George Washington Papers

To George Washington from the Board of War, 10 May 1779

From the Board of War

War Office [Philadelphia] May 10th 1779


The Officers of Col. Proctor’s Regiment have express’d great Uneasiness on Acct of the unsettled Situation of their Rank. They even threaten not to march without their Commissions. The Papers relative to this Regiment were a considerable Time ago sent to General Knox. We beg Leave to suggest to your Excellency the Necessity of arranging this Regiment if it be possible as great Dissatisfaction prevails among its Officers & we are by no Means clear that they will march under their present Circumstances.1

The Board have been frequently applied to on the Subject of Drums & Colours for the several Regiments. It is impossible to comply with all the Requisitions for these Articles as we have not materials to make either in sufficient Numbers. We hope however to have in a short Time a competent Number of Drums. So soon as they are made we send them to Camp as we find many Irregularities & Inconveniencies arise from delivering them or any other Articles here. As to Colours we have refused them for another Reason. The Baron Steuben mentioned when he was here that he would settle with your Excellency some Plan as to the Colours. It was intended that every Regiment should have two Colours—one the Standard of the United States which should be the same throughout the Army & the other a Regimental Colour which should vary according to the facings of the Regiments. But it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the U. States. If your Excellency will therefore favor us with your Opinion on the Subject we will report to Congress & request them to establish a Standard & so soon as this is done we will endeavour to get Materials & order a Number made sufficient for the Army. Neither can we tell what should be the Regimental Colours as the Uniforms were by a late resolution of Congress to be settled by your Excellency.2

As we are not acquainted with the Circumstances of the Army & it being much more proper on a Variety of Accounts that you should judge of the Necessity of any Supplies demanded by the Officers, we beg you will be pleased to give it out in Orders that they shall not apply here for any Articles they are in Need of for the Troops at Camp as they will be furnished according the Ability of the Departments to supply them where the Troops are stationed. We are so frequently importuned for partial Supplies that your Excellency’s complying with the above Request would ease us much—But if it will throw a greater Burthen upon you we would not wish you to do it as we are perfectly willing to share your Difficulties on this or any other Occasion. Large Demands and small Means of satisfying them are disstressing as well to the Officers as to us who are too frequently incapable of granting their Requests as well from the Scantiness of our Stores as from a Conviction of the Impropriety of delivering them here. Troops on their Way to Camp & Recruits we always supply at least with so many Articles as will enable them to join the Army.3 We have the Honour to be with the greatest Respect your very obedient Servants

Richard Peters
By order


1For other correspondence relating to the ongoing difficulties regarding rank and other issues in Col. Thomas Proctor’s 4th Continental Artillery Regiment, see Proctor to GW, 14 March and 3 April; GW to Proctor, 24 and 26 March; GW to Joseph Reed, 26 March; Reed to GW, 29 March; Peter Scull to GW, 2 June; and GW to the Board of War, 6 June.

2Up to this point in the war, the Continental army had no standard design or color scheme for its regimental and national standards and colors, and many regiments lacked standards or colors altogether. Adj. Gen. Alexander Scammell had made this situation especially clear in a return of 5 Sept. 1778, given in response to an order from GW in the general orders of 2 Sept. 1778. Scammell’s return showed that fifteen Continental brigades, consisting of about fifty regiments, held only twenty-six regimental standards, one regimental color, and forty-seven “Grand Division” colors; and of these, twenty-nine were in “bad” condition (General Orders, 2 Sept. 1778, n.2). Major General Steuben’s new regulations for the army, which had been approved by Congress on 29 March 1779 (see Steuben to GW, 17 March, n.2), attempted to address this problem by calling for each regiment to bear two standards: a regimental standard, with colors matching the facings of the regiment’s uniforms; and a national standard, which would be the same throughout the army (Steuben, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States [1779], 6–7, plate 1, figures 1–3).

Steuben’s plan for the design of the regimental standards depended on the colors for the uniforms, so GW and the Board of War took steps to standardize them. On 23 March, Congress had resolved that “whereas discretionary changes of the uniforms of regiments have proved inconvenient and expensive: the Commander in Chief is therefore hereby authorized and directed, according to the circumstances of supplies of cloathing, to fix and prescribe the uniform, as well with regard to the color and facings, as the cut or fashions of the cloathes to be worn by the troops of the respective States and regiments, which shall, as far as possible, be complied with by all purchasing agents employed by the Congress, as well as particular States, by the cloathier general, sub or state cloathiers and regimental cloathiers, and all officers and soldiers in the armies of the United States” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 13:357). On 25 May, Peter Scull sent to GW an “Estimate of cloathing” suggesting the types and colors of the uniforms that should be worn by each unit of the Continental army, and GW published most of these specifications in general orders on 2 Oct. 1779 (DLC:GW). These uniform specifications would form the basis for the proposed regimental standards.

At the same time, GW and the Board of War discussed the design for the national standard. On 3 Sept., Richard Peters wrote to GW enclosing a number of draft designs, and expressed the Board’s preference that “The one with the Union & Emblems in the Middle is preferred by us as being variant from the Marine Flag” (DLC:GW). GW replied on 14 Sept. that he agreed with the Board’s plan, “with the addition, the number of the Regt. and the State to which it belongs inserted within the curve of the serpent, in such place, as the painter or designer shall judge most proper” (DLC:GW).

Such discussions were pointless without the raw materials to fashion the standards and uniforms, however, and the need could not be supplied from the United States. On 11 June, therefore, the Board of War made out an order for a huge quantity of articles to be imported from France, including uniforms and 1,760 yards of “Plain strong Silk, for Regimental Colours” in crimson, deep blue, white, and buff (DNA:PCC, item 147). The Committee of Foreign Affairs enclosed the list in a letter to Benjamin Franklin of 16 July, to be presented to the Comte de Vergennes (Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 13:228–29). Several months passed, and on 23 Feb. 1780 GW wrote to the Board of War complaining about the continued lack of regimental standards and colors (DLC:GW). Peters replied on 28 Feb. that these, along with the uniforms and other supplies, including drums and fifes, would be prepared upon receipt of the expected shipment from France (DLC:GW). Franklin, however, had dropped all of the items from the Board’s order except for 15,000 stands of arms, 100,000 pounds of powder, and uniforms for 10,000 men, choosing instead to use the bulk of the money from France’s loan to the United States to purchase materials to pay the existing interest bills and drafts on Congress (Franklin Papers description begins William B. Willcox et al., eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 40 vols. to date. New Haven, 1959—. description ends , 31:267–69, 32:17–18).

GW’s hopes for even 10,000 uniforms from France would be dashed. He expected, as he wrote to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., on 14 July 1780, that they would arrive that summer with the fleet carrying the French expeditionary force to the United States (Ct: Trumbull Papers). That fleet left Brest without the bulk of the supplies that had been requested by the Board of War, however, and attempts by Franklin to have the clothing sent on the frigates Alliance and Ariel in the autumn and winter of 1780–81 were unsuccessful. The arrival of the Ariel in February 1781 without any of the clothing prompted accusations of neglect and mismanagement and led to an ongoing congressional investigation (GW to Samuel Huntington, 9 Sept. 1780 [DNA:PCC, item 152]; Franklin Papers description begins William B. Willcox et al., eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 40 vols. to date. New Haven, 1959—. description ends , 32:17–18, 29, 41, 189, 442, 448, 497, 520–21, 612, 33:18, 75, 168–69; Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 15:628, 634, 16:298, 437–39, 551, 728–29; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 19:174–76).

The continuing lack of raw materials for the creation of flags and standards forced the deferment of this part of Steuben’s plan, and the troops continued to “shift with what Colours can now be given them” (Peters to GW, 28 Feb. 1780, DLC:GW). In the end, regimental and national colors were ready for distribution to the regiments in March of 1783, just before news arrived of the cessation of hostilities with Great Britain (see General Orders, 14 March 1783, DLC:GW).

3GW complied with this request in general orders on 19 May.

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