Keeping the flame of 1776 alive
Washington’s Life Guard, officially dubbed “His Excellency’s Guard,” was authorized 11 March 1776 and was a mixed infantry and cavalry unit of about 200~ men though this fluctuated during the war, swelling to almost 300 in 1780 and shrinking to just 60 or so men by the end of the conflict. Originally drawn from each colonial regiment encamped around Boston, with each unit sending four vol-untold men, it was possibly the first true polyglot formation with soldiers from each of the 13 original colonies.
Originally commanded by Captain Caleb Gibbs, an adjutant of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment, they were drilled by Baron Frederick von Steuben, himself and were the tightest unit in the army– being used as shock troops on more than a few occasions when the chips were down.
After the war, the Guard remained dormant and while just 300 or so men’s names are known to have legitimately served, apparently several thousand aging Yanks in the late 18th and early 19th century made quick boasts in parlors and taverns of being a member of old George’s personal bodyguard– perhaps the original instance of U.S. Army stolen valor.
In 1922, when stationed at Fort Snelling, Minn., the U.S. 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) –the oldest active duty regiment in the Army, having been first organized as the First American Regiment in 1784– established a Continental Color Guard consisting of two veteran soldiers in the livery of Washington’s old guard. They were popular and remained until the regiment went off to World War II and subsequent disestablishment in Germany in 1946.
Meanwhile in 1926, the Military District of Washington permanently detailed select dismounted horse soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment (Brave Rifles), then at Fort Meyer, to stand guard at the the tomb of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I interred in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater, thought they did it in standard uniforms of the day.
Then, in 1948, the 3rd Infantry Regiment was reorganized and they assumed the role of the capital’s ceremonial troops from the 3rd Cav, working Arlington, the Tomb and greeting dignitaries (all with a military role in crowd control and protecting from enemy raids and sneak attacks in the event of an outbreak of hostilities).
By the 50s, the Old Guard again had a small contingent of ceremonial color guard who wore the uniforms of Washington’s men.
With the Bicentennial fever sweeping the country in the 1970s, Company A of the Old Guard’s 4th Battalion (recently returned from combat duty in Vietnam), was christened the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard in 1973 and has been pulling that role, wigs and muskets and all, ever since.
The Commander in Chief’s Guard, based at Fort McNair, is patterned after George Washington’s personal guard and has a variety of weapons and uniforms unique to their company. Officers carry an espontoon (half-pike) used as a signalling tool while NCOs carry a halberd. All ranks tote short swords for close combat.
Washington himself in 1777 directed all Continental field officers to arm themselves with espontoons, noting “firearms when made use of with drawing their attention too much from the men; and to be without either, has a very aukward and unofficer like appearance.”
The primary long arm of the unit are replica firing Brown Bess flintlocks with (always) mounted bayonet. All of which involves training.
The uniform for service is the 1784-pattern Army field pattern of the uniform for wear by all infantry consisting of a blue coat faced with a red collar, cuffs and lapels, white buttons and lining, long fitting overalls, and a black tricorn cocked hat with cockade.
The unit’s color guard carries the the U.S. Army Color with 172 campaign streamers, representing every campaign in which the Army has participated while the 3d Infantry Color bears 54 campaign streamers. The guard also carries a recreation of Washington’s own camp flag.
The guard is also the unit who gets roped into the other historical uniform duties, turning out Joes in Union Army blue, Confederate Gray, Doughboys and 101st Airborne paratroopers from 1944 and others for various events and public demonstrations.
Just 66 strong, the unit also has a war and homeland security mission, being trained as the Old Guard’s Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense (CBRN) unit and still completes regular weapon qualifications etc. on standard arms.
For more information and to follow the guard, they have a great and very moto social media account.