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, March 11, 2010

“A Ribband to Distinguish Myself”

Does that look like a general? How can you tell? Well, yes, he is taller than most people, and he hasn’t got mud all over him. But the real tip-off is supposed to be the thin band of light blue cloth across his chest.

Yesterday I quoted Gen. George Washington’s orders to officers in the Continental Army around Boston to distinguish themselves with colored cockades on their hats. Nine days before that, he had addressed an even more pressing issue: making sure soldiers recognized him. The general orders for 14 July 1775 declared:

There being something awkward, as well as improper, in the General Officers being stopp’d at the out-posts; ask’d for passes by the Sentries, and obliged often to send for the Officer of the Guard (who it sometimes happens is as much unacquainted with the Persons of the Generals, as the Private Men) before they can pass in or out: It is recommended to both Officers and Men to make themselves acquainted with the persons of all the Officers in General Command, and in the mean time to prevent mistakes: The General Officers and their Aids-de-Camp, will be distinguished in the following manner.

The Commander in Chief by a light blue Ribband, wore across his breast, between his Coat and Waistcoat.

The Majors and Brigadiers General, by a Pink Ribband wore in the like manner.

The Aids-de-Camp by a green ribband.
The general had already expensed, on 10 July, “a ribband to distinguish myself.” Nowadays we usually spell that word “riband,” and we’re more likely to call that band of cloth a “sash” (as well as to expect it to say something like “Miss Rappahannock”).

Somebody apparently raised the issue of distinguishing major generals from their subordinate brigadier generals. The Boston theater had only two major generals, Artemas Ward and Charles Lee, and the latter was a notorious sloven when it came to dress and manners. [ADDENDUM: Oops! I was wrong. Ward and Lee were the first two major generals appointed by Congress, but by the time Washington was ordering ribands Israel Putnam had also received that rank.]

On 24 July the commander’s general orders included:
It being thought proper to distinguish the Majors, from the Brigadiers General, by some particular Mark; for the future the Majors General will wear a broad purple ribband.
TOMORROW: So did people pay attention to Washington’s color-coded system?

(The image above is a detail from Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of Washington at Princeton.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. Washington was conscious of his position within the army and wanted to stand out.