Sunday, September 6, 2015

Things: The Life Guard

With this being Labor Day weekend I am ending the Yankee Doodle Spies summer vacation officially. But in the spirit of those sun drenched protectors of the beaches, I decided to Blog about the Life Guards. This post is not about Baywatch so you can put away the sunscreen and towels.  And don't bother looking for a happy snap of Pamela Anderson and company.  Even before America had recreational beaches it had a lifeguards, or in this case, The Life Guard. This is about George Washington's Life Guard, to be precise. Readers of The Patriot Spy, and its just-released sequel, The Cavalier Spy have probably noted that wherever George Washington was, a Life Guard could probably be found nearby.

Despite waging a war for independence and liberty, the founders' generation still believed in titles. And as today, with those titles often came perks. Lieutenant General George Washington was more than just commander in chief of the Continental Army. He was also the binding force of the eight year struggle we call the American Revolution. This was not so much planned as a natural result of his leadership qualities, integrity and stature. He united classes and sections. He was a symbol. And as a symbol of his acknowledged position as the highest executive in the land, he received the appellation: "His Excellency." It is a tribute to the singular presence and importance of Washington that this honorific did not pass on when he resigned from military service, at least, officially.

The British were quite aware of Washington's importance to the cause they sought to crush. And the Americans were quite aware that the British were aware. Throughout the war the fear that the enemy would assassinate or capture the "essential man" lingered. But it wasn't long into Washington's command at Cambridge Massachusetts that the need for military bodyguards was acted upon. On the 11th of March 1776 Washington issued the following orders:

"The General is desirous of selecting a particular number of men as a guard for himself and baggage.  The Colonel or Commanding Officer of each of the established regiments, the artillery and riflemen excepted, will furnish him with four, that the number of wanted may be chosen out of them.  His Excellency depends upon the Colonels for good men, such as they can recommend for their sobriety, honesty and good behavior.  He wishes them to be from five feet eight inches to five feet ten inches, handsomely and well made, and as there is nothing in his eyes more desirable than cleanliness in a soldier, he desires that particular attention be made in the choice of such men as are clean and spruce.  They are to be at headquarters tomorrow precisely at 12 o'clock at noon, when the number wanted will be fixed upon.  The General neither wants them with uniforms nor arms, nor does he desire any man to be sent to him that is not perfectly willing or desirous of being in this Guard. - They should be drilled men."

Ever conscious of the need to avoid sectional preference, Washington chose  a New England man to head up the special unit: Captain Caleb Gibbs of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment commanded the Guard but George Lewis, a nephew of Washington, was named the Lieutenant. The explicit mission of the new group was "to protect General Washington, the army's cash, and official
papers." Gibbs set about reorganize the unit.He established the motto, "Conquer or Die." The unit had several names. The official designation of the new unit was "His Excellency's Guard," or the "General's Guard." Many of the enlisted men called the unit "The Life Guards," "The Washington Life Guards," or "Washington's Body Guard." Washington himself generally referred to them as "My Guards," In dispatches and unit correspondence Gibbs referred to himself as "Commandant C-in-C, Guards."

The new force was specially uniformed and outfitted. The Guards were also the best uniformed and equipped of all the Continentals. The uniform of the Guard consisted of a blue coat with white facings, white waistcoat and breeches, black half gaiters, a cocked hat with a blue and white feather. The strength of the Guard varied throughout the war (as did other units) but eventually settled at around 180 men, the strength of about three normal infantry companies. The size of  the Guard temporarily increased to 250 during the winter of 1779–80, while the Continental Army was encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, in easy reach of the British Army.

Life Guard and Traitor
It did not take long for the elite new unit to prove its worth... as well as its danger. By May of 1776, the British had evacuated Boston and anticipating an attack on New York, Washington began to move the Continental Army south.  On May 24th, 1776, an element of the C-in-C Guards set up camp near Richmond Hill on Manhattan Island.  Spies recognized the elite unit and what it meant. Anticipating Washington's arrival, a group of New York Tories  had hatched a secret plot earlier that month.  The objective was the assassination of George Washington.  Fortunately for the American cause, the plot was uncovered.  The New York Provincial Congress ordered several Tories, including the City's Mayor, David Matthews, arrested.  Meanwhile, Washington dispatched Gibbs with a group of hand-picked men to arrest another forty conspirators.  But disturbingly, these included Continental Army soldiers: including some of Washington's own Life Guards: Sergeant Thomas Hickey; Drummer William Green; Fifer James Johnson; Privates John Barnes and Michael Lynch. The larcenous Hickey had been in jail for passing a counterfeit note. As often is the case, stupidity and ego did him in. He revealed the plot on Washington to another inmate who used the nugget to better his own situation (I think this is where Law and Order, NYPD, etc get there plot lines). Alone among the conspirators, Hickey faced a court-martial that found him  guilty of mutiny and sedition. He was executed in New York on 28 June 1776 before a crowd of 20,000 spectators.

After that fiasco, the Guard went on to exemplary service for the remainder of the war. The strength of the Guard at this time was about 50 men.  They accompanied Washington to White Plains and participated in the battle fought there on October 28th, taking up their position on Chatterton Hill.  The following day the entire Army retreated to New Jersey. With their terms of enlistment up, Washington gave twenty of the Guards their discharges on the condition they would reenlist in the troop of cavalry being raised by Lieutenant Lewis, who had been detached from the Guard for that purpose.A small group fought beside Washington at Trenton in the darkest hours of the revolution. Others were assigned to other regiments to bolster their strength and resolve.

The Life Guard (in helmets) also honored
distinguished visitors to HQ: here Lafayette

During the spring of 1777, as the army emerged from its first winter encampment at Morristown, NJ, Washington ordered Gibbs to procure new uniforms for the unit. Blue jackets and buff facings with leather helmets adorned with medium blue cloth binding and a white plume tipped in blue placed on the left side of the helmet. But Gibbs, possibly because of short supplies, outfitted them with red vests instead of buff. The Life Guards came into their own the following winter however. At Valley Forge, Von Steuben used members of the Guard as his demonstration company for the new American Drill.  Von Steuben personally trained them. Then  sent them other Continental Army regiments until  the entire army was schooled in the new drill.  This turned the often hapless Continental units into a force ready to take on the British regulars. But it  also marked the Commander-in-Chief's Life Guards as the  Continental Army's truly elite unit, not just bunch of dandy's in the commander in chief's circle.

It is often overlooked that a critical mission of the Life Guard was protection of the commander in chief's immediate supplies and equipment. tents, office equipment and most important correspondence needed protection on the numerous marches made by Washington.
The Life Guards marched with Washington throughout the war. The were at his side during the campaigns in New York, New Jersey and into Virginia. In 1779, Caleb Gibbs, now a major,  was replaced by another New Englander, Connecticut born William Colfax. Washington promoted the young officer to Captain. Colfax was present at the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown and permitted by Washington to occupy a prominent position, on horseback, near Washington. As the long struggle drew to a close, Washington's Life Guard, now down to around fifty effectives, was furloughed from duty in June 1783, at  army headquarters in Newburgh, New York.  With the British about to evacuate New York City, the Life Guard was ordered disbanded on the 15th of November 1783.

The Life Guard Flag

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