Monday, May 2, 2011

The British Army welcomes Spring, 1779

On Sunday, 2 May 1779, Captain John Peebles of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot's Grenadier Company recorded that his command "put on our new coats & trousers..." This seemingly innocuous entry signaled the British Army's annual transition from winter to summer campaign attire, a ritual observed throughout the American Revolution.

The basic uniform of the British soldier before and during the American Revolution was set by a Royal Warrant of 1768, one of the centerpieces of George III's often overlooked military reforms. According to these regulations, every soldier was to be issued with a close-fitting madder-red wool regimental coat, with lapels (which extended to his waist), cuffs, and collar in the "facing color" assigned to his regiment; a white wool waistcoat, white wool breeches, and tall black gaiters, either of wool or painted linen, that came to just below his knee and were surmounted with small leather tops that covered the knee. By the early 1770s, most infantry regiments had substituted short black gaiters for the tall ones. Many regiments also issued linen breeches to their soldiers to wear in place of their wool ones during the summer.

When the army arrived in America, they faced an extreme climate quite unlike that of Great Britain and Ireland. Winter-time lows and summer-time highs far exceeded comparable temperatures in Europe and the army acted to adapt to these circumstances by changing their mode of dress. The Boston Garrison adopted thick wool leggings, likely similar to those worn by British troops during the French and Indian War and modeled on Native American garments, to supplement their wool breeches for winter wear. By the summer of 1776, with the invasion of New York underway, the first references to trousers began appearing in British records. A 17 October 1776 regimental order from the 17th Regiment of Foot directed officers "to be particularly Carefull that the men have warm stockings and Drawers or Breaches to wear under the tr[o]wsers or leggings." By the Spring of 1777, the army as a whole seems to have started outfitting the troops with summer trousers made from linen canvas, a relatively cheap and durable cloth that could withstand the rigors of campaign life without over-heating their wearers. As a bonus, the issue breeches (or kilts and plaids for Highland troops) could be saved for winter wear. Peebles made references in his diary on 25 and 28 March to making up these canvas trousers for his men. Trousers also became a component of winter-wear when made out of wool cloth. On 31 October 1778, Peebles recorded receiving brown wool cloth donated by merchants in Britain for making winter trousers. While the documentation is not always clear, on the whole both summer and winter trousers appear to have been tightly fitted down the leg, with a button placket running from the bottom of the leg to the thickest part of the calf, in effect a garment that combined breeches and gaiters into one.

The army's annual transitions from winter to summer clothing and back again were an extension of the British Army's practices for issuing clothing. Troops in Great Britain received a new set of clothes every spring, with the intention of having them fitted (in this period, clothing was intended to be a form-fitting as possible, not like the baggy clothes we are accustomed to seeing on modern soldiers) and ready to be worn for the Monarch's birthday in the early summer. The entire military clothing industry was based around this model, so that the coats, waistcoats, and breeches for every regiment, whether they were on home service or stationed halfway around the world, was completed at the same time every year. As a result, the troops in North America tended to receive their new clothes much later than those in Great Britain or Ireland. Peebles noted that the new clothing for the year 1776 was not issued until February 1777 in America. This transportation issue placed additional emphasis on regiments' making up special campaign clothing to mark the change of seasons, since they could not always rely on the timely arrival of new material from home. As a result, preparations for summer clothing tended to start in early March, with the finished garments being issued when the weather broke in late April or early May, while the change to winter clothing could begin as early as late September into early October.

The David Library's collection include multiple printed and manuscript sources that provide additional information on both British and Continental Army clothing. Printed sources include diaries like John Peebles' (Call # 4727) and uniform studies including Hew Strachan's British Military Uniforms 1768-1796: the Dress of the British Army from Official Sources (Call # 1283). The Papers of James Grant (Film 687), Guy Carleton (Film 57), and Frederick Haldimand (Film 423), among many others, feature additional resources.


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