Actors in our revolution
On the morning of April 19, 1775, 200 British regulars marched onto Lexington Green, 11 miles from Boston. Their aim was to destroy a supply of arms and supplies in nearby Concord. Lined up on the green were 77 militiamen. The British commander ordered them to put down their weapons and disperse. But as they turned to leave, still holding their arms, a shot was fired - no one knows who did it. Without orders, the British began firing. In moments, eight Colonials were dead, 10 wounded. One soldier was hurt. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, visitors gather annually to watch people reenact the first engagement of the Revolutionary War (April 15 this year). Each actor is checked head to toe for historical accuracy. We thought you'd like to see what well-dressed patriots and British soldiers were wearing.
Male landowners aged 16 to 60 served in the militia. They trained two to four times a year, and officers were elected. (So-called minute men drilled three times a week and were supposed to respond rapidly. They were also paid - very modestly.) The militia didn't have uniforms, so they wore their everyday clothes.
COCKED HAT: The wide brim of the typical farmer's hat, made of wool felt, could be tied up if he were going into town. Flipped down, the brim protected him from the elements.
WAISTCOAT: A sleeveless woolen waistcoat was worn under an outer coat, also of wool. Waistcoats could be quite ornate, and often passed from father to son. As the outside layer of cloth became worn, the garment could be taken apart and 'turned' so the inner layer was outside.
POWDER HORN: Muzzle-loading flintlock muskets, used by both sides, fired round leaden balls. Gunpowder was kept dry in powder horns made from cattle or ox horns. They were often inscribed with rhymes, references to battles, names of towns, diary entries, and maps.
SHOES: Most shoes were made to fit on either foot. They didn't have a 'right' or a 'left.' Militiamen and Grenadiers would have worn the same kind of shoes. Boots were mainly for horseback riding. Some historians contend that officers ordered their men to switch right and left shoes every day. Today's reenactors insist that would have been a bad idea. It's better to have each shoe mold to a particular foot, they say. And once you've got a pair broken in, you don't want to swap them around.
UNMENTIONABLES: Underwear was a luxury. But the linen 'longshirts' they wore hung down to mid-thigh. This protected them from their itchy wool breeches. At night, the shirt was worn to bed as a nightshirt. Bathing, incidentally, was rare, especially in the winter. It was thought to be unhealthy.
The tallest and strongest soldiers were grenadiers. The name is derived from the grenades they used to throw. By 1750, grenades had been abandoned, because the range and accuracy of guns had increased. Still, grenadiers wore brass match cases on their crossed leather belting as badges of honor. The cases had held slow-burning hemp fuses used to light the fuses on grenades. On April 19, 1775, grenadiers arrived after light infantry had already skirmished with the Colonial militia on Lexington Green.
THE UNIFORM: Modeled after those of Germany, they were ornate, heavy, and impractical. A soldier might wear 47 pounds of gear on a march, and spend up to three hours a day washing his white breeches, polishing his buttons and brightwork, and powdering his hair (officers often wore wigs instead). In one concession to practicality, the tails of the long red jacket were tied back to make it easier to march. Red made for an easy target, though, and an officer's bright-red jacket could easily be distinguished from the faded red of an enlisted man's.
BEARSKIN HATS: Grenadiers were proud of their hats, which were designed to intimidate foes. The soldier wearing one was to take on the ferocious disposition of a bear. (Later, Colonial uniforms included modest hats with bearskin on them, too.) The seal on the front shows St. George, patron saint of England, slaying a dragon. But the hat has no visor to shield sun or rain.
NECKSTOCK: It was made of leather and designed to protect from sword cuts. It also added to the soldier's snappy appearance - and made it harder for him to move his neck.
CARTRIDGE BOX: The leather case on the grenadier's hip held musket balls in paper cartridges filled with gunpowder. These were used in his Brown Bess musket, so named for its brown oxidized barrel. Soldiers were trained to form a line three men deep, then fire and reload (a 12-step process) once every 15 seconds. The smooth-bore muskets were not very accurate, so the object was to concentrate fire. At the time, 'aim' was not even a command in the British manual of arms.
SHOES: They look like boots, but they're really shoes covered with black gaiters, coverings that protected a soldier's legs from brush and kept rocks and other debris out of his shoes.
'HUZZAH!' It was the 18th-century version of 'Hooray!' After each victory, British troops would shout 'huzzah!' three times and fire a volley. This is what Lt. Col. Francis Smith's troops did after the fight in Lexington. They would not fare so well later that day.
Most women served indirectly in the war, providing food and supplies and taking care of the wounded. In 1778, though, Deborah Samson of Plymouth, Mass., donned men's clothes and called herself Robert Shirtliffe. She served in the Army for three years.
STAYS: From early childhood, women wore stays, corsetlike garments stiffened with strips of whalebone. The garments contorted their bodies into an inverted conical shape. For all that's wrong with the garment, reenactor Rhonda McConnon says it helps her posture. They also helped support women's backs as they lifted pots.
SHIFT: Women also wore long linen shirts that doubled as sleepwear.
PETTICOAT: What looks like an apron is a petticoat, which could be washed more easily than a wool gown. Women might wear seven petticoats in winter. Tightly woven wool was flame-retardant, so the gown might be pulled to the front when women worked by a fire.
BUM ROLL: A horseshoe-shaped pillow might be tied above the 'bum' to accentuate the hips. Full hips were a feminine ideal in the 1700s.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society