George Washington’s Life Guard during the American Revolution
Throughout the American Revolutionary War, George Washington’s personal bodyguard was an elite corps of infantry and mounted men. It was officially entitled The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, but was more commonly known as The Life Guard. At the start of the Revolutionary War, and the formation of the Continental Army, there was a stalemate between American and British forces around Boston, MA. After Washington stationed guns on Dorchester Heights and forced the British evacuation of Boston, the Continental Army was forced to become mobile to counter a British invasion along the coast. With movement, there became danger to Washington’s person. A surprise raid upon headquarters by colonial tories and or British raiders became a serious possibility. A personal guard to the Commander-in-Chief became necessary. The guard was authorized on March 11, 1776 and organized the next day at Cambridge, Massachusetts prior to the Continental Army’s move from Boston to New York City. The guard’s purpose was to protect General George Washington. However they were further assigned the responsibility of protecting the Continental Army’s official papers as well as the general’s baggage.
The terms of enlistment in the guard were the same as other enlisted men, however Washington directed particular specifications on the selection of this corps: “His Excellency depends upon the Colonels for good Men, such as they can recommend for their sobriety, honesty, and good behavior; he wishes them to be from five feet, eight inches high, to five feet, ten inches; handsomely and well made, and as there is nothing in his eyes more desirable, than Cleanliness in a Soldier, he desires that particular attention may be made, in the choice of such men, as are neat, and spruce. They were to be a “corps of sober, intelligent, and reliable men.” Though assigned to protect the body of the Commander-in-Chief, they were not spared during battle, playing an active role. When not in action, the Life Guard’s role would be similar to what is now called a headquarters security detachment.
Since it was a unit of distinction, it was deemed necessary to represent the entire army by having men selected from each colony. Every regiment was to provide four men. The corps marched to New York with approximately fifty men, but within a year had a strength of 180 men. During the winter of 1779-80, it was increased to 250 while the army was stationed in Morristown, NJ, close to the British army. It returned to 180 men in the spring and in the last year of its existence, reduced to 64 men. Besides officers and rank and file, there were six drummers, six fifers, and a drum major.
The Life Guard was first commanded by Rhode Islander Captain Caleb Gibbs who bore the title of ‘Captain Commandante.’ Gibbs was a captain in the 14th Massachusetts from Marblehead. Gibbs formed the corps with the assistance of Washington’s nephew, Lieutenant George Lewis. The other lieutenants were Henry Livingstone of New York, William Colfax of New Jersey, and Benjamin Goyman of Virginia. Under Gibbs, the guard participated in every major battle of the northern campaign. Many guardsmen were wounded while guarding Washington or detached to other regiments during the action. Gibbs was a major by June 6th, 1780 when 152 guardsmen, along with the Rhode Island Regiment, held off a Jaeger attack during the Battle of Springfield. By the end of the year, Gibbs was promoted to Brevet Lt. Colonel and transferred to the 2nd Massachusetts. William Colfax succeeded Gibbs as commander and towards the end of the war, he was replaced by Captain Bezaleel Howe of the New Hampshire Battalion. Howe was destined to command the Life Guard on its last mission – seeing that Washington’s baggage and army records were transferred to Mt. Vernon, VA.
In April, 1777, Washington issued that the uniform of the guard was to consist of a blue coat with white facings, white waistcoat and breeches, black half gaiters, and a cocked hat with a blue and white feather. However, at the start of the war, only officers had any semblance of uniform. When Washington issued the uniform code, Captain Gibbs was successful in securing blue and buff uniforms, but chose red waistcoats (probably because white were not available). These vests became symbolic of the guard for the duration of the war. He also procured leather helmets with a bear skin crest, in lieu of the traditional tricorn hats. These apparently were captured by a privateer and were bound for the British 17th Dragoons. He had the red cloth binding removed and replaced with medium blue, and a white plume, tipped in blue placed on the left side. This unique headgear was to add to the distinctive appearance of the Guard.
The first recorded use of the initials ‘USA’ was by the Life Guard. It was common during the 18th century and into the 19th century for units to put their regimental numbers on the pewter buttons of their waistcoat. The Life Guard did not have a number so Gibbs decided on a new cipher for the guards – USA.
The corps’ flag was white silk on which the following was neatly painted: A guardsman is holding the Life Guard’s banner and is in the act of of receiving a flag from the ‘Genius of Liberty’ who is personified as a woman leaning upon the Union Shield. She stands alongside the American Eagle and above is the motto of the corps, ‘Conquer or Die,’ written upon a ribbon.
The first detailed account of the Life Guard unfortunately involved a plot that included passing counterfeit money and paying American soldiers to defect to the British. Royal Governor of New York, William Tyron and New York City’s mayor and loyalist, David Matthews, funded an organization to pass counterfeit money and arrange the defection of soldiers to the British army. When Washington’s main army moved onto Manhattan Island in April, they were able to convert several Life Guardsmen to their plot. Irish born Sergeant Thomas Hickey, Life Guardsman, and another soldier, were arrested for counterfeit that spring and jailed. While in jail, Hickey admitted the organization and their plans of funding defectors to the British army to fellow prisoner Isaac Ketchum who in turn reported it to the authorities. The mayor and forty additional alleged conspirators were arrested including Life Guardsmen: Drummer William Green, Fifer James Johnson, and privates John Barnes and Michael Lynch. During the Court Martial proceedings, Thomas Hickey was convicted of mutiny that carried a death sentence. There was not enough evidence to convict the others. Hickey was hanged on June 28th, 1776 in front of an estimated 20,000 spectators, mostly regulars of the Continental Army.
Later, exaggerations of the mutiny charges included the planned assassination of General Washington. The assassination plot was reported by eye-witnesses and later historians, however there has never been firm evidence that this was presented at trial. Though the rest of the conspirators escaped the gallows, the result tarnished the image of the Life Guards. Soon after, Washington ordered that no foreign born soldiers could be assigned as Guardsman.
The Life Guard, after distinguished service in battle and in the protection of the Commander-in-Chief, were disbanded on November 15th, 1783. Soldiers who remained in the service were transferred to other units.
Throughout the war, Major Gibbs realized the importance of military records and kept all Life Guard’s records. With Washington’s permission, he gathered up all the records and carefully placed them in a trunk given to him by Washington for that purpose. When Lt. Colonel Gibbs left the Army on June 20th, 1784, he took the trunk with him. After the war, he was given an important civilian post at the newly formed Charlestown Navy Yard where he stored the trunk. Thirty one years after the war, Gibbs, still employed at the Navy Yard, witnessed the trunk destroyed in an 1815 fire.
Boatner, Mark Mayo. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. 1966: Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.
Godfrey, Carlos E. Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, Revolutionary War. 1904: Stevenson-Smith, Washington, D.C.
Lossing, Benson. The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, Vol. 2. 1852: Harper Brothers, New York, NY.