J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Who Are You Wearing, General Washington?

On 25 June 1775, Gen. George Washington arrived in New York on his way from the Second Continental Congress to the newly adopted Continental Army in Massachusetts.

At least as far back as Douglas Southall Freeman’s multivolume biography published in the mid-1900s, good authors including Richard M. Ketchum, John Ferling, and Ron Chernow have stated that Washington dressed up to enter the city. Specifically, they say he wore a feathered hat and a purple sash.

However, those sartorial details go back to a single source: the reminiscences of Gen. Richard Montgomery’s widow Janet. She died in 1827, and her notes were first published in The Ladies’ Repository thirty years later. They say:

Washington’s stay was but a moment at New York. He drove a sulky with a pair of white horses; his dress was blue, with a purple ribbon sash, and a long plume of feathers in his hat. What a mortifying sight to Governor Tryon!
In our eagerness for everyday details about Washington’s life, we’ve seized on that description. But I don’t think it’s reliable.

We know from Gen. Washington’s expense account that he bought a phaeton and a double harness before leaving Philadelphia. A phaeton is a four-wheeled carriage. A sulky is a light, one-horse vehicle, usually with only two wheels, and thus would have been less impressive for a commander-in-chief.

Washington did wear a colored sash, which he called a “ribband,” as a mark of his rank as commander-in-chief, as shown in the Peale painting above. However, we also know that:
  • Washington didn’t establish that insignia until 14 July.
  • His sash was light blue; a purple sash indicated a major general, one rank below.
  • He bought his ribband on 10 July, two weeks after leaving New York.
I have no information one way or the other on the generalissimo’s preference for “a long plume of feathers in his hat.” But unless someone finds a source about Washington’s wardrobe other than Janet Montgomery, writing up to a half-century later, I doubt we should say that he made such a flashy entrance into New York.


Heather Voight said...

It's amazing how many fictionalized accounts are accepted as facts for years. I think kids especially would find it interesting to try to distinguish facts from fiction when famous historical figures are involved. Thanks for the post!

EJWitek said...

I somehow just can't get my arms around the notion that George Washington, so protective of his personal dignity, would wear a long feather in his hat and drive a sulky into New York. Men who take themselves seriously as military men don't make grand entrances driving a sulky.
In a letter dated two days prior to GW's entrance into New York, John Adams wrote to Abigail that GW, accompanied by MGens Lee,Schulyer and two aides departed Philadelphia escorted for a couple of miles outside the city by various delegates to the Continental Congress. GW and his entire party were riding on horseback. That's more in line with GW's dignity and more probably how he entered New York.
Tangentially, John Admas couldn't conclude his letter to Abigail without bemoaning the fact that he was underappreciated.
"Such is the pride and pomp of war. I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave others to wear the laurels which I have sown ; others to eat the bread which I have earned ; a common case."

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think we have any other eyewitness description of Washington’s arrival in New York besides Janet Montgomery’s, so it’s possible that historians and biographers decided her account was better than nothing.

At some point some authors dropped her detail of the sulky. That’s allowed other, more recent authors to describe Gen. Washington in his purple sash and feathered hat and also to say he was on horseback so as to enter the town with a more military appearance.

But digging back to the earliest sources raises some dust, and some doubts.