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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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Washington’s Canceled Order

As I described yesterday, in the fall of 1774 and spring of 1775, George Washington was busy ordering sashes and other officers’ insignia for the independent Virginia militia companies. But his favored supplier in Philadelphia, William Milnor, was having trouble securing those sashes.

In early April, Washington’s contact in the Prince William County militia told him, “it is the desire of our Officers, that if they can’t be furnished with such sashes, as are proper; they would not incline to have any.” But he left the decision up to Washington.

Our next clue about that endeavor comes from Milnor’s letter dated 18 April, the same day that up in Boston Lt.-Col. Francis Smith was preparing to lead a column of British soldiers to search Concord. The merchant told Washington:

I have acted exactly agreable to your directions, respecting the Sashes, as I forbid the Maker to proceed any farther with them, immediately on seeing the first he made, which I sent to Mr. [George] Gilpin…
So Col. Washington had canceled the order.

It’s possible to read too much into this little exchange (or aborted exchange), so I’ll do just that. As an eager young officer in the 1750s, Washington had treated military sashes as an almost necessary part of an army’s officers look. He knew that British officers wore such garments, and he wanted Virginia officers to do the same wherever possible so as to impress their skeptical comrades from across the Atlantic.

In 1775, Washington and his fellow Virginians weren’t so concerned about mirroring the standards of the royal army.

Washington’s June 1775 accounts include a payment of £6 “for a Sash had of you by Mr W. Milnor.” But, in contrast to his 1772 portrait, Washington didn’t wear a sash as an American general. On reaching the Boston siege lines in July, Gen. Washington instead bought a blue “ribband to distinguish myself,” as shown in his second Charles Willson Peale portrait. That band of cloth was reminiscent of a traditional military sash but not the same.

Uniforms and rank were still very important to the new commander-in-chief, but in 1775 he was willing to come up with a new system of insignia.


Hugh Harrington said...

Is not that blue "ribband" also the shoulder strap for his sword?

Citoyen david said...

When did the General get his new uniform and who decided the colors of Blue & Buff? Colonel Washington was wearing his VA Militia in Congress when appointed, so the new uniform of the new Continental Army was decided before leaving Philadelphia on the 21st? I have the book of his expenditures and nothing listed for June, that I can see.

Anonymous said...

I find this article to be a bit disjointed. You never explain why retired Col. Washington is ordering sashes in 1774 nor do you distinguish between a ribband and a sash. Perhaps as a first-timer to this page your previous posts concerning the subject better illuminate the need for both.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, good eye! When Washington instituted the system of sashes in different colors for the generals and cockaded for other officers, he said nothing about swords. But by the time Peale did this painting in 1776 or 1777, he had his sword clipped to the cloth strap.

J. L. Bell said...

Washington chose blue and buff as the colors of his county's independent militia uniform in the autumn of 1774. Those colors were associated with the Whig party in England, I understand. He wore that uniform to the Second Continental Congress in the spring of 1775 and then to the Boston siege lines.

Those weren't the official colors of the Continental Army uniform during the siege of Boston, but some officers ordered their own blue and buff coats in imitation of the commander. That set the precedent that later became official, though the number of men in uniform varied greatly among different units even late in the war.

J. L. Bell said...

Links within the article go to previous postings about why Washington was ordering military insignia in the months before the war and when he ordered the blue ribband.

meryka said...

Thank you for your enjoyable articles.
I do have a couple of questions about military sashes.
1) The color green was reserved for the medical officers in the Civil War. Was it the case during the revolution also?
2) Or was green the color favored by Loyalist militias? I have heard of green uniforms and cockades being markers of a Loyalist.
3) Was there a fashion of women wearing sashes tied around their waists during the Revolution? Perhaps signifying that a loved one was in the military?
Thanks again for your writing.

J. L. Bell said...

In the summer of 1775, Gen. Washington designated a green ribband as the mark of one of the generals’ aides de camp. Though there were surgeons and surgeon’s mates attached to the army and the regiments, I think they dressed in civilian clothing. However, doctors wore a distinctive style of wig that helped to set them apart from other gentlemen.

J. L. Bell said...

Some Loyalist military units did wear green uniforms, and some were even called “Greens” as a result. However, I don’t think they were the only fighting men in green during the war.

I don’t know about the possible ladies’ fashion. Anyone?

meryka said...

Thanks for taking the time to reply.
But now I have more questions...
Which aide did General Washington order a green ribband for?
What evidence is there for surgeons and surgeons mates wearing civilian clothes? What kind of special wig did they have?
Thanks again!

J. L. Bell said...

In July 1775 Washington's general orders designated the green ribband as insignia for all aides de camp, his and those of the other generals. I don't know how long that order remained in effect.

While surgeons and surgeon's mates were attached to particular regiments or to the military hospitals, they did not have military rank. In the British army and navy they weren't necessarily with the regiment at all, but paid someone else to do their duties. (This was an even bigger problem with British chaplains.) In sum, the surgeons and surgeon's mates were more like civilians attached to the army than like part of the military establishment.

Doctors often wore what was called a physician's wig, for obvious reasons.

meryka said...

Dear Mr. Bell,

Thank you so much for your answer.