Revolutionary War Historical Article

American Headgear of the Revolutionary War

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the September 2005 Edition of the The Liberty Tree Newsletter

One of the more interesting  aspects of history is  the study of costumes.   One soon  learns that the ever changing styles of dress are evolutionary and slow to  occur.  Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves still wearing the jabeau, although we now call it a neck tie.  The waistcoat, which is now called the vest, has been a common garment since the 16th century.  For laymen, dating clothing to within a few decades is certainly difficult.  Not so headgear.  The evolution of hats seemingly is much faster, and far more radical. There are some holdouts.  The army's campaign hat, now worn by the military's drill instructors, dates back to the Spanish American War.  The shako worn by the cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point, dates  back to the War of 1812, as does their uniform.  Among civilian head wear, the Stetson, or cowboy hat is relatively  unchanged.  

During the American Revolution the tricorn hat was the most common. Thanks to "Hollywood" the public envisions it as the only headgear used at the time which was not the case.    Most   military uniforms are exaggerated civilian  attire.  The tricorn was no  exception, just a hat with a large turned up brim.   Most regiments were comprised of 10 companies in the tradition of the  British Army. Regiments had  8  companies  which were  known as "Line" or "Battalion" companies. One company was designated "Light Infantry" and usually wore a leather helmet. The British also had a "Grenadier" company, which wore the famous bear skin  helmet.   The American Army did not adopt the Grenadier concept, but retained the Light  Infantry.

The cavalry units wore helmets of either leather or brass.  Of course, there were many  exceptions,  which generally  depended upon supply.  It was also obvious that distinctive headgear was the most easily recognized part of a uniform, therefore headgear would play an  important part in the psychology of war.

The tricorn came in  several different styles.  The most common military version had a brim of five inches in the back and four inches in the front, turned up on three sides to form a  triangle.  It was worn with the front corner directly over the left eye.  This was done to avoid a conflict  while carrying the  musket.  Some regiments wore a white trim on the upper edge of the tricorn, and many wore plumes of different colors and styles.  Men of the  artillery and some officers wore gold trim.   Officers generally wore a slightly  different version of the tricorn hat, called a "cocked hat".  It was quite similar to the tricorn, but formed a rectangle rather than a triangle.

By order of General Washington all members of the army wore a cockade on the left side. It was to have a black background and a white center in honor of the French Alliance.  Most units had their men¹s tricorns trimmed with white tape, and many added small white tassels.    The  officers generally did  not - - this  made them  easier  to recognize in the field of battle.

The wearing of plumes or feathers was also commonplace.


By 1780  it was prescribed by General Washington's regulations:   Major Generals wore white plumes, tipped in black. Brigadier Generals wore white plumes; Aide-de-Camps received a green plume. Light Infantry wore a black plume tipped in red. The Commander-in-Chief's Guard (Washington's personal  guard),  wore white plumes, tipped in blue.

L-TO R: Virginia Infantry, A Minuteman, 1st Company,
Governor's Foot Guard of Connecticut
and the 1st Troop of Philadelphia Light Dragoons

One of the most commonly  used  headgear was the  "liberty  Cap" -  a wool knit cap,   today  known as a "watch cap".  During the winter  it could be rolled down to   protect the ears. Surviving illustrations show that it was common to have the words "Congress" or "Liberty or Death" embroidered on the front.

The evolution of the helmet is quite interesting.  From the beginning of recorded history soldiers wore medal helmets of a variety of   designs as protection. After  the  English  Civil War (1642 -1648) they fell into disfavor throughout Europe. They were replaced by various styles of the tricorn.  The  tricorn as headgear for cavalry had to be extremely impractical. They would have a tendency to fly off  during a full gallop charge or be knocked off during battle.  They  afforded absolutely no protection in the typical cavalry medley, wherein sword wielding cavalrymen would hack at each other.  By the time of the French and Indian Wars (1756 -1763) the helmet came back in favor.


By the American Revolution all cavalry detachments were wearing helmets. These came in a variety of designs.  Most were made from leather, and some of brass. The Light Infantry also adopted the helmet.  The majority of the helmets worn by the American forces were captured, usually by privateers, and modified by changing the cloth  turban,  adding or changing the plume so they would not be confused with those worn by the British.

Two European Officers  who  volunteered their services to the cause of American Independence  had  a  large  influence  on  that  branch of  the  service. They were:  Charles  Armand Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouerie, commanded Armand's Legion. Casmir Pulaski was Chief of Cavalry for the Americans. These two men like, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee,  patterned the uniforms of their cavalry units after European models.  Acquiring the needed uniforms and equipment was a problem.  Both Armand and Pulaski received help from their contacts in Europe.  All three men helped finance their detachments. 

In the case of Armand's Legion, the brass helmets were the latest in cavalry headgear and were manufactured and sent from France.

In the colonies, militia units had existed from the earliest of times. Many of these units represented their home cities, and with a lack of British troops, performed many of the ceremonial duties that normally would have been done by the King's troops.  Several were known as the "Governor's Own".  Naturally, these units were beautifully  uniformed and equipped. Several existing militia units looked very much like British regulars.   In the early stages of the war there were several instances of friendly fire casualties.

Grenadier helmets were commonplace among these ceremonial militia units - but some had helmets  more in line with  light infantry or cavalry helmets. Providence, Rhode Island established their "Train of  Artillery", with a very distinctive tear drop helmet.

Both the British  and  Americans  found  that the wilderness of North America reeked havoc on  European style wool uniforms.  The light  infantry, having to provide flanking protection, required  them  to perform their  duties  off  road,  saw  their uniforms  shredded. Their headgear also suffered.  The smaller, leather made helmet became all the more important.  By the end of the war many  regiments were uniformed with helmets.

L-TO-R: Dragoon of Lee's Legion, Major General
The Marquis De LaFayette and the Commander-in-Chief Guards


Shortly after creating his personal guard, officially known as "The Commander-in-Chief Guards", also known as the "Washington Life Guards", or "Life Guards" as the men usually called themselves. General  Washington ordered the detachment's Commander, Major Caleb Gibbs to  secure uniforms.  In the   process of reviewing the uniform stores of the Clothier General of the Army, Gibbs discovered several shipping barrels filled with captured bear skin helmets.  He chose the distinctive helmets  for the "Guards".  They had originally been shipped to the British 17th  Dragoons. Gibbs had the helmets modified to  avoid any possible confusion with the
British unit.  He had the green turban removed and replaced with blue, a white plume, tipped in blue added along with the prescribed cockade.  The replica helmets our Color Guard wears duplicates that era of the Life Guards.

L-TO-R: 3rd Pennsylvania Rgt., 1st New York Rgt.,
2nd South Carolina Gft, 11th Virginia Rgt.,
Maryland Rifle Corps

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