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Uniforms of the Revolution

Uniforms of the Revolution

UNIFORMS OF THE REVOLUTION. Military apparel of standard material, cut, color, and appearance came into widespread use only about a century before the American Revolution. Several trends influenced the adoption of uniforms. Because regimental commanders in European armies were required to furnish their men with clothing, and clothing was cheaper to buy in bulk, "uniformity" had an economic basis. Properly cut and sewn, uniforms gave the soldier a set of clothes in which he could fight and work effectively. Uniforms could be adorned in various ways, which was both a way to identify leaders within a unit and a means of distinguishing among units. Distinctive uniforms helped to raise morale, make recruiting easier, and identify units on the battlefield.


Because uniforms were first introduced when European armies fought each other at close range on compact battlefields, with infantrymen arrayed shoulder to shoulder in the linear tactics of the period, uniforms were designed to be distinctive and visible. Rather than the dull colors and camouflage patterns that have been synonymous with soldiers' clothing since the late nineteenth century, uniforms in the eighteenth century were generally meant to be seen. Certain uniform colors became associated with particular states: white with France; blue with Prussia; and none more so than scarlet with Britain, although there was enough variation within armies and coalition partners so that a commander on a swirling battlefield would have been unwise to assume that he could always distinguish friends from foes by the color of their uniforms.

Soldiers received only one set of clothes, which, when complete, might comprise a coat of relatively heavy fabric (usually with long tails that were normally turned up), a lighter-weight waistcoat, a linen shirt, a pair of coarse breeches (or gaiters or overalls, as available), a pair of short linen stockings, and rough leather shoes. Various buckles and buttons kept the clothing in place, along with the accoutrements that hung on leather belts from the soldier's shoulders and waist. Adornments in the British army included such details as lace around the coat's buttonholes, burnished coat buttons bearing the regimental number, and pressed metal helmet plates on the tall caps of the elite grenadiers that carried distinctive devices of king and country. The chief means of distinguishing among similarly uniformed British regiments were the coat's facings, the contrasting colors of cloth turned up at the collar, cuffs, and lapels that were set by royal warrant in 1768.

As a mark of special favor, usually to recall some battlefield achievement, certain British regiments bore the adjective "royal" in their name and were allowed to wear blue facings, as, for example, the 7th (Royal Fusiliers), the 23rd (Royal Welsh Fusiliers), the 42nd (Royal Highland Regiment), and the 60th (Royal American Regiment). Other facing colors included variations on yellow (buff for the 3rd, 14th, and 22nd; pale yellow for the 20th, 26th, and 30th; and just yellow for the 9th and 38th), orange (35th), gosling green (5th), willow green (24th), black (50th and 58th), white (43rd and 47th), and even red (33rd). Perhaps the least uniform aspect of British army clothing were the kilts worn first by the 42nd Highlanders and subsequently by all newly raised Highland Scots regiments. Uniforms were paid for by deductions from the soldiers' wages and were replaced only when they wore out.

During the War for American Independence, British redcoats fought alongside two other groups of soldiers with different uniform traditions. Of the contingents of line infantry hired from six German states to augment the British forces, five followed the dominant Prussian uniform style in color (blue) and cut. Only the Anhalt-Zerbst troops were uniformed in white coats in the more ornate Austrian style. Loyalist units, when uniformed, received green coats early in the war and red coats after 1778. The most effective and renowned of the German and Loyalist units were the light troops, mounted and on foot, all of whom wore green coats during the war. The jägers from Hesse-Cassel wore grass green coats, faced and lined with crimson red, and black felt bicorne hats, similar in style to the Prussian jägers on which they were modeled. John Graves Simcoe's Queen's Rangers and Banastre Tarleton's British Legion retained their green uniforms after 1778. Both units were so active and tenacious that the color green earned them their opponents' fear and respect. The Rangers' silver crescent moon, worn points up on the front of their light infantry caps, was the most distinctive, and distinguished, Loyalist military insignia of the war.


American soldiers had been raised in the British uniform tradition during the colonial period, but their sources of supply were so haphazard and varied that their appearance in the field was usually anything but uniform. Regulations during the French and Indian War had generally called for provincial troops to be outfitted in blue coats. George Washington, for instance, had a formal portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale in April 1772 in which he wore the blue coat with red facings of the Virginia Regiment. In May 1775 he wore to sessions of the Continental Congress the blue coat with buff facings of the Fairfax Independent Company, blue and buff being the traditional colors of the Whigs who opposed royal tyranny. Since the motives for joining the militia were social and political as well as martial, some militia units, particularly in urban areas like New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston, had uniforms. Otherwise, militia units in all regions throughout the war turned out in their own civilian clothing, with their own weapons and accoutrements. A few units raised after the outbreak of hostilities were well uniformed in blue, notably Captain John Chester's company from Wethersfield, Connecticut, at the siege of Boston, and Colonel John Haslett's Delaware Battalion, the "blue hen's chicks," that marched from Wilmington for the defense of New York City in 1776. Regiments raised in New York and Pennsylvania in 1775 and 1776 wore a mix of blue, green, and brown coats, the last two colors being popular because the dyes were locally available. Some officers from New England wore their old uniforms from the French and Indian War, but most soldiers across the colonies went to war in what amounted to a combination of their everyday work clothes and a uniform coat.

Washington, who understood the morale value of a good uniform, made every effort to acquire appropriate clothing for his troops. When the Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen arrived at Cambridge wearing hunting shirts, a garment well-known to Washington, the commander in chief recommended to Congress that, because "the army in general, and the troops raised in Massachusetts in particular, [are] very deficient in necessary clothing,… I am of the opinion that a number of hunting shirts not less than 10,000 would in a great degree remove this difficulty in the cheapest and quickest manner." Hunting shirts were relatively easy to make, being, according to Silas Deane, who had seen Pennsylvania riflemen in Philadelphia, a piece of stout linen cloth dyed the color of "a dry or fading leaf" that is made into a "kind of frock … reaching down below the knee, open before, with a large cape," wrapped "around them tight" and tied "with their belt in which hangs their tomahawk" (Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1, pp. 436-438). Washington wanted the shirts in order to give the army a uniform appearance and "abolish those provincial distinctions which lead to jealousy and dissatisfaction," but he was also aware of the psychological value of the hunting shirt, since the British would prudently assume that any American wearing one might be a crack shot. Congress agreed with Washington's suggestion and directed him to buy tow cloth (made of short, broken fibers from flax, hemp, or jute) in Rhode Island and Connecticut, but when the cloth proved to be unavailable, the idea was abandoned.

The Continental army retained a motley appearance as long as it relied on domestic cloth production (linen was woven at home, but wool and woolen cloth were scarce), British uniforms found in supply ships captured by American privateers, or contracts made with European suppliers by American purchasing agents overseas. For his additional Continental Regiment, Colonel Samuel Blatchley Webb commandeered scarlet coats intended for British regiments in Canada that had been captured at sea in December 1776. The Second Pennsylvania, while at Valley Forge, received royal blue coats with scarlet facings, part of an order for thirty thousand uniforms placed with French manufacturers by Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin, the American commissioners to France. The Fourth New York in late 1778 received white coats faced with red from Boston suppliers. Colonel George Baylor outfitted his Third Regiment of Light Dragoons in 1778 in white coats with blue facings.


Only in the wake of the formal alliance with France did the Americans have access to sufficient stocks of uniforms for Washington to designate blue as the official army uniform color on 2 October 1779. The regulations specified that Continental infantry regiments from New England would wear blue faced with white; those from New York and New Jersey blue faced with buff; those from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia blue faced with red; and those from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia blue faced with blue. The artillery would wear blue faced with scarlet, and the light dragoons blue faced with white. Even after these regulations were promulgated, the uniforms of many units escaped standardization. When sent south in October 1780, Lee's Legion, for example, wore short green jackets resembling those worn by the Queen's Rangers and the British Legion.

In fact, Continental army units were lucky to get any clothing and shoes at all. The modern renderings of such superb artists and researchers as Charles M. Lefferts, H. Charles McBarron Jr., Frederick P. Todd, John R. Elting, Rene Chartrand, Peter F. Copeland, Eric I. Manders, Frederic Ray Jr., Herbert Knotel, Frederick T. Chapman, Clyde A. Risley, Eugene Leliepvre, Don Troiani, and a host of others suggest, for purposes of illustration, a uniformity that rarely existed during the war. All armies had supply problems, and soldiers always had to accept what they could get.


Abbot, W. W., et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. Vol. 1, June-September 1775. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985.

Elting, John R., ed. Military Uniforms in America: The Era of the American Revolution, 1755–1795, from the Series Produced by the Company of Military Historians. San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1974.

Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Writings of George Washington. Vol. 16: July 29, 1779–October 20, 1779. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937.

Lefferts, Charles M. Uniforms of the American, British, French, and German Armies in the War of the American Revolution. New York: New-York Historical Society, 1926.

Smith, Paul H., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976–2000.

Troiani, Don, Earl J. Coates, and James J. Kochan. Don Troiani's Soldiers in America, 1754–1865. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1998.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

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