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.