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.