In late January 1799, George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Armies, wrote to James McHenry, Secretary of War, to discuss an important topic: his new uniform.
New regulations on the Uniform for the Army of the United States had been released earlier that month, approved by McHenry and President Adams. The commander in chief was to wear the following uniform: “a blue coat, with yellow buttons, and gold epaulets, each having three silver stars, with lining, cape and cuffs, of buff…. The coat to be without lappels [sic], and embroidered on the cape and cuffs and pockets.”
Washington wrote McHenry to discuss the execution of this new uniform, particularly the embroidery. The regulations specified that the waistcoat should be buff, but not whether it should be embroidered in the same manner as the coat; Washington worried that an embroidered coat with an unadorned waistcoat might give “a disjointed, and awkward, appearance.” In addition, he expressed his preference for a “light & neat” embroidery over something more ornate.
The general was also interested in the other details. He gave his opinion on the proper size of an eagle for the center of the cockade, as well as its appearance, and requested that McHenry look for a few cockades – “tasty” but “not whimsically foolish” – to send down to Virginia. There was also the question of the style of cuffs and pockets: would they be slashed or not?
Why did Washington make the effort to write to McHenry? One reason is that both McHenry and Washington’s tailor, James McAlpin, were in Philadelphia. Washington enclosed an unsealed letter to McAlpin in the one to McHenry, so that the Secretary of War could review it and pass it along if he felt it described the uniform properly. Presumably McHenry was also expected to tell McAlpin, not Washington, the preferred style of cuffs and pockets.
Washington was also very aware of the importance of a proper appearance. In the letter to McHenry he acknowledged that embroidery and cuffs may seem like “trifling matters” but it was important that the attempt at a new uniform for the Army “should take a right direction,” setting the proper example from the highest rank at the very beginning. Well-executed uniforms provided a sense of unity to the troops, and gave the army a professional appearance. If the clothes make the man, the uniform makes the army.