The need for distinctive insignia as a means of enforcing security, order, and discipline became apparent shortly after General Washington took command of the Continental Army before Boston in early July 1775. The lack of uniforms in the Continental Army at this time made it almost impossible to differentiate between the officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men, and the resulting confusion soon forced the adoption of badges of rank to end this inconvenience. These distinctions had to be both clearly visible and easy to manufacture from materials readily available. The distinctive insignia chosen in mid-July far the general officers were sashes, those for the other officers were cockades, and those for the non-commissioned officers were epaulettes or strips of cloth on the shoulders of their coats.
The sashes which distinguished the general officers, their aides, and the brigade majors were ribbons of various colors worn across the breast between the waistcoat and the coat. The Commander in Chief wore a light blue ribbon, the major and brigadier generals a pink ribbon, and the aides-de-camp and brigade majors a green ribbon. 1 Towards the end of the same month it was thought proper to further distinguish the major generals from the brigadiers by changing the color of the major generals' ribbons to purple. These ribbons were described by one of the Brunswiekers captured at Saratoga in October 1777 as being worn by the American general officers "like bands of orders over their vests." 2
The distinctive cockade insignia chosen for the other officers were to be worn on their-hats. The cockades of field officers were to be red or pink; those of captains yellow, and those of subalterns green. That the order for the distinctions of this kind was enforced was brought out in August 1776, when Lieutenant Holcomb of Colonel Johnson's regiment was confined and tried by a court martial for "assuming the rank of a Captain, wearing `a yellow cockade, and mounting Guard in that capacity." As it appeared that Lieutenant Holcomb had acted as he did through misinformation and want of experience he was only cautioned and then released from arrest. l o avoid any further such incidents the regulations concerning the officers' insignia were restated in general orders for the cognizance of those officers who had recently arrived in camp. The regulation was the same as that issued in July 1775, with the exception of the captains' cockades, which were now to be white or buff instead of yellow. 3
The non-commissioned officers were to be distinguished from the enlisted men by epaulettes or strips of cloth sewed on the right shoulders of their coats, red for sergeants and green for corporals. 4
Both General Washington and some of the other officers seem to have worn epaulettes with their uniforms as well as the ribbons ordered to designate rank in July 1775. This use of the epaulette would seem to have been considered more as a part of their military uniform rather than an insignia of rank.
The distinction of rank for officers by cockades and sashes and for non-commissioned officers by varicolored epaulettes or strips of cloth remained in force until June 1780 when, following representations first made by General Jedediah Huntington to Washington in October 1779, new regulations for the insignia of all ranks and grades of officers were adopted. These regulations were published in general orders in June and July 1780 and were in general retained in force until the end of the war. 5
The new distinction of rank for the general officers, who as a class were now also distinguished by special uniforms, was by the number of silver stars on their gold epaulettes, and by the plumes on their hats. Two stars and a black and white plume indicated a major general, and one silver star and a white plume a brigadier general. No specific insignia for Washington as Commander in Chief is known to have been officially designated in orders. But Washington, as can be seen from his portraits, first wore three small star-shaped rosettes of gold lace on his epaulettes in 1779-80. After about late 1780 he is shown wearing three silver stars in the place of the gold rosettes. Charles Willson Peale in the contemporary portraits of Washington from 1776 to 1781 does not show him wearing a plume of any kind on his hat. 6
The field-grade officers (colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors) were to wear two epaulettes, and the company-grade officers (captains and subalterns) were to wear only one epaulette each, captains on the right shoulder and subalterns on the left. These epaulettes were to be of silver for the infantry and cavalry, and gold for the artillery, as had been determined for the trimmings of these arms in general orders in October 1779 and in previous correspondence between Washington and Congress. 7
Two distinct types of epaulettes are known to have been worn during the Revolutionary War. Both types consisted of a lace strap, a crescent, and a fringe of bullion. The basic difference was in the shape and composition of the crescent. In the type of epaulette described by General Washington as being worn by the Prince William and Fairfax County, Virginia militia companies, and worn by Washington himself in his 1776 portrait by Peale and by most of the French officers serving in America during the war, the crescent consisted of one or two rosettes or "round roses" of lace which also covered the jointure of the crescent and the bullion. 8 In the second type, worn by Washington from at least 1779 on, and by most other officers during the whole war, the crescent was merely a continuation of the strap, and the jointure of the crescent and the bullion was concealed by a curved strip of lace, usually of elaborate design and often further decorated by metal sequins. 9
Various staff officers, to clearly indicate their duties, were also to wear plumes of various colors in their hats in addition to the above epaulettes. The aides-de-camp of the Commander-in-Chief, a white and green feather; the aides of major and brigadier generals, a green feather; the brigade and subinspectors, a blue feather; the Adjutant General and his assistants, the most colorful -- red and green feathers. 10
The common insignia of all Army officers, warrant as well as commissioned and also those staff officers without military rank, were the cockade and the wearing of side arms. The cockade was the same black cockade as was worn by the British Army, until the addition of a white relief or center in 1780 created the "union cockade." This cockade was to be emblematic of the expected union of the American and French armies in that year. It was no doubt also intended as a reply to Rochambeau's courteous gesture of adding a black relief to the white French cockade in honor of the American Army, shortly after his arrival in Newport in May [sic!]1780. 11
As early as March 1779, Congress proposed, and General Washington agreed that all the infantry sergeants and corporals were to wear white worsted epaulettes; all the artillery sergeants, corporals, gunners, and bombardiers, yellow epaulettes; and the dragoon sergeants, corporals, farriers, and saddlers were to have blue. The sergeants were to wear epaulettes on both shoulders and the corporals one on the right shoulder. What the other artillery and dragoon specialists were to wear is not stated. That it was not always possible to fulfill these orders is brought out in a general order of May 1782 which stated that white strips of cloth might be used to distinguish the infantry sergeants and corporals, if the clothier was unable to procure white worsted epaulettes. 12
[Caption to image – not shown – on p.243]
"Revolutionary War epaulette worn by Jacob Morris, aide to Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. Note that the crescent and bullion are much skimpier than they became on nineteenth-century examples. U.S. National Museum."
Partial Notes to "Chapter 12" [pp. 250-251]
1. General Orders, Cambridge, July 14 and July 20, 1775, Washington, Writings, III, 339, 352.
2. Ward, The War of the Revolution, II, 538.
3. General Orders, Cambridge, July 23, 1775 and August 15, 1776, Washington, Writings, III, 357 and V, 437, 468.
4. General Orders, Cambridge, July 23, 1775, ibid, III, 357.
5. Washington to Brigadier Huntington, October 24, 1779, ibid., XVII, 18. General Orders, Short Hills, June 18, 1780, ibid., XIX, 21.
6. Ibid. Charles Coleman Sellers, "Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. New Series, XL II, Part I (1952), 355-360.
7. P. Scull, secretary, Board of War to Washington, May 25, 1779, in Washington Papers. Washington to Board of War, May 27, 1779, Washington Writings, XV, 160. General Orders, Moore's House, October 2, 1779, ibid., XVI, 387-388.
8. Washington to William Milnor, ibid., III, 265-267. Sellers, "Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale," pp.353-360.
9. Ibid. Mendel L. Peterson, "American Epaulettes, 1775-1820," Military Collector & Historian, II, No. 2 (June 1950), 17-19.
10. General Orders, Short Hills and Pracaness, June 18 and July 14, 1780, Washington Writings, XIX, 21, 172.
12. P. Scull, Secretary, Board of War, to Washington, May 25, 1779, in Washington Papers. Washington to board of War, May 27, 1779, Washington Writings, XV, 160. General Orders, Newburgh, May 14, 1782, ibid, XXIV, 253, 254.