Military Uniforms of the British and Colonists’ Armies During the Revolutionary War

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Johnny Tremain Project


My project is about the military uniforms of the British and colonists’ armies during the revolutionary war. First, I’ll explain the organization of the armies before the war, and I’ll also take an in-depth look at the different uniforms for each of the armed forces.

Throughout the novel, British soldiers are stationed in Boston. As the story progresses and the conflict escalates, even more troops are sent in. The British are commonly referred to as the “Red Lobsters” because of their red uniforms. In Boston itself, there are also many different ranks of soldiers, such as Generals, Majors, Colonels and Lieutenants. Although, in the book, the uniforms themselves are not described very much, each type of soldier had his own special uniform.

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The colonists, at first did not have any uniform of their own, as they were rather unorganized and weren’t really an army. Eventually, they did get uniforms and became a real fighting force, thanks to the help of other countries, such as France.

The British:

The British were a strong army with over 48,000 men fighting all over the world at the outbreak of the war, though only 8,000 were in North America at that time. The British had to hire mercenaries to suppress uprisings in North America, as they could not afford to use their own troops. They only added one regiment to the force in North America before October 1777, when they suffered a large defeat at the hands of the colonists. They then changed the laws of recruitment so that they could conscript more men. By the end of the war, they had an army of 110,000 of whom 56,000 were in America, seven times the number they had on duty at the beginning of the war.

The infantry:

The foot soldiers or infantry formed the main line of attack. There were two kinds of infantrymen, the grenadiers and the light infantry. The grenadiers were the stronger and taller of the two, for their original purpose had been to throw grenades at the enemy. The light infantry were smaller and supposed to be better marksmen then the grenadiers, able to outflank the enemy.

During the War of Independence, the infantry were dressed according to regulations adopted by the British army in 1768, which made certain changes inspired by the Prussian army. The coat became shorter and tighter, and the waistcoat and breeches, formerly blue or red became white or beige. The cloth hats of the grenadiers became fur hats, believed to have based on those of the French grenadiers captured at a battle that took place during the Seven Years’ War in 1762.

All soldiers wore black hats, red coats, white or buff waistcoats and breeches, stockings, black knee-high gaiters and shoes. Each of the various regiments had different coloured cuffs, collars and lapels to differentiate themselves from each other.

The main difference between the two types of infantry were their hats. The grenadiers had a tall fur hat, while the light infantry had a small, low hat that was similar to what the other soldiers wore. The grenadiers also had a metal crest on their hats with the King’s crest and the motto nec aspera terrent, which means ‘Difficulties be dammed’.1

Apart from a few things, the grenadier and infantry uniforms are basically the same. Both carry a musket with a bayonet and wear a knapsack on their back. The infantryman (illustration a.) has yellow cuffs, collar and lapel to show that he is part of the 9th Regiment of Foot, while the grenadier (illustration c.) has no specific colour on his outfit. As mentioned before, the infantryman and grenadier have very different hats.

The Dragoons:

Only two dragoon, or cavalry regiments were sent to North America for the war, the 16th and 17th Light Dragoons. The dragoons (illustration c.) wore special helmets, red coats, white waistcoat and breeches and black boots. This dragoon officer, belonging to the 17th Regiment, has white facings on his coat, while members of the 16th had blue facings. He also carries a sword, like all officers.

The Colonists’ Army:

Before the war, the forces available to defend the colonies were divided into three categories. First was the militia, which, apart from a few groups consisted entirely of white males. These men met at irregular times for training, and as the conflict between the British and the colonists escalated, ‘Minutemen’ companies were formed. Second were the state regiments that were recruited from the militia when major campaigns were undertaken. The size and duration of these operations varied, but the normal obligation was for one year. The third group were the Volunteer Companies which were raised every once in a while in the more populated areas from the richer members of the militia. This militia drilled more often than the normal militia and also had a uniform.

The Militia:

The men in the militia were the first to fight the British, in the battles of Lexington and Concord. These ‘Minutemen’ were able to ready themselves in a very short time and proved valuable at the beginning of the war. As mentioned before, they were rather unorganized, meeting to train intermittently. Since they were almost all farmers, they had little or no training and did not have any uniforms.

The militiaman in illustration d. is dressed in civilian clothes. He is wearing a hunting shirt, which was the preferred campaigning dress. Even George Washington recommended it, because it was practical and could be worn in the winter or summer. This militiaman is carrying his own gun, a powder horn, a bullet bag and a heavy fowling piece. He also has a knapsack across his shoulder, probably containing his few possessions.

The First Uniforms:

The first military uniforms were adopted by Congress in November 1775. These uniforms had brown as their primary colour, with the various regiments being distinguished by coloured cuffs, collars and lapels. But in 1775, they could not produce many things and there were shortages of clothing, blankets and woolen and cotton goods. As a result, Congress was unable to clothe the army in these new uniforms.

In September 1778, 20,000 uniforms in blue and brown faced with red were received from France and were able to clothe Washington’s army during the winter of 1778-9. Early the next year, he suggested a new plan for the uniforms in which each state would have a different colour. He also suggested that the soldiers should wear overalls instead of breeches, wool in the winter and linen in the summer.

In May, the Board of War countered with another plan. They proposed that all soldiers except for the wagoners were to wear dark blue, with white linings and buttons and white waistcoats and breeches. The final plan approved by Washington created four infantry groups, each with a different facing colour. Therefore New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut had white facings and buttons. New York and New Jersey had buff facings, waistcoats and breeches and yellow hat, lace and buttons. Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia had red facings and white buttons. Finally, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia had blue facings with white laced buttonholes and buttons.

The infantryman pictured here (illustration e.) is part of the North Carolina Regiments, so therefore, he has blue facings and white buttonholes and buttons. He is carrying a knapsack on his back, but in this picture, he does not have a musket.

The Dragoons:

Under the uniform scheme adopted in 1779, the dragoons, or cavalry had blue uniforms faced in white. This dragoon officer (illustration f.) is wearing a special helmet, similar to the one that the British wear. In addition, he carries a sword, as do all officers.


While I was writing this project, I discovered something interesting. What I discovered was that even though all the uniforms in the British army looked very similar, there were actually many small differences. In Johnny Tremain, the author refers to all the British as being the same “Red Ants” or “Red Lobsters”, but in fact, they were many small differences in their uniforms; both with regard to the type of soldier and the rank. For example, only officers carried swords, to show that they were more powerful. In addition, only relatively high-ranking officers wore epaulettes on their shoulders. Although these differences were small, they were very important.

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