U.S. NAVY AND MARINE
CORPS RANK INSIGNIA
The Revolutionary War Era
The Continental Navy
"The military seaman of the 18th century was hardly a volunteer of high integrity. In the Royal Navy he was an impressed prisoner, a former inhabitant of merchantmen or waterfront bars and bordellos. His lot was considered less than human, and, in accordance with naval tactics of that age, he was used as cannon fodder in savage sea battles. Consequently, there was a high turnover in personnel, due not only to occupational risks, but also to large scale desertions ... Therefore, little effort was taken to properly clothe the seaman in anything resembling a uniform. It was considered a superfluous expense as the bulk of sailors did not have a long operational existence."
"The American Revolutionary sailor fared little better. He participated in a Navy that was built from scratch. Meager funds and the scarcity of a manufacturing complex concentrated attention on procuring ships and ammunition. There was no money for uniforms ... Thus, naval uniforms ... were nondescript, consisting of pantaloons often tied at the knee or knee breeches, a jumper or shirt, neckerchief, short waisted jacket and low crowned hats ... Most sailors went barefoot. A kerchief or bandana was worn either as a sweat band or as a simple closure for the collar." †
The first attempt at uniforms for Naval officers was addressed by the Continental Congress in 1776. They kept the gold lace to a minimum and refused epaulettes. After all, this was a new democracy and not the court of a king.
The coats were blue with red facings, red waistcoats, modest flat buttons, and minimum trim.
Our Naval captains were very disappointed in the somberness of the approved uniforms and met together in Boston to formalize their demands for more ornamentation; colored facings, gold buttons, more gold lace, and gold epaulettes.
Congress compromised and the 1777 officers' coats were blue with white facings, white waistcoats, gold lace around the lapels and button holes for the captains, and, most important of all, an epaulette. These uniforms looked very much like those of the British and many of the captains were appeased; although, not all.
Some just added extras as fit their own personalities.
By 1781, the officer corps had expanded. The former warrant officer grade, of Master, became Sailing Master; a supervisor of the deck watches, in charge of ship's navigation, and tasked with Midshipman training. On larger ships, the lieutenant second in command was called the First Lieutenant and all other lieutenants were called Second Lieutenants. The temporary grade of Commodore was confered upon captains who commanded more than one ship.
The Sailing Master wore the lieutenant's uniform, without epaulette. Second Lieutenants wore one epaulette on the left shoulder and First Lieutenants wore one on the right shoulder. Captains and Commodores wore two epaulettes, the Commodores adding a single, large, silver star on each. The epaulette had the coiled rattlesnake and motto,
"Don't Tread on Me!", embroidered on the strap.
Of course, all these changes were outside the approval of the Continental Congress and, in 1781, that body officially abolished all, but the original uniform of 1776. It was also made a court martial offense to wear unauthorized gold lace and epaulettes. Any other challenges to the authority of the Congress over the captains of the Continental Navy were settled when the Navy, itself, was abolished in 1783.
The Continental Marine Corps
Marines were Infantrymen who served on Naval vessels and under command of the ship's captain. Their multipurpose mission was to provide shipboard security, act as sharpshooters in the ship's rigging during ship-to-ship engagements, and conduct amphibious landings and raids to capture ships, weapons, munitions, and other naval stores.
In 1776, their uniform was established by the Continental Congress; green with white facings and silvery buttons and officer epaulettes in line with Infantry colors. In 1779, the facings were changed to red.
Marine volunteers from Ireland and France wore the red with blue facings and brass and lace trim shown below.
A particularly notable part of the uniform was a thick leather stock worn around the neck. It was to protect the Marines from cutlass wounds to the neck and to keep them standing tall. This was the origin of the endearing nickname for Marines, "Leathernecks".
† United States. Department of the Navy. Bureau of Naval Personnel.
"History of U.S. Navy Uniforms." Appendix 2. United States Navy Uniform Regulations. NavPers 15665D.
Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1981.
©1996 RWD Ploessl
Archived locally to preserve source.
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