Washington’s Homespun Army

Hunting Shirt
Hunting Shirt

There were no great suppliers in 1775 vying for contracts to supply clothing or make uniforms for the Continental Army. If there were, there certainly was no money to pay them. Washington and others in the Second Congress were too concerned with providing enough shell, shot and other armaments with which to wage war. By design, England had not allowed industry to establish a foothold in the colonies nor to play a substantial role in the continental economy. The focus was on profits – British profits. English merchants and politicians wanted the colonists to depend solely on England to provide for their manufactured needs. It made good financial sense, if you were British, and you were seeking a dependable, hungry market for your products. Therefore, at the start of hostilities, there were no clothiers among the colonists who could supply the demands of a swelling armed force.

Men fought in breeches and trousers, buckled shoes and stockings, hunting shirts and floppy straw hats, and whatever else they wore while attending their fields, stacking shelves in their shops, or sweeping the livery of their stables. Many of these first men who answered the call to arms did so in the warm days of summer. They grabbed their muskets and packs and raced off to assemble in the town common before marching off to their assigned regiments. But with the winter of 1775 looming, Congress knew it had to do something for the soldiers to protect them against the elements.

In the fall of 1775, Congress issued an appeal to the colonies to provide thirteen thousand warm winter coats for the men in arms. Local governments turned to the people and more specifically, to the women. Hundreds of hearthstones, wool-wheels and handlooms began spinning the wool sheared from local farm sheep. Thousands of coats where made, bound, and sent off to the army. The inside of each coat had a sewn-in label bearing the name of the town and the coat-maker. Though some garments were hastily spun and sewn together in a makeshift manner, they were warm and substantial. These coats became known as bounty-coats. In many cases, when the choice was offered of a coat or a bounty, the soldier immediately chose the homespun coat. A list of makers and ultimate wearers was kept and can still be found in the records of some New England towns. These lists were called the ‘coat-roll.’

The influence of Native American dress was strong among the frontiersman, and could be found as well in cities and towns throughout the colonies. Leggings, moccasins, and hunting shirts appeared side by side with pigtail wigs, walking canes, and muffs. In 1775, Washington ordered all men to supply themselves with Indian boots or leggings instead of stockings to protect their legs from briers. He also prevailed upon Congress to give each man a home-woven hunting shirt. In October of 1776, while the Continental Army confronted the British invasion of New York, Congress made good on the request and each soldier was assigned the following list of items:

  • 2 Linen Hunting Shirts
  • 2 Pair of Stockings and leggings
  • 2 Pair of Shoes
  • 2 Pair of Overalls
  • 1 Woolen Jacket with sleeves
  • 1 Pair of Breeches
  • 1 Leather cap or hat
The earliest authenticated portrait of George ...
The earliest authenticated portrait of George Washington shows him wearing his colonel’s uniform of the Virginia Regiment from the French and Indian War. The portrait was painted about 12 years after Washington’s service in that war, and several years before he would reenter military service in the American Revolution. Oil on canvas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Washington had already put to pen a uniform he had designed for all his troops with special touches for the officers. However, even by war’s end, few men were ever issued what Washington had designed. The official uniform design was comprised of a blue or black coat with the lapels fastened back; ten open-worked buttonholes done in yellow with ten large buttons at equal distances on the lapels; three like buttons on the cuff and pocket-flap; the skirts hooked back showing a red lining; the bottom of the coat cut square; the lappets, cuff-linings and standing-capes red; a single breasted waistcoat with twelve smaller regular buttons; black half-gaiters; white shirt, ruffled at sleeves and wrists; black cocked hat with yellow or red plume and black cockade; gilt-handled small sword and gilt epaulettes.

Some colonies supplied their regiments with excellent arms and dress. Maryland and Delaware’s regiments arrived in camp sporting excellent muskets with bayonets (unusual for the American forces) and full matching uniforms, but they were the exception, being far from the norm. So too were Daniel Morgan’s riflemen from Virginia, but far different from the gentlemen of Maryland and Delaware who where ‘bred from fine upstanding families.’  The riflemen’s attire is described by a spectator upon viewing their arrival outside Boston in 1775:

“They wear a shot bag and powder horn carved with a variety of whimsical figures and devices hung from their neck over one shoulder; on their heads a flapped hat, burnt a reddish hue by the sun.  Sometimes they wear leather-breeches of Indian dressed elk or deerskin but more frequently thin trousers.  On their legs they have Indian boots or leggings made of coarse woolen cloth, either wrapped around loosely and tied with garters or laced on the outside.  These come better than half way up the thigh.  On their feet they sometimes wear pumps of their own manufacture, but generally Indian moccasins which are made of strong elk or buckskin dressed soft; drawn in regular plaits of the toe, lacing from thence round to the fore-part of the middle of the ankle; without a seam in them yet fitting close to the feet and perfectly easy and pliant.”

Each rifleman of Morgan’s unit carried tomahawks and many had scalping-knives sheaths around their waists. Washington warmly approved his fellow Virginians’ choice of dress saying that the wearer “was cool in warm weather and warm in cold weather.”  He went on to say that no dress could be “cheaper or more convenient” and that such garb was both “decent and light.”  He added, no doubt from his experiences during the French and Indian War, that “it causes no small terror to the enemy, who think every such wearer a complete marksman.”

The hunting shirt was markedly American.  Almost to a man, farmers and merchants alike acquired them for the duration of the war. Letters written home abound in praise for the shirts’ qualities. Cool in summer and providing warmth in winter, the shirt was chronicled by the original settlers, listed as articles they found among the ‘savages’ possessions: canoe, snowshoe, moccasin, and always the hunting-shirt. Found in all colors, most were bleached white or made of tow-cloth steeped in a tan-vat till the color of a dry leaf; that coloring allowing the wearer to blend in more readily with the vegetation.

As the war progressed, uniform attire for the army was discussed and many drafts were made per regiment and the unit’s assigned duties; artillery, cavalry, foot soldiers, riflemen, etc.  Some designs were distributed, but for the most part, soldiers continued to wear what they brought from home mixed with mismatched supplies from Congress. This was especially true of the militia, which continued to supply a substantial number of men to the army. The British sneered as they referred to the rebel army as ‘homespuns,’ but by war’s end, the Americans claimed the label as one of honor.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

RESOURCES:

Davis, Graeme.  The Weapons and Gear of the Revolutionary War.  2013: Capstone Press, Minnesota, MN.

Earle, Alice Morse.  Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620 – 1820.  1903:  General Publishing Company, Toronto, Canada;  Re-published in 1970 by Dover Publications, New York, NY.

Kredel, Fritz.  Soldiers and Uniforms of the American Army, 1775 – 1954.  1954: Dover Publications, New York, NY

Lucier, Armand Francis.  Newspaper Datelines of the American Revolution, Nov. 1 1775 to April 30 1776.  2009 Heritage Books, Berwyn Heights, MD.

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