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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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Uniforms Less Than Uniform

Last year Prof. Ashli White of the University of Miami wrote on the Omohundro Institute’s blog about her research at the institute and nearby Colonial Williamsburg.
As armies and navies were deployed throughout the Atlantic, they took with them uniforms, flags, banners, and even dinnerware, emblazoned with insignia that declared where they stood on the ideological spectrum of revolution. . . .

Sources show that soldiers were not wearing uniforms as we tend to think of them—snappy, carefully coordinated sets with various accoutrements and details that adhered to clear codes. Rather, soldiers’ and even officers’ clothing was much more mixed, if not at times downright ad-hoc. This situation resulted because of the difficulties of distributing clothing and its constant wear-and-tear. What’s more, armies appropriated their enemy’s clothing as spoils of war and then incorporated it into their kits. And whenever possible, soldiers exerted their own sartorial preferences, too.

Take, for example, a uniform coat in CW’s collections that had worn by a British Field officer in North America. I had the privilege to meet with Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles, to look at examples of both civilian and military clothing, including this remarkable coat. It dates from about 1790, but as Erik Goldstein, the curator of mechanical arts and numismatics, has demonstrated, it is stylistically in keeping with coats worn during the American Revolution. So while gearing up for war with France, this British officer chose a cut for his coat that harkened to his service almost twenty years before, even though it was out of step with the latest trends.
I couldn’t find a picture of the coat White described, but this waistcoat (shown above) came into the Colonial Williamsburg collection with it.

The museum curators understand that the coat and waistcoat were made for Col. James Moncrieff, who had become a young army engineer in 1763 in time for the siege of Havana. During the Revolutionary War he served at Brandywine, Stono Ferry, Savannah (from the inside), and Charleston (from the outside). The museum says, “He attained the appointment to deputy adjutant general in 1790. The style of this coat is specific to deputy adjutant general and quartermaster general.” Moncrieff was mortally wounded at Dunkirk in 1793.

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