At the time of the American Revolution the British Army was not overly concerned with efficiency in the common soldiers’ attire. They had yet to equate the value of utility and practicality with what they required their enlisted men wear and carry into battle. Appearance was of far more concern than adaptability.
During the Seven Years’ War in the mid-eighteenth century (known to Americans as the French and Indian War), British soldiers were allowed to don clothing that was less cumbersome. This was especially true in North America where the temperatures from summer to winter and wilderness terrain were extreme. The weight of equipment they were required to take into action was also within reasonable consideration of their ability to perform. General Wolfe, the infamous British general who captured Quebec at the loss of his life on the Plains of Abraham, had his eye on mobility when he approved the dress of his Light Infantry. They wore short green jackets with bearskin trim for a collar and loose pantaloons to allow comfort and freedom of movement. Some even garnished leggings instead of shoes and the restricting spaltterdashes. A similar uniform is illustrated in the Benjamin West painting entitled “The Death of General Wolfe.” The figure to the left (who historians have attributed to be Captain Robert Rogers, British officer and legendary commander of Rogers’ Rangers) wears a similar outfit.
However, by the conclusion of the war, simplicity was abandoned for profligacy. Army rules concerning military attire and necessities became dominated by officers who served in European campaigns, particularly those aligned with the Prussians. The German Army had developed an extravagant admiration for stiff wool and canvas cloth and especially flamboyant colors and ornamental trappings. These trappings were readily adopted by the British high command. It was argued that there will never again be a war which required their troops to fight in a wilderness. A nationalistic fervor demanded that British soldiers should always be attired in uniforms that would bring respect and admiration to The Crown, no matter the weather, circumstances, or when marching to battle. The policy that emerged regarding attire and equipment in favor of the Deutsches style was basically hot, heavy and immensely constricting.
It mattered not; summer, winter, or tropics, common soldiers of the line regiments wore heavy woolen greatcoats with sleeves described as “tight as stockings.” The waistcoat beneath was equally tight with a high stiff stock for a collar that encircled the entire neck from the back the scalp to the jaw. The collar forced the soldier to keep his head up even though the sun may be directly in his eyes. The breeches or trousers, like the waistcoat, clung tightly to his body, forcing an effort with each step taken. Gaitors or splatterdashes, which were usually put on wet, would often shrink during the day and cut off circulation to the legs and feet.
A bayonet scabbard that hung at the waist would usually slap against the soldiers’ calves as he walked. A large, wide leather belt ran from the left shoulder, across the chest and to the right hip. This belt supported a rectangular cartridge box that housed prepacked powder and lead shot. (Note: Many drawings and media depict British soldiers of this time as wearing two such wide leather belts, one over each shoulder and crossing at the middle. This is inaccurate. Only one belt was worn. Some accounts contest that the second shoulder belt held the bayonet scabbard, but as noted, the bayonet hung from the waist.)
Often the shoulder belt and cartridge box interfered with the haversack, which bulged under the weight of the soldiers’ full load of equipment. Packs contained grooming and toiletry items, including brush and powder for the hair, extra clothing, blackball for shoes, blanket, cooking gear of pots and utensils, tinder box, musket maintenance kit, bullet mold, canteen and/or flask, sundry personal items and a fifth share of the general tenting and camp material. It was not uncommon for those who stood in long ranks facing their enemy to be weighed down in clothing and gear totaling hundred and twenty pounds, to which was added a fourteen pound musket, a one pound bayonet and a pound or so of lead shot. Each soldier was required to carry the full pack on parade, during line of march and even into battle. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, it was not until after the second attack up Breeds Hill was repulsed by the rebels, that General Howe allowed his men to relinquish their hundred pound packs for the final and successful charge.
Companies of light infantry and grenadiers (each regiment had at least one of ten companies comprised of these special troops), carried identical packs as the rest of the regiment. The term light infantry had nothing to do with the load of gear they carried. The only difference were the extra braids, buttons and ornaments that adorned their uniforms. What set the grenadiers apart from others among the ranks, outside their tall stature, were the lofty, eighteen inch black bearskin caps designed to exaggerate their presence and strike fear into the enemy.
Officers, especially generals, considered it their duty to be properly dressed at all times. Their uniforms were not as restrictive as the enlisted men. The overcoat was loose and flowing and far more comfortable. Thinner woolen fabric was allowed for use in the summer. There was no choking collar. Many enhanced their uniform with frills and braids at will. Those with the means adorned their uniforms to the extreme; since officers purchased their commissions, most were from old estates and quite wealthy – or to use the colloquial term ‘well ballasted.’ Many wore hats that were not military policy, such as Lord Rawdon’s cat skin cap.
Officers wore colorful sashes around the waist that also served as a sling to assist those carrying the wounded commander from the field of battle. Crescent-shaped gorgets were worn around the neck and hung on the upper chest. This was a carryover from medieval times when a large steel plate was attached beneath the armor to protect the throat in hand to hand combat. With the advent of gunpowder, the gorget had no useful purpose. It shrunk in size and was beautifully etched and ornately enameled; tradition dictated it to be worn outside the coat. It soon became obvious to those battling with the rebel colonists that the glittering metal dangling close to their hearts became a prime target for the American marksmen carrying grooved-bore rifles.
All officers at the rank of major and above carried elaborate swords used to help designate their commanding presence. They were used to encourage their troops to battle and occasionally in hand to hand combat, but more so in a symbolic gesture of surrender given to the victor of similar rank. All officers below the rank of major were expected to have a short sword and light musket (called a fuse) on their person. The fuse was to be used alongside the rank and file during a volley; however British General Henry Clinton frowned on its use as unbecoming an officer during his command of His Majesty’s Forces in America from 1778 to 1782.
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Fleming, Thomas J. Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill. 1960: St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY.
Franklin, Carl. British Army Uniforms of the American Revolution 1751-1783. 2012: Barnsley Pen & Sword Military Press, Barnsley, UK.
Mollo, John. Uniforms of the American Revolution in Color. 1975: McMillian/McGraw-Hill, London, UK