Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Flag of the Commander-in-Chief Guard

by Donald N. Moran

When one engages in a historical research project regarding the American Revolution they are, at first, overwhelmed by the amount of information available, and the thousands of different sources. That overwhelming feeling soon turns to complete frustration, as the researcher discovers the horrendous gaps in original source materials.

The researcher must understand that our forefathers did not know if their revolt would be successful. They had no idea of the significance of their efforts. They certainly didn’t think the war would last eight years! In this editor’s opinion, the realization of what had been accomplished did not occur to the average American citizen until after the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, and the peaceful transfer of power from George Washington to John Adams on March 4th, 1797. It was only then that the historical significance of the creation of the United States of America was realized. Twenty-two years had lapsed since the first shots were fired at Lexington-concord and fourteen years had passed since the end of the war in 1783. A tremendous amount of original source data had already been lost!

Such is the case regarding definitive information regarding the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard’s flag.

What we do know is that the alleged original flag is proudly displayed at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia (a "must see" for every American). Your author recently visited this site, with the intention of viewing the "C-in-C" flag. A private tour was arranged.

Unfortunately, upon seeing the Original "C-in-C" flag, your editor realized that it could not be the original!

The beautifully painted and well-preserved flag depicts a discrepancy that can only be explained away as a copy.

The original flag was designed by or caused to be designed by then Captain Caleb Gibbs, the Commandant of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guards, presumably with the personal approval of General Washington. The first record of its being carried is in 1776.

On April 22 nd, 1777, General Washington ordered Captain Gibbs to obtain new uniforms for the Guard, and provided his preferences. Gibbs found everything in short supply. He did manage to secure the blue regimental coats, faced (cuffs and lapels) in buff, per the General’s wishes, but could not secure waistcoats, except in red, which the General had forbidden anything red. The red waistcoat became a symbol of the Guard in years to come. Gibbs did not obtain the standard headgear of the period, the tri-corn hat, but rather took possession of several barrels of captured British Dragoon bear skin crested leather helmets. He had the red cloth turban removed and replaced in blue cloth adding a white plume tipped in blue. We do not know how long the "Guard" wore this headgear. Certainly the original helmets could not have survived the rigors of six years combat duty. But they are known to have been worn for at least three years.

How then, could the "original" Guards flag depict the officer in a bearskin crested helmet, if the adoption of the helmet was by chance a year later?

Although the Director of the museum insisted the flag was the original, it showed no wear and tear that one would associate with such a flag. He further advised that the flag was presented to the Masons by a George Washington Parke Custis.

The first known illustration of the flag is found in "The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution," by Benson J. Lossing, published by Harper Brothers in 1859. On page 688 of volume I, Lossing states that he visited George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of General Washington, at his home, Arlington House (now the Arlington National Cemetery). (It should also be noted that G.W.P. Custis’ daughter was the wife of General Robert E. Lee.) Lossing wrote (on page 206, Volume I) that he "passed the morning (May 8th, 1848) at the library of Mr. Force," then he visited G.W.P. Custis. "At almost sunset I left Arlington House…" Hence, he was there only half a day. While there, he not only extensively interviewed Custis, but made several sketches of the 'relics' he found there. In Lossing’s sketch of the flag, and also his written description, he states that the officer wore a "cocked hat with a blue and white feather." For some reason, Lossing misdescribed the headgear of the officer, probably being overwhelmed by the number of George Washington artifacts displayed around him, and by comparison, the flag of the Washington “Guard” was not as important as the personal belongings of our founding father.

Custis told Lossing that he remembered the "Guard" arriving at Mount Vernon with General Washington’s personal baggage. He described in detail the uniforms worn by the "Guard."

On November 9th, 1783, General Washington issued written order to Lieutenant Bezaleel Howe, of New Hampshire, temporary Commander of the "Guard" as the regular "Guard"had already been discharged from the Army, to escort his baggage to Mount Vernon. These men, accomplished this mission without apparent incident, and returned to West Point, New York, where they were mustered out of the Army on December 20th, 1783, thus, the delivery of the baggage occurred sometime in between those two dates. We mention this because George W.P. Custis was born on April 30th, 1781 – which would have made him two years and seven months old when the baggage arrived! Could he possibly have remembered such a mundane event as the arrival of baggage at that age? I think not, but I suggest that his recollection is of stories he was told or overheard, and not first person recollections.

It is also a historical fact that G.W.P. Custis was an accomplished artist and had painted several depictions of his famed stepfather during the Revolution. Could he have painted the flag? We’ll probably never know.

Is it possible that there were two flags? One that Lossing saw and sketched and another that G.W.P. Custis presented to the Masons?

However, two facts are evident from this investigation. One, the C-in-C flag is not the original, and two, that the officers of the "Guard" apparently wore the bearskin crested helmet, and not the bicorn hat typical of most officers of the era, as previously thought.

An examination of contemporary drawings and paintings of the Revolutionary War frequently depicts officers of "special corps", i.e. cavalry, light infantry, etc. wearing headgear associated with their detachment rather than the traditional black bicorn hat. So it is highly probable that whoever painted the C-in-C flag was provided first or second hand information regarding its description. Being raised at Mount Vernon, it is equally possible that young Custis encountered the original flag, and recalled it in later years. Of the many mementos found at Mount Vernon, a flag would be one of the more impressionable upon a young boy.

 

REFERENCES

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

“To Major Gibbs With Much Esteem” by: Howard H. Wehmann
Publisher: “Prologue Magazine” - National Archives, Volume 4 (1972)

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

“The George Washington Masonic Museum”-: Arlington,Virginia -
The George Washington Custis Painted Version

“Museum of Tappan, New York”-:They have one but no provenance.

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