps carbine [or perhaps it is a Merrill: hat tip reader Chris Hubbard 6/20/2007] and a brace of revolvers. His trousers with the buttons up the seams are in the fancy Spanish style. There is the remotest of chances that Captain Richardson had the wherewithal and opportunity to acquire leopard hide for this outfit, but a much more likely possibility is that it came from a local source.
I believe the good Captain is decked out in trousers made from the hide of Panthera onca, the largest cat in the western hemisphere, described as a leopard on steroids: the Jaguar. The founder of Texas, Sam Houston, had a favorite vest made of this material which he wore in the 1840s and 1850s so there is clear precedent.
The spots of the leopard (Panthera pardus) are similar to those of the Jaguar, but the rosettes the form are hollow while those of the Jaguar sometimes contain dark spots like the ones visible on General Houston's waistcoat. A close-up of Captain Richardson's trouser leg reveals the same spotted rosette pattern that distinguishes Jaguar skin from other hides.
Jaguars ranged north of the border during the American Civil War era. They were present in from Texas to Southern California. Richardson very likely shot the Jaguar himself (those round eyeglasses he wears would aid his marksmanship), or may have been presented with the fancy dress by one of his admirers.
The 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles was organized in 1861 and its companies recruited in a number of counties. Here is an account of the formation of Company F, which was Captain Richardson's Company:
"A typical example of the mechanics of forming a unit took place at Marshall in April, 1861, when the organization of the W.P. Lane Rangers Company was announced. Volunteers were expected to supply their own mounts while the state agreed to furnish arms. On the appointed day the young men were massed in the center of the town, had their horses examined for serviceability, ( Note, the Confederate Congress authorized the sum of $ .40 cents per day for men that used their own horses.) elected their officers, and were given an oath of allegiance to Texas by a local judge. The rest of the day was spent in preparing the unit's roll of members and in attending a special church service. The next morning saw the company reassembled in the town square, awaiting the presentation of a flag that had been made by the young ladies of Marshall. After a long and flowery presentation speech, the banner, reported to have measured six by fifteen feet, was accepted by the unit. Then, at noon, amidst tears and kisses, the company took up the march to its destiny. A few miles down the road, however, destiny was delayed while the men were feasted at a local college. By dusk the badly scattered soldiers straggled to a camping site and dined on delicacies that had been brought from home. The Rangers were feted, lauded, and blessed in almost every town through which they passed. Late in May they arrived in San Antonio where they were armed, mustered into Confederate service as Company "F" of the Second Texas Mounted Rifles, and assigned to patrol duty on the state's frontier. "
In 1862 it was reconstituted as the 2nd Texas Cavalry. The unit served along the frontier fighting Indians and Unionists as well as in Louisiana. The men fought dismounted for a lengthy period, then remounted later in the war. One suspects that Captain Richardson is pictured in an early-war photograph before the rigors of campaign and garrison life took their toll on his jaguar skin.