Monday, February 11, 2019

Belcher Goes to Eleven.

The Continental Army struggled to provide its battalions with sufficient clothing and equipment, and was only able to establish general uniformity during the closing stages of the war.  Nonetheless, this did not stop Congress, the Commander-in-Chief, and certain other other General officers from proposing - and frequently adopting - official standards for uniforms, grooming and emblems of rank that, from a practical standpoint, could prove difficult to realize given challenges of supply and procurement.

The Marquis de Lafayette, to give one example, wrote a long letter to Washington on July 4th, 1780 in which he made a number of suggestions as to how to achieve uniformity with the available supply of clothing.  He also offered his own preferences for certain emblems of rank that were subsequently adopted:

"I wish there was some distinction of one woolen epaulette for the corporal and two for the sergeant. As the feathers became a distinction of ranks I wish such as have been pointed out might be forbidden to other officers, and for the Light division I will beg the leave of wearing a black and red feather which I have imported for the purpose."
Uniform items associated with a single regiment might later come to be regarded as a desired standard for others, even at times for the entire Army.  George Washington wrote to the Board of War on January 10th, 1781:

"We have so constantly experienced the want of Hats, than which no part of dress is more essential to the appearance of a soldier, that I have been endeavouring to find out a substitute for them, which could be procured among ourselves. I have seen none so likely to answer the purpose, and which at the same time of so military an air as a leather Cap which was procured in the year 1777 for the 6th. Connecticut Regt."

We can only be grateful, then, that certain uniform innovations scrawled as marginalia in the stained and scattered pages of the Belcher Journal do not appear to have been put in practice.  Larry and I have been puzzling over these, which are sometimes accompanied by primitive sketches by way of illustration, trying to determine whether they had any official sanction, and have concluded that they are most likely doodles of Belcher's own invention.  Other accounts in Belcher's text have bearing on his influence over the uniforms of the First New Jersey - the incident of the tie dyed hunting shirts, for example, or the unfortunate affair of the regimentals issued to the Colonel's Company in 1777 with reversed facings and coat body colors, but these were of an accidental nature rather than by design.

Shortly after the Battle of Germantown, Belcher started a list of fabric and notions needed for a Band of Musick.  These included -

- black leather for breeches or overhauls, made very tight
- cotton shirting resist print'd  with divers Skulls & Roses
- Spanish boots of Spanish leather
Belcher also specified cowcumbers wrap'd in foil, together with a cryptic notation that these not be confused with artificial plates or limbs, but to what use he intended the musicians put them we cannot imagine.  It's such a fine line, after all, between stupid and clever.