A Brief History of the Commander-in-Chief Guards



Flag of the Commander-in-Chief Guards / Creative Commons

By Donald N. Moran


Dedicated to George Washington and the men of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard who protected him.


President George Washington / Creative Commons

With the fortification of Dorchester Heights on March 4th, 1776, the eleven month stalemate around the besieged City of Boston was at an end.  General George Washington, commanding the American Army, knew that the British, under the command of Lieutenant General, Sir William Howe, had but two choices – risk another costly battle, probably with more casualties then he suffered during the attack on Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill), and possibly be driven out of Boston, or endure the humiliation of an evacuation.  If Howe choose the later, with a force of 11,000 troops and 150 ships, he was certain to not abandon North America, but rather invade the Country elsewhere.

While Howe was considering his options, George Washington was planning for the campaign he knew was about to start.  He had already sent Major General Charles Lee, his second in command, to raise troops to defend New York City, the likely target of Howe’s next move.  New York City controlled the Hudson, or North River, and that River was the key to the continent.

At the same time Washington realized that the entire complexion of the War was about to change.  No longer would he be commanding an army maintaining a static siege line, but a mobile army, marching to meet the next British threat.  With movement came additional dangers – there were a number of Tories spread over the countryside that were determined to assist the British and of course there was the British Army itself.  Therefore, a surprise raid on his headquarters was a serious possibility.  To counter that possibility Washington decided to form a personal guard.

On March 11th Washington issued the following orders:

“Head-Quarters, Cambridge March 11, 1776

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.”


Captain Caleb Gibbs / revolutionarywararchives.org

The next morning Washington selected Captain Caleb Gibbs of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment to command the Guard and George Lewis, his nephew, as the Lieutenant. He entrusted them with the details of organizing the unit.

The Commander-in-Chief Guard, officially designated “His Excellency’s Guard,” or “The General’s Guard,” was popularly called by the soldiers “The Life Guards”, “The Washington Life Guards,” or “Washington Body Guard.”  On April 15th, 1777 Congress decreed that these appellations were improper and ordered the practice stopped.  Gibb’s frequently signed his correspondence as “Commandant C-in-C Guards,” while Washington referred to them as “My Guards.”

Unfortunately, the first detailed account of the C-in-C Guards involved a plot to assassinate General Washington.  Briefly, on May 24th, 1776, The C-in-C Guards set up camp near Richmond Hill on Manhattan Island.  Anticipating Washington’s arrival, a group of New York Tories (Loyalists to the British Crown) formed a secret organization on May 13th.  Their primary objective was the assassination of George Washington.  The plot was uncovered and the Provincial Congress took immediate action.  Several Tories, including the City’s Mayor, David Matthews, were arrested.  Simultaneously, Washington, with Captain Gibbs and a party of hand-picked men arrested some forty alleged conspirators.  Among them were C-in-C Guards Sergeant Thomas Hickey; Drummer William Green; Fifer James Johnson; Privates John Barnes and Michael Lynch.

At the Court Martial the testimony given was enough to send Hickey to the gallows.  Hickey was Irish born, but had deserted from the British Army and enlisted in the Guard.  He was hanged on June 28th in front of an estimated 20,000 spectators.

It is ironic that the first American soldier to be executed in the Continental Army was a member of the C-in-C Guards.  The fate of the other four members of the Guard is unclear; there is no record of any further hangings.

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.

The balance of the Guard participated in the capture of the Hessian Garrison at Trenton, New Jersey on the day after Christmas.  During this hard fought victory, the Guard, although, small, distinguished themselves.  We can find no record of what exactly transpired, we do know the Captain Gibbs was offered a Regimental Command immediately after the battle as a reward for his actions.

The men of the C-in-C Guards enlistment expired on December 31st, 1776, but they agreed, to a man, to serve for an additional six weeks at the personal request of Washington.  As a result they participated in the Battle of Princeton.

On January 6th, 1777, the Army reached winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.  General Washington established his headquarters at the tavern owned by Captain Jacob Arnold of the New Jersey Militia.  We do not know when the remaining members of the C-in-C Guard were finally discharged, however, a receipt for a musket returned by Private Samuel Reid of the Guard is dated February 10th – probably the approximate date of the departure of the first members of the Guard.

With most of the old C-in-C Guard gone, their enlistment’s expired, except for a few loyal volunteers, General Washington set about establishing a new one.

On April 22nd, 1777, General Washington wrote Captain Gibbs, who was on leave in Philadelphia, regarding the acquisition of new uniforms and arms for the men who were forming the “new” Guard.

“22 April 1777 Headquarters
Capt. Caleb Gibbs,

Dear Sir;

I forgot before you left this place to desire you to provide clothing for the men that are to compose my Guard, but now desire that you will apply to the Clothier-General, and have them forwarded to this place, or headquarters as soon as possible.

Provide for four Sergeants, four Corporals, a drum and fife, and fifty rank and file.  If blue and buff can be had, I should prefer that uniform, as it is the one I wear myself, if it cannot, Mr. Mease and you may fix upon any other, red excepted…

George Washington”

Gibbs was successful in securing blue and buff uniforms, but contrary to General Washington’s expressed orders, Gibbs, for some unknown reason, probably the lack of an alternative, chose red waistcoats (vests).  These waistcoats became symbolic of the C-in-C Guard for the duration of the war.  He also procured leather helmets with a bear skin crest, in lieu of the traditional tricorn hats.  These apparently were captured by a privateer and were bound for the British 17th Dragoons.  He had the red cloth binding removed and replaced with medium blue, and a white plume, tipped in blue placed on the left side.  This unique headgear was to add to the distinctive appearance of the Guard.  In 18 century armies, each regiment had individual buttons, for the most part made of pewter.  Generally these buttons contained the Regiment’s designated number.  But, the C-in-C Guards did not have a number.  Gibbs decided on a new cipher for the Guards – “USA.”  As far as is known, the C-in-C Guard were the first unit to use this cipher, which is still used today.

Six days later General Washington requested men from several of the Virginia Regiments.  He expressly requested that “none but native soldiers be furnished him”, obviously remembering the treacherous foreign elements of the first Guard.

The men were also issued the traditional hunting shirt, common to the whole Army, and tricorn hats.  These were to be worn while on fatigue duty.  However, there are ample surviving records that show the men preferred their ‘special’ helmets, and consistently wore them.

The Guards moved with the army, protecting the person of the Commander-in-Chief, the headquarters staff, and the army’s records throughout the rest of 1777.  No record of there being any casualties among the members of the Guard at either the battles of Brandywine or Germantown leads us to believe that they did not actively participate in these engagements.  Lieutenant Lewis was successful in raising a troop of calvary.  On May 1st, now a Captain, Lewis and his troop were designated the Third Regiment and were assigned to the Commander-in-Chief Guards.  They served in that capacity until September 26th, 1778.  The Cavalry uniform consisted of a white regimental coat, faced with medium blue, medium blue waistcoats and white breeches.  Two silver buttons were on each cuff and six buttons, arranged two-by-two on each of their lapels.  This distinctive uniform was set off with a black leather helmet, bound with red, and fox tail for a crest.

The C-in-C Guards along with the entire Army arrived at Valley Forge on December 18th, 1777, and set up winter camp.  The Guard was posted behind the Isaac Potts House, which General Washington selected for his Headquarters.  Today there are excellent reproductions of the Guard’s huts built on the exact site of the originals.

In March of 1778, at the request of newly appointed Inspector General, the Baron Frederick von Steuben, the Guard was to enter a new era.  It would emerge as the model for and the pride of the “new” Army.  Von Steuben selected the Guard to be his demonstration company for the new American Drill.  After personally training the men of the Guard, they were sent throughout the entire Continental Army training each and every regiment.  Not only did this new drill convert the ragtag Continentals into an effective fighting force, but it established the Commander-in-Chief Guards as the elite unit of the Army.

The first record of the Commander-in-Chief Guards having their own unit banner is mentioned at Valley Forge, along with General Washington using his personal Headquarters Flag.

The size of the Guard was increased on March 1, 1778.  In addition to Captain Caleb Gibbs, who remained Commandant, Lieutenant Henry Philip Livingston was selected to permanently replace Lieutenant George Lewis.  1st Lieutenant Benjamin Grymes of Grayson’s Continental Regiment, 2nd Lieutenant William Colfax of the 1st Connecticut Regiment, and Surgeon Samuel Hanson, son of Continental Congress President John Hanson, were assigned to the Guard.  The rank and file included four Sergeants and three Corporals, two drummers, a fifer and 136 privates.  Under the watchful eye of General von Steuben, these men were trained to rival the best in Europe.  In a General Order issued May 16th, 1778, the Guard was not to pay any honors except to the Commander-in-Chief.  The records do not explain why this action was necessary, but obviously it was important enough to address in the General Orders.

Today we think of a headquarters detachment as a collection of clerical types, usually noncombatants.  Such was not the case of the C-in-C Guards.  General Washington frequently employed them as light infantry.  In May of 1778 Washington attached Gibbs and 100 Guards to the force led by Major General, the Marquis de Lafayette.  The combined force numbered 2,400 men.  Their primary mission was to gather intelligence on the British positions around Philadelphia.  Several severe skirmishes resulted, and the Guard proved their worth in the line of battle.

With the defeat and loss of the entire British Northern Army commanded by General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, General Howe felt he did not have sufficient forces necessary to keep either New York City or Philadelphia from being overwhelmed by the Americans.  He simply couldn’t defend both cities.  He, therefore, ordered Philadelphia evacuated.  Howe elected to march across New Jersey to New York City.  Washington ordered the entire Continental Army at Valley Forge to pursue, overtake and defeat the rear guard and 1,500 wagon baggage train of the retreating British.  On June 23rd, Washington ordered Colonel Daniel Morgan “to take the most effectual means of gaining the enemy’s right flank and giving them as much annoyance as possible in that quarter.”  General Washington ordered Captain Gibbs and eighty men of the Guard to support Morgan’s riflemen.

A detachment of Morgan’s riflemen and the C-in-C Guards, under joint command of Captain Gabriel Long of the “Rifles” and Captain Gibbs of the Guards encountered a unit of British Grenadiers near Squaw Creek.  The Guards attacked, killing and wounding severa1 and taking 39 prisoners.  Hearing the musket fire, a large force of British Light Infantry attempted the rescue of their captured comrades.  A pursuit through the swamp ensued, but the British were unable to catch the Americans.  Arriving back at Colonel Morgan’s position, prisoner’s still in tow, it was recorded in a private soldier’s journal:  . . . .” the elegant Life Guards had been splattered with mud as they dashed through the swamps and then Morgan indulged himself in a stentorian laugh that make the woodlands ring.”

A few days later, General Charles Lee commanding the vanguard of the American Army, ordered a retreat at the first signs of battle. General Washington arrived with the rest of the Army, and by shear weight of his presence rallied the retreating Continentals.  To do so, he was riding up and down in front of the line of battle that was being formed.  The British Army was closing fast, and the General was between the two antagonistic forces.  Fearing for his safety, his Aides-de-camp and Captain Gibbs rode through the American lines to make General Washington retire to the rear.

The advancing British regulars were discharging volley after volley as they approached.  Lt. Colonel Alexander was the first to fall, severely injuring his leg as his horse was shot out from under him;  next came Lt. Colonel John Fitzgerald, with a musket ball to his shoulder;  Lt. Col. Richard Meade, went down, his black mare shot out from under him and in the spill rolled over him causing a painful injury;  then Captain Caleb Gibbs, as his horse was shot dead;  lastly was Lt. Colonel John Laurens, whose father was President of the Continental Congress, went down with what proved to be a minor wound.  General Washington personally supervised the soldiers that helped his entire staff to safety – as for General Washington – not a scratch.  To their credit none of these wounded, battered and bruised officers left the field of battle!

The Guards were involved in some of the heaviest fighting that day, and unfortunately sustained casualties.  Among them Sergeant John Wilson was wounded in the right arm.  The good Sergeant tried to stay with the Guard but by December it was clear that his arm would not properly heal and was discharged.

For a full year following the Battle of Monmouth Court House, the Guards and the Army stood ready for the assault on New York City – that attack never came.  We were never strong enough to successfully attack the well defended city.

On December 4th, 1779 the Army arrived at Morristown, New Jersey for their winter camp. General Washington selected the stately home of Mrs. Jacob Ford, the widow of Colonel Jacob Ford, as his headquarters.  The Guard set up its winter camp in the meadow southeast of the mansion. Today, that site is marked by a simple plaque.  The winter of 1779 proved to be the severest in the memory of anyone living at the time; accordingly, the season passed relatively uneventfully, as everyone was “snowed in.”

On June 7th General Washington received intelligence that a large expeditionary force led by Hessian General the Baron Wilheim Knyphausen, had crossed from Staten Island to Elizabeth, New Jersey and was proceeding inland. Washington ordered the whole of the Continental Army to march and meet the challenge.

The local New Jersey Militia had been fighting an effective delaying action all the way to Connecticut Farms, near Springfield.  The dreaded Hessian “Jaegers” were making headway against the stubborn American defenses.  As the Continentals approached, Washington ordered Gibbs, now a Major, and the Rhode Island Regiment forward to form a line of defense and to hold until the main army could get into position.  Gibbs moved forward with the entire 152 man C-in-C Guards.  Smartly uniformed and well disciplined, they formed their line of battle, concealed by the smoke of the battle.  Gibbs waited until the Hessians were right on top of them and launched a bayonet charge.  The Hessians immediately broke.  They had been fighting militia and the last thing they expected was to encounter “regulars” and bayonets.  The Guards then delivered eight volleys into the fleeing Hessian.  The mark of the Hessian advance into New Jersey was the position held by the Commander-in-Chief Guards!

When the charging Guards erupted through the smoke of battle, what General Knyphausen saw was soldiers as well uniformed and trained as any in Europe.

Unfortunately, the Guards suffered causalities.  Jacob Ford, Jr. son of the late Colonel, received two musket balls through the thigh.   Private Solomon Daley, Stephen Hetfield and William Jones were slightly wounded.  Sergeant John Slocum received a musket ball in the knee.  Later that day his leg was amputated.

Arriving back at headquarters the next morning, Gibbs reported to General Washington: “I had the happiness to give the Hessian lads a charge just before sunset and drive them thoroughly.  We gave them after they gave way about eight rounds.”  As a result of the Battles of Monmouth Court House and Connecticut Farms, Sir William Howe was reluctant to confront Washington’s Army.  He turned his attention to the Southern States and holding onto New York City.

The situation in New York City was not good.  Almost all supplies had to be brought from England.  One report stated that there was not a single tree standing on Manhattan Island, as all had been chopped down for fortification or firewood.  It was necessary for the British to launch large scale forging parties into the “no-mans land.”

On July 3rd 1781, General Washington, accompanied by an escort of fifty Guards was reconnoitering the British fortifications near king’s Bridge.  They encountered one of the British forging parties, consisting of 1,500 men!  The British immediately attacked.  The Guards made a stand at the bridge and were determined to hold until General Washington was safely back to the American lines.  The bridge, just ten feet wide, prohibited the overwhelming or the flanking of the small, but determined Guardsmen.  The battle for the bridge was ferocious.  Braving volley after volley from the Guardsmen, the British charged with bayonets and were met by bayonets and forced back with heavy losses.  It became painfully clear to the British that they would endure severe casualties and the most they could attain was a limited objective.  When American Reinforcements came into view, the British broke off the action.

Lieutenant Levi Holden was in command of the Guards that fateful day and on the 11th of that month filed his official report.  Unfortunately he did not write the descriptive accounts as did Major Gibbs. His report simply read:

“11 July 1781”

“To Captain Pemberton:

Returned of killed, wounded and missing of His Excellency’s Guard in them late skirmish at King’s Bridge.  One Lieutenant and one sergeant wounded; fourteen rank and file wounded, one missing and three of the wounded since dead.

Levi Holden, Captain, C-in-C Guards”


Captain Levi Holden / Creative Commons

From the surviving reports on the wounded, recounted in the attached roster of men who served in the Guard, the injuries conjure up an image of close combat with bayonets being much employed.

On August 14th, General Washington and the majority of the Northern Army left the Hudson Highlands and marched toward Yorktown, Virginia.  They arrived there on September 28th, and started the siege.

On October 14th, General Washington assigned the Marquis Lafayette’s Division of Light Infantry to assault the two key defensive positions of Lord Cornwallis’ line, fortification number 10.  The French would simultaneously assault fortification number 9.  If these fortifications could be overtaken, Cornwallis’ position would be hopeless.  A night attack, bayonets only’ was ordered.  Colonel Alexander Hamilton, formerly an Aide-de-Camp to General Washington, would lead the assault on fortification number 10.  Lt. Colonel John Laurens, also an Aide-de-Camp, would lead a party to maneuver behind the fortification and cut off any possibility of retreat.

No surviving record tells us that the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard was selected to ‘go in with the Light Infantry’ however, the causalities lists show members of the Guard as having been wounded at Yorktown.  Major Gibbs received a slight musket ball wound to his ankle and one of the Guardsmen, a sabre cut to his face, and two other men “wounded.”  Fortification number 10 was the only hand-to-hand combat experienced by the American Army at Yorktown, therefore we can safely concluded the Guard was there – participating in the final assault. That victorious night assault forced Cornwallis to surrender – directly leading to ending the war and American Independence.

Following the surrender of Lieutenant General, Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Washington and the Army returned to the Hudson Highlands, arriving at Newburgh on March 22nd, 1782.  There they spent the remaining two years of the war containing the British in New York City, but ever on guard in case the British, now Commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, elected to dispute control of North America.

With the peace negotiations concluded and the Treaty of Paris awaiting ratification, Congress on, May 26th, 1783, instructed General Washington to grant furloughs to non-commissioned officers, enlisted men and a proportionate number of officers, including the Commander-in-Chief Guards.  Washington issued the General Orders on June 2 and on June 6th, the entire Guard was furloughed.

From that date forward the men of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard were furnished by the various Regiments stationed in and around Newburgh.  Lieutenant William Colfax, who had served in the Guard since Valley Forge and Commanded the Guard since Caleb Gibbs was promoted to Brevet Lt. Colonel and transferred to the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Line.  Colfax was later replaced by Captain Bezaleel Howe, of the New Hampshire Battalion, who was destined to command the Guard on it’s last mission.


Captain Bezaleel Howe

“Rocky Hill
November 9th, 1783 Instructions to Capt. Howe, Sir;

You will take charge of the Wagons which contain my baggage, and with the escort proceed with them to Virginia, and deliver the baggage at my house, ten miles below Alexandria. . . .

George Washington”

The letter went on to detail instructions and was three pages long.  Twelve Guardsmen were assigned to protect the Commander-in-Chief’s six wagons of baggage.  It should be noted that much of the materials being transported were the official records of eight years of war!

The Guard delivered everything, without incident on December 20th, 1782.  And with this act, the famed Commander-in-Chief Guards were committed to history.

Some years after the war, George Washington Park Curtis, Washington’s adopted son, was to recall the delivery to Mount Vernon and also remembered that “. . .the Guard was wearing a blue coat with white facings, white waistcoats and breeches, black stock and black half gaiters, and a round hat with blue and white feathers.”  He was describing the uniform of the New England Continental Line.  The men assigned to this detail were from a New Hampshire Regiment temporarily transferred to the C-in-C Guards.  This understandable error has caused considerable confusion regarding the uniform of the Guards.  What is unclear is the “round hat,” which was a term used to describe the leather helmets.  In the 18th century a helmet was defined to be made of metal.  Is it possible that when assigned to the C-in-C Guards the men were issued the famed C-in-C helmet to distinguish them and their special assignment?

It is very unfortunate that so many records of the American Revolution have been lost or destroyed.  Major Gibbs realized the importance of protecting these records.  With General Washington’s permission, he gathered up the records of the C-in-C Guard, carefully placed them in a trunk, given to him by General Washington for this purpose.

When Gibbs finally left the Army, on June 20th, 1784 he took the trunk with him.  He stored the records at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where he was employed after the war, only to see them destroyed in a fire 31 years later.

Among the records lost in that 1815 fire, were the muster rolls of the C-in-C Guards.  A few copies of monthly returns have been found, but the vast majority of these irreplaceable documents are lost forever.


“The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard” by: Carlos F. Godfrey, Ph.D.
Originally published: 1904 – publisher: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1972 (DNM Lib.)

“The Encyclopedia of the American Revolution” by: Col. Mark M. Boatner, III (USA).
“Life Guard of Washington” Publisher: David McKay Company – 1974 (DNM Lib.)

“George Washington’ sIndispensable Men” by: Arthur S. Lefkowitz
Publisher: Stackpole Books – 2003 (DNM Lib.)

“Washington’s Crossing” by: David Hackett Fischer, Ph.D.
Publisher: Oxford University Press – 2004 (0MM Jib.)

“The Writings of George Washington from Original Manuscript Sources” -39 vol. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor – Publisher: United States Government Printing Office. (DNM Lib.)

“TheContinental Army” by: Robert K. Wright, Ph.D.
Publisher: Center of Military History – United States Army – 1983 (DNM Lib.)

“To Major Gibbs With Much Esteem” by: Howard H. Wehmann
ublisher: “Prologue Magazine” – National Archives, Volume 4 (1972)

“George Washington, a Biography” by: Douglas Southall Freeman – 7 Volumes
Publisher: Scribners, New York – 1948 (DNM Lib.)

“The Field Book of the American Revolution” by: Benson J. Lossing -2 volumes
Publisher: Harper, New York -1951 (DNM Lib.)

“Pension Records” – Held at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.