Visitors to our Founding Fashions exhibit in the Mars Educations Center are often confused by seeing three scarlet uniforms lined up in the gallery. Nowhere else in North America can you see so many 18th-century uniforms in one place, but you might ask, why only redcoats? What about the Americans? In fact, only one of the uniforms on display is actually that of a regular British soldier. The two others are both American, although on opposing sides. This is where the story becomes a little more complicated.
Red is well known as the color of the uniforms of the British army, perhaps best known from Paul Revere’s erroneous cry of “The redcoats are coming!” Red coats had been worn by the English military as early as the New Model Army during the Civil Wars of the 1640s. By the 1770s it was very recognizable. However, red was not unique to the British. The Danish army wore red uniforms throughout the 18th century. Both the French and Spanish armies had multiple regiments of Irish troops that wore red uniforms. Red-coated Irish soldiers even fought red-coated British soldiers during the American Revolution. Red was also the color traditionally worn by Swiss soldiers. Red-coated Swiss served notably in the French, Sardinian, and Neapolitan armies throughout the 18th century.
Lieutenant Jacob Schieffelin, an American loyalist, wore the scarlet uniform, faced with black velvet and trimmed with gold lace currently on display in the Mars Education Center. Red seems an appropriate color for a loyalist but it was not a foregone conclusion. Schieffelin himself may have worn rather different dress in the field as a Lieutenant of the Detroit Volunteers. In 1779 he and his company was captured along with the rest of the British garrison of Fort Sackville, in present-day Vincennes, Indiana by Colonel George Rogers Clark. A vivid account of his travails was published in a New York newspaper after his escape from captivity in 1780. In it he described the ordeal of two, “Frenchmen in his Majesty’s service,” sergeants in the Detroit Volunteers, who had been serving with an Indian party when they were captured. The men witnessed the execution of the Indians they had been captured with, and were themselves saved only when one of them was recognized by an onlooker. As Schieffelin described: “his father who was an officer with the rebels did not know his son until they informed him that he was in the circle in Indian dress.” It is unclear if wearing Indian dress, likely a pair of woolen leggings, moccasins, a breechcloth, and a shirt was typical for the rest of the Detroit Volunteers, but at least some wore this clothing when operating with Native Americans. Regardless, once back in British lines Schieffelin clearly chose to procure the red coat so identifiable with Britain and her empire, even if he may have worn different clothing on the frontier.
During the New York Campaign in 1776, many loyalists had no uniforms at all and wore red ribbons in their hats to distinguish them from the Americans. The first uniforms many of these “Provincial” regiments received later that year were green, procured directly by the British Treasury department. Loyalists that fled to Canada from parts of New York and New England were also initially clothed in green uniforms, which had been intended for Canadian militiamen. It was clear though, that red was preferred. A report to General Guy Carleton in January of 1777, indicated the preference of loyalists for red uniforms. Ebenezer Jessup’s men were provided uniform coats described as, “…the cheapest that could be got at Montreal, very common Red Stuff turn’d up with Green; as Red seemed to be their favorite colour…” They wore these uniforms as part of John Burgoyne’s expedition along the Champlain valley in 1777.
In 1778, the survivors of Burgoyne’s loyalists and new recruits were issued blue coats with collars, cuffs and lapels of white. The officers lobbied against these coats, pleading to the Governor of Quebec Frederick Haldimand that, “our wishes only are that Your Excellency will Order us, Red Clothing, as along [sic] as any remains in Store, and that the Blue may be made use of the last.” Their justification was that they might be confused for Continentals, especially by Native Americans. One has to suspect that their preference for red was as much cultural as practical. These various colored uniforms may not have been intended as a snub, but it is not hard to image that these and other Provincial troops felt like they were being treated as second class soldiers when not clothed in the vaunted scarlet of the redcoats. But that was not necessarily the reason these other colors were used. Thousands of new suits of clothes were needed on short notice, especially in 1776, and green cloth may have simply been affordable or available at the time. Red uniforms started to appear as early as 1777, and although some green uniforms continued to be issued by the end of the war red became the standard uniform for most Provincials.
Red uniforms visually linked the loyalists to the cause they were fighting for, but red had no negative connotations for Americans prior to the Revolution. During the French and Indian War colonial troops from Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia all wore red uniforms at some point or another. Even during the crises of the 1760s and 70s Americans volunteer companies and militia from Boston to Charleston continued to wear red uniforms. It is most likely that Benedict Arnold wore the scarlet faced buff uniform of a member of the 2nd Company of the Governor’s footguards when he and Ethan Allen captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.
The most important uniform in our collection and the oldest surviving American military coat could be somewhat misleading due to its color. The uniform is that of the Governor’s Independent Company of Cadets of Boston, Massachusetts and it is bright red. Formed in 1741 the company acted as a guard for the colonial governors. John Hancock (yes the John Hancock) became the company’s commander in 1772. In April of that year the company met at the Bunch of Grapes tavern to hear a report from the committee of the company tasked with designing a new uniform. Their choice of scarlet for the body of the coat was never in question. What was debated was the color of the lapels, cuffs and collar, as well as the breeches and waistcoat. Ultimately buff was chosen. Despite the active role of many members against British taxation and colonial interference, the company wore their red uniforms until they disbanded in 1774, just eight months before hostilities erupted at Lexington and Concord.
American troops though, continued to wear red uniforms. Some of these were made in the colonies and later states. The dire need for suitable clothing though, made captured garments extremely valuable, despite the danger of wearing the enemy’s colors. the Continental army benefited from as many as 15,000 uniforms captured from the British over the course of the war. Although some were dyed brown, most of these captured uniforms were issued to Americans unaltered, and as red as the redcoats they were intended for.
General Washington admitted, “the impolicy of any part of our Troops being Clothed in Red and that many injurious and fatal consequences are to be apprehended from it.” Even so there were times when it was advantageous. For generations one of the most storied objects in Fort Ticonderoga’s collection has been the “silver bullet” that a British spy tried to swallow to conceal a message being sent from General Clinton to General Burgoyne. The spy was apprehended by a guard of Colonel Samuel B. Webb’s Additional Regiment, which was dressed in captured uniforms which had been intended for the British army in Canada. Somewhat later the Americans hatched a plot to abduct General Clinton from New York. Although the plan was never executed Washington suggested that, “if the Scheme is practicable at all may add not a little to the success namely to let the Officers & Soldiers imployed in the enterprize be dressed in red and much in the taste of the British Soldiery—Webbs Regiment will afford these dresses.” As late as 1780 Washington was still suggesting Webb’s men might be used as decoys for clandestine operations.
Evidence of some of these captured uniforms can be found in Fort Ticonderoga’s collections. Amongst the hundreds of buttons recovered from the site are a number that we can directly attribute to uniforms that were once red. Among these are the buttons of the 7th and 26th regiments of the British army. These two corps garrisoned Canada when the Revolution began. When St John’s (Saint Jean, QC) fell to the Americans in November of 1775, the clothing taken in the fort caused something of stir in the American lines. The American commander General Richard Montgomery explained to General Philip Schuyler:
“The officers of the First Regiment of Yorkers, and Artillery Company, were very near a mutiny the other day, because I would not stop the clothing of the garrison of St. John’ s. I would not have sullied my own reputation, nor disgraced the Continental arms, by such a breach of capitulation, for the universe; there was no driving it into their noddles, that the clothing was really the property of the soldier, that he had paid for it, and that every Regiment, in this country especially, saved a year’ s clothing, to have decent clothes to wear on particular occasions.”
General Richard Montgomery, a former British officer, understood that the uniforms in the possession of the captured soldiers were their own property, having technically paid for them from stoppages taken out of their wages. He remained obstinate over the right of the British soldiers to their clothing even as the army was in dire need of warm clothes as winter was setting in, believing it important for the American cause to wage war in a civilized and lawful fashion.
The capture of additional stores of clothing from Montreal was more clear cut and provided relief for the survivors of Colonel Benedict Arnold’s heroic march across the Maine wilderness to the gates of Quebec City. Montgomery acknowledged the distinction between what was a lawful seizure and what was personal property:
“With a year’ s clothing of the 7th and 26th, I have relieved the distresses of Arnold’ s corps, and forwarded the clothing of some other corps. The greatest part of that clothing is a fair prize, except such as immediately belonged to the prisoners taken on board; they must be paid for theirs, as it was their own property.”
Buttons recovered archaeologically from the 26th regiment are to be expected as they garrisoned Ticonderoga itself in 1775. Buttons from the 7th have been found here as well, suggesting the presence of some of Arnold’s men at Ticonderoga as the army withdrew from Canada.
Buttons from the 22nd regiment of the British army have also been found on site. The 22nd never served at Ticonderoga and was not in Canada after numbered buttons were adopted by the British army in 1768. In 1775 however, a British vessel carrying clothing for the 22nd and 40th regiments was captured in Philadelphia and the clothing was immediately put to use by the Americans. Arriving in the Continental army’s camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts in August of 1775, some of the clothing may have been dyed brown. Recoveries of buttons from the 22nd regiment at Fort Ticonderoga indicate that at least some of the troops to whom this clothing was issued joined the garrison here, probably later in 1776.
Examples of all these captured buttons are currently on display in the Founding Fashions exhibit in the Mars Education Center. Loyalists in blue and green and Continentals in red don’t fit the traditional narratives of the Revolution, but truth is often stranger than fiction. The evidence on display at Fort Ticonderoga provides a deeper picture of the complex story of the American Revolution. History is rarely black and white, or in this case red versus blue.