Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Uniforms of the Commander-in-Chief Guard

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the April 2001 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter

General Washington detailed Captain (later Colonel) Caleb Gibbs to go to the Clothier General and secure uniforms for his personal guard. He specifically stated that he wanted his guard to wear uniform similar to his own, buff colored breeches and vest, regimental coats of dark blue faced (lapels, cuffs and turnbacks) buff colored. The details as to equipment were left up to Gibbs and what was available. The only word of caution given Gibbs was "no red." When Gibbs arrived at the Clothier General's headquarters he soon ran into problems. Most of the uniforms available were captured British and Hessian. The only breeches available were white. That was remedied by using coffee to dye them. The next problem was the vests. The only ones available were captured by an American Privateer and were destined for the British 5th Regiment of Foot. They were red! We are sure that Gibbs heard about that when he got back to General Washington's headquarters. The next problem encountered was buttons. In the 18th century, each Regiment had distinctive buttons, marked with the Regiment's designation, such as illustrated below:

What button would a "body guard" of one hundred and fifty men use? We do not know who thought of it, but the Continental Congress had just minted one of our earliest coins - a penny, and it had a cipher on it - "USA". Either someone in the Clothier General's Department or Major Caleb Gibbs thought of it. The Department cast new buttons in pewter. The button is displayed below. Interestingly, the "US" is still used by the United States Army.

 

Next came the head gear. The most common hat of the day was the tricorn. But, the
Clothier General had several barrels of British Dragoon helmets, which had been captured at sea by a privateer. The British had sent them to Colonel Banastre Tarleton's Legion. Obviously, Gibbs wanted the Guard to stand out. He choose the helmets. He removed the green turban and replaced it with blue, and added a white feather plume, tip in royal blue. He also added a white cockade, known as the French Alliance cockade. This unique head gear did make the Guards stand out and they were worn for an undetermined amount of time - at least 3 years. Our Color Guard, wearing these beautiful helmets, stands out today even among several other Color Guards.

Lastly came the weapons. Gibbs was given brand new French made Charleville muskets and bayonets. It is unclear whether or not the short swords used by the Guards were already in their possession or were secured by Gibbs at this time. They were captured Hessian, taken when Washington took Trenton. Our Chapter's problem was duplicating the helmets. They're not exactly an off the shelf item! We had them made, and they were adequate, crested in bearskin, with the plumes, but, frankly, very primitive.

In October 2000 our our Color Guard Commander was presented the replica helmet worn by actor Jason Isaacs in the movie "The Patriot." Isaacs had portrayed William Tovington, the villain in the movie. His character was loosely based an Banastre Tarleton, so historically the helmet was accurate and its use by our Guards also was historically correct.

These were beautifully made helmets, costing many hundreds of dollars each and far superior to the helmets we had made. The helmet was shown to the Chapter at the October meeting. Unanimously, the Chapter requested that our Color Guard Commander negotiate a purchase of additional helmets for our entire Color Guard. That meant another six helmets! Generously the monies for the purchase were donated by several of our members. The purchase was successful and our Guards now wear these handsome cavalry helmets, just as the men whom they commemorate did!

REFERENCES

“The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard” by: Carlos F. Godfrey, Ph.D. Originally published: 1904 -
P
ublisher: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1972 (DNM Lib.)

“The Encyclopedia of the American Revolution” by: Col. Mark M. Boatner, III (USA).
“Life Guard of Washington” Publisher: David McKay Company - 1974 (DNM Lib.)

“Commander-in-Chief's Guard ” by:Charles H. Mc Barron, Jr.
Publisher:Military Collictors and Historians, 1956 - pages 74 - 76

“The Writings of George Washington from Original Manuscript Sources” -39 vol. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor - Publisher: United States Government Printing Office. (DNM Lib.)

“TheContinental Army” by: Robert K. Wright, Ph.D.
Publisher: Center of Military History - United States Army - 1983 (DNM Lib.)

“The Field Book of the American Revolution” by: Benson J. Lossing -2 volumes
Publisher: Harper, New York -1951 (DNM Lib.)

 

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