By William Demaria, Mikai Johnson Harris and Kaitlyn Lucey
Overseeing an exhibition has posed numerous challenges. Throughout the work day, we have to clean the floors and walls, set up the objects and activities for public programming, and assign ourselves shifts. Although these duties are equally important, one of the most crucial tasks is what we base the success of our exhibit on: attracting visitors! Our exhibit is entitled Revolution: NYC & the War for Independence. We believed it would be appropriate to interest passing families and couples with an attraction pertaining to the Revolutionary War. Luckily, we found a passionate reenactor to act as a greeter for our exhibit. More elaborate than his act was his choice of fashion. The dashing young reenactor wore a gear that included an assortment of garments compiled from various Revolutionary War-style uniforms. The coat he is wearing in the picture below belongs to the 3rd New York Regiment and the other pieces of the uniform belong to a British regiment by the name of the 22nd Foot. Though the exact combination of the articles of clothing is unlikely, it’s not an impossible combination.
Let’s continue on the topic of the historical accuracy, as clearly exemplified by our reenactor and his not-too-accurate uniform. The reason this combination of pieces is not impossible lies in the organization of the Continental Army. During the early Revolutionary War, the patriots were not have a professional army, so regiments such as the 3rd had few standards or regulations (with the exception of their unifying element which was a coat). It was possible for soldiers of the Continental Army to wear a combination of what they already owned or could find. In contrast, the British utilized different uniforms to identify different regiments, while still maintaining a unifying element. Whereas the Continental Army early in the war only had unifying elements on a regimental level, the British had this throughout their entire military.
But what is the unifying element for the Red Coats?
Though an obvious answer (a red coat), this question can lead to much more interesting information than immediately apparent. Yes, red was the unifying color for the majority of British infantry throughout the war, however, each British uniform had subtle variations. Aside from making it a nightmare to resupply His Majesty’s military, these subtle variations were helpful tools when organizing the army. When fighting in mass formations, knowing who to follow is most important. In the fray of battle, one does not have to try too hard to lose one’s spot in the ranks. The subtle variations in the regimental uniforms provided a simple and practical basis for the militants to reorganize themselves quickly.
Basic Components of a Soldier’s Uniforms, From Head to Toe:
Although uniforms certainly varied among regiments of both sides, there were basic, overlapping components.
Most soldiers wore some type of headgear during the Revolutionary War. Among infantry soliders, the tricorn hat (the kind illustrated below) was common. Tricorn hats are shaped like a triangle and worn with the front corner over the left eye, which was optimal for musket carrying. But this was not the only type of headgear worn. For example, the cavalry units of the Continental Army wore leather helmets, while some British soldiers famously wore bearskin caps.
Learning to use a musket was an important skill Revolutionary War soldiers needed to master. Muskets used by the Continental Army, for the most part, had smooth, un-grooved barrels. Unfortunately, because of this feature, they were wildly inaccurate, unless the target was within one hundred yards (the length of a football field). This, of course, created problems, as muskets required a long time between shots as it could only fire one shot at a time—the enemy would be fast approaching by then! Efficient soldiers could fire a musket about four times a minute. However, there were certain aspects that even the best infantry could not control. For example, gunpowder does not fire when wet, so rain rendered muskets useless. Bayonets, a knife attachment for the musket, could be used in close handed combat.
Military uniforms were often based off of civilian trends, thus it’s no surprise military coats mirrored common styles of the day. Like military coats, civilian outerwear was made from wool. The coloring, cut, and material could often vary among regiments.
Trousers and Breeches
Trousers and breeches were the most common type of pants worn by American revolutionary soldiers. Breeches were short trousers, hitting right below the knee, made to fit closely to the skin, and were often made from a variety of materials, including leather, linen, and wool. Typically, long socks were worn under breeches, which extended from the waistline to just below the kneecap. Trousers, in comparison, were favored in the warmer months of battle.
The most difficult clothing item to supply was shoes during the American Revolution. Military footwear was often made from leather, but as the war wore on and supplies dwindled, some soldiers fought battles and travel barefoot, notably at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. “You might have tracked the army . . . to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet,” George Washington once wrote.
For the most part, a man’s “underwear” was considered to be the shirt that he wore under his coat. The shirt was often made extra-long and doubled as a nightgown.