Introduction to Uniforms of the American Army

Charles Mackubin Lefferts (1873-1923) devoted the greater part of his life to historical research in the study of the uniforms worn by the contending armies in the War of the Revolution which he delighted painting in water colors.  Although he never took lessons in the art of drawing or painting he had a natural ability which enabled him to do credible work as an examination of his work will show.  Because of his love of historical accuracy and indefatigable labor, in 1926 the New York Historical Society was able to present the collection included in this area of our web site depicting the uniformed men of the American, British, French and German armies who took part in the American Revolution.  For almost thirty (30) years Lt. Lefferts devoted almost his full-time energies to this work, searching the archives in Great Britain, France and Germany, and every known source in the United States.  Patiently he read the Revolutionary orderly books, diaries, old newspapers, and histories for every scrap which would throw light on his subject and wherever any part of a Revolutionary uniform or other military accoutrement could be seen he visited, to get the record, and many such items he copied into his paintings.  It is this detailed search which interested Lt. Lefferts and makes his work unique, for nowhere else can all the American and British Provincial uniforms herein shown and described be seen.  The illustrations were published for the first time by the New York Historical Society.  The original compilation was the work of Dorothy C. Barck of the Library staff.

The dress of the American Army was the last to be studied and painted by Lieutenant Lefferts. A problem different from that of the minutely regulated European uniforms, it required patient and long-continued searching through state and continental records, diaries, letters, orderly books, and particularly newspapers for descriptions of deserters. He was unable to complete his research or to summarize the results of his investigation; but he did make a wide survey and gather much new material. His knowledge was embodied in the following twenty-six paintings of American soldiers with the descriptive texts, where he emphasized the general use of the hunting shirt, and the fact that a blue coat faced with red, not buff, was the most representative American uniform of the Revolution.

Very little has been written about Revolutionary clothing. The best account is Asa Bird Gardner's "The Uniforms of the American Army," including both state and continental troops, in the Magazine of History (August, 1877), I, 461-492. The latest study of "The Continental Army Uniform" is by John C. Fitzpatrick, Assistant Chief, Division of Manuscripts, Library of Congress, in Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine (November, 1920), LIV, 629-639, reprinted in The Spirit of the Revolution, 117-138. It is based on the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress, which Lieutenant Lefferts knew contained a mass of new and invaluable material, but which he did not have an opportunity of reading through, as he had planned. Uniform of the Army of the United States, 1775-1889 (published by the Quartermaster General, U. S. Army), contains six colored plates of uniforms of the Revolutionary period, by Henry A. Ogden, and extracts relating to uniforms from orderly books, legislative proceedings, and other sources. Additional drawings by Mr. Ogden are reproduced in color in Avery's History of the United States, volume VI, which contains a wealth of illustrative material, including pictures of British, French, and Hessian soldiers.

Brown was the first official color for Continental uniforms, and was adopted by the Continental Congress on November 4, 1775, after consultation with Washington and the New England governors. Regiments were to be distinguished by facings of different colors. (Journals of the Continental Congress, Ford, ed., III, 323.) This recommendation, however, was not completely carried out, and the troops were never all in brown, because some of the early organizations had already chosen other combinations, and regiments consulted their own preferences in choosing uniforms. Early in the war, blue was the officers' favorite color for their own dress, and by the end of 1778, blue was the color preferred by the men, as was shown by the attitude toward a shipment of blue and brown coats from France. (Letters of Henry Burbeck, New York Herald, June 15, 1913; Fitzpatrick, Spirit of the Revolution, 130.) A good example of a blue officer's coat is that of Colonel Peter Gansevoort, of New York, preserved in the National Museum at Washington, D. C. It is faced with red and lined with white. Dark blue faced with scarlet was the recognized uniform of the Continental Artillery as early as March, 1777. ([Boston] Continental Journal, March 13, 1777.)

For notes on the uniforms of state troops, see Lieutenant Lefferts' descriptions accompanying the plates.

Washington's General Order of October 2, 1779
On March 23, 1779, the Continental Congress, in an ordinance regulating the clothing department, authorized Washington to prescribe the colors and cut of the uniforms of the respective states and regiments. Washington complied in the General Order of October 2, 1779, which fixed blue as the color for all branches of the service, and for all the state regiments in the Continental Line, with distinctive differences in linings and facings.

For artillery and artillery artificer regiments, the uniform was ordered to be blue, faced and lined with scarlet, with yellow buttons, the coats to be edged, and the buttonholes to be bound, with narrow lace or tape. The light dragoons were to wear blue faced and lined with white, with white buttons. The blue coats of the infantry regiments were all to be lined with white, and have white buttons, and states were distinguished by different colored facings, as follows: the New England states, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, white facings; New York and New Jersey, buff facings; Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, red facings; North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, blue facings and buttonholes edged with narrow white tape. (Varick Transcripts of Washington's General Orders, Library of Congress.)

All Continental troops were not at once clothed according to this order, and some of them probably never were, but officers were requested to conform to it, and the men were to be furnished the standard uniform in so far as supplies would permit. Lieutenant Lefferts confined his study to what was worn prior to this regulation. The artillery uniform and the blue infantry coats with the four distinctive state facings are shown in plates IV and V of Uniform of the Army of the United States.

The picturesqueness of the rifle dress worn by the expert marksmen of the Carolinas, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania has made it well known, but the very general use of the hunting shirt by all the American troops is not generally recognized. Lieutenant Lefferts wrote: "The rifle dress or hunting frock was preferred by Washington, and was worn by most of the army throughout the war. It was the field dress of almost the entire army. The hunting shirt was made of deer leather, linen, or homespun, dyed in various colors, in the different regiments, such as tan, green, blue, yellow, purple, black or white. They were all of the same pattern, but some had capes and cuffs of different colors. With the hunting shirts were worn long leggings or overalls, also preferred by Washington in place of breeches and stockings. They were made of linen or duck undyed, or of deer leather, and later in the war were furnished in wool for the winter. They were shaped to the leg, and fastened at the ankle with f our buttons and a strap under the shoe."

A contemporary picture of the hunting frock, with a description of it, was published in Leipzig in 1784, in the Historisch-genealogischer Calender oder Jahrbuch, which contains also colored representations of Washington's Mounted Life Guard, the Independent Company of Pennsylvania Volunteers, and a Pennsylvania infantryman. These are reproduced in Avery's History of the United States, VI, 167, 171, and the text was translated by Isaac J. Greenwood in Potter's American Monthly (January, 1876), VI, 31-33.

Washington recommended hunting shirts as part of the clothing bounty to be provided by the Continental Congress, and as the most practicable garment for troops not supplied with uniform coats. He pointed out the several advantages of the rifle dress in his General Order of July 24, 1776: "No dress can be cheaper, nor more convenient, as the wearer may be cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather by putting on under-cloaths which will not change the outward dress, Winter or Summer -- Besides which it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman."

The Continental Congress included rifle frocks in the clothing bounty given non-commissioned officers and privates, and the states also supplied them to their troops. They were widely used for field and fatigue service to save the uniforms from hard wear. Hunting shirts were not considered uniforms, but were a substitute when coats could not be procured. Their general use was such, however, that they were practically service uniforms, or field dress. Early in the war, they were apparently the only uniform of the regular Virginia troops in Continental service, and were required to be worn by both officers and men, all dyed the same color in each regiment. The hunting shirts of at least the 6th Virginia Regiment, in 1775 and 1776, were differentiated to show rank, with small white cuffs on the sergeants' shirts, dark cuffs on the drummers) , and fringe on the officers', while the men's were plain. (Journals, Continental Congress, V, 855, VIII, 717; Journals New York Provincial Congress, I, 385; Maryland Archives, I, 135, 146, 157; Memoirs of Lafayette (N. Y., 1837), 19; Willard, Letters on the American Revolution, 171; Washington's General Order of May 6, 1776, in Force, American Archives, 4th ser., VI, 426; Force, 4th ser., IV, 92; Orderly Book of American Army at Williamsburg, Virginia, under General Andrew Lewis (privately printed, Richmond, Va., 1860), pages 13, 14, 78.)

The hardships of the American troops from lack of clothing; the insufficiency of supplies of cloth and other essentials, and the difficulties of efficiently organizing the making and distributing of the garments; the importance of importations from France; the welcome stores of British uniforms captured at St. Johns, Saratoga, or at sea, and the various expedients to disguise them to prevent confusion; these are related subjects which have not yet been studied adequately by historians of the Revolution. It must be remembered that Lieutenant Lefferts was interested in what the troops wore when they were supplied with uniform dress, but he did not overlook the fact that the obtaining of clothing was the chief problem confronting American leaders, and that it was of secondary importance to them whether it was brown or blue, coat or hunting shirt.


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