Benedict Arnold, Independence, & Independent Companies

A French Engraving of Benedict Arnold from 1780

Both famous and infamous, Benedict Arnold first made his name leading the Green Mountain Boys through the gates of Ticonderogaalong side Ethan Allen. That is easy enough to picture, but it begs the question, “What was he wearing in the early hours of May 10 1775?”

Most New England militia units were un-uniformed in the spring of 1775, bringing their civilian clothes from home, or like soldiers, paid a bounty for their personal clothing. However, some militia companies prior to the war had uniforms. Among these were independent companies which were partly social organizations, composed of wealthier businessmen and gentlemen capable of purchasing uniforms. They were also educational organizations where the membership could train and learn about the military arts. Voluntary and social, these independent companies were an important source of military expertise in the early years of the American Revolution, as their membership provided a cadre of officers for a new army.

Typically, these independent companies held meetings to discuss and vote on their uniforms, just like any other aspect of religious and secular life in New England. In 1774, units like the New London Independent Company of Connecticut voted:

That each Member of the Company shall appear at all Times of public Training in the following livery Regt. A dark blue broadcloth coat with yellow metal Buttons, Buff Cuffs & Lapells, buff jacket & blue Breeches & white stockings, also each man shall appear with a black cockade in his Hat, nor shall any member at any time be suffer’d to appear under Arms unless he has on a handsome Wig or powder his Hair.

This original coat shows many neat details typical of independent company uniforms

However, very quickly they realized their uniform was a bit old fashioned and rectified their dress as recorded in the diary of Nathan Hale, the company’s most famous member. He noted, “The Independent Company then met & Voted that the Breeches be altered from Blue to white with black straps also white jackets & the coat to be cut short & turned up behind, wear half-Boots or black leggings-“ This gave them a new fashionable silhouette befitting modern gentlemen.

In 1774 Benedict Arnold, a ship captain in New Haven, Connecticut, was also a wealthy, military enthusiast. He personally financed the creation of his own independent company dubbed the ‘Second Company Connecticut Governor’s Foot Guards’. The First Company of Governor’s Foot Guards was already a long standing institution. In December 1774 Arnold’s company agreed to, “choose officers, and agree on some uniform of dress, such as red coats, white vests, white breeches and stockings, black half leggins or any other dress that may then thought to be proper.” Subsequently through the winter of 1775 the company further agreed to, “ A scarlet coat of common length, the lapels, cuffs and collars of buff and trimmed with plain silver wash buttons, white linen vest, breeches and stockings, black half leggins and small, fashionable and narrow ruffled shirt.”

From over 200 years of distance this scarlet coat sounds awfully similar to those hated redcoats with their officer’s in scarlet finery, but Arnold’s company wasn’t alone in this uniform color. Even in Boston, with its ardent patriots, featured an ‘Independent Company of Cadets’, clad in scarlet. The company held series of meetings in 1772 to discuss their uniform at the “Bunch of Grapes” a favorite tavern of the company’s memberships. They resolved initially that:

The closed work buttons holes and other construction details are copied in the reproduction of this coat for No Quarter

the Coat to be of Scarlet broad Cloth with a narrow Round Cuff and a narrow Lapell of white Cloth, the Lapell to be the length of the waist of the Coat and a fall down Cape the Colour of the Lapell, the Buttons to be plain white Mettle wash’d with silver, the Waistcoat and Breeches to be white with the same Buttons
They quickly decided that white would not do. They held an emergency meeting at their favorite tavern to change everything white to a more fashionable buff, the same off-white hue that Arnold’s company chose two years later.
Ticonderoga’s collections proudly feature an original coat from the Boston Independent Company of Cadets. The coat is an enlisted coat, but like many volunteer independent company uniforms it was made from officer’s grade materials, befitting the wealth of the company membership. This coat features very similar distinctions to Arnold’s uniform for his Second Company of Governor’s Foot Guards, right down to the silver washed buttons mentioned in both companies’ regulations. Accordingly, we are building a copy of the original Boston Cadet’s coat to clothe Benedict Arnold for the upcoming, “No Quarter” event.

As on the original, the whole back is built and lined, before the coat is assembled

Benedict Arnold and his company assembled to march to Boston on April, 22 1775 soon after the alarm from Lexington and Concord reached New Haven, Connecticut.By May Third Benedict Arnold was commissioned a Colonel in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay to raise a regiment for the capture of Ticonderoga. By the night of May 9 he was crossing Lake Champlain along with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. With the mere matter of days between the Lexington alarm and the capture of Ticonderoga, as well as the sheer distance Benedict Arnold travelled, it is unlikely that he purchased a new uniform. Besides, his independent company uniform with the military expertise, discipline and social status that it embodied, probably made an important statement for Arnold. Even with all these important reasons, something still feels ironic 237 years later about a hero of America’s first victory clad in British military scarlet. Maybe it makes our vision of American patriots in 1775 that much more complex than we imagined.

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