What Did the Pennsylvania Militiaman Wear? A Guide for the Perplexed

Besides trying to understand the Pennsylvania militia system, there aren’t many subjects that make you want to bang your head against a hard surface repeatedly like trying to answer the question: Just what in the heck did the Pennsylvania militiaman wear?  But it is a valid and important question, is it not?  After all, for those of us with ancestors who served in the militia, it matters a great deal what they looked like and what they wore.  It tells us a lot about the character of an individual, the way they presented themselves.  And for those readers who, like me, want to portray accurately (or the next closest approximation of) their ancestors’ attire for living history or reenacting events, you don’t want to get it wrong.  At the very least, you’d probably like to be able to point to some evidence.

Arms and Basic Equipment from 1777-1783:

This is a stubborn question and the answers aren’t apparent.  You see, under the ordinances of the Militia Law, County Lieutenants were given orders to supply, with arms and equipment, up to two classes of militia between 200-600 men, depending on the size of the county) for their district.  The Lieutenants were also to assign someone to the office of County Quartermaster, responsible for maintaining military stores in the County (previously handled by the Committees of Observation and Inspection, by this time dissolved).


But to what extent these orders was carried out, there seems to be no real indication of uniformity.  The arms themselves, if not purchased directly from gunsmiths and factories locally with public money, were acquired by disarming everyone in the county (and it must be remembered that several other attempts to disarm disaffected people had already been attempted twice previously in 1776 on a grand scale and multiple times on a smaller scale).  Under the same Militia Law ordinances, this included all former Associators:

President Wharton also issued his own order, at the seat of the Supreme Executive Council, which directed all County Lieutenants to “make Dilligent search for Musquetts, Carbines, fusees, rifles, & other fire arms, & for swords & Bayonetts, & the same to seize, secure, & deliver to said Lieu’t & his Deputies, or any of them, and it is ordered that if any of said inhabitants shall oppose said search, or conceal any fire-arms, or other weapons afore-mentioned, to apprehend such persons, & take them before one of the Justices of the peace, to be dealt with according to law, and further, the said Lieu’t & his Deputies, are to have all such arms so taken carefully appraised, in order that payment & satisfaction for the same may be made to the rightful owner.” (Pennsylvania Archives Ser. 1, Vol. 5, 563)  These arms were then cataloged and kept in a County magazine or warehouse until needed.

But even getting enough arms seem to have been hard to accomplish (you cannot get water from a stone, after all).  Brigadier General John Lacey, in command of the Pennsylvania militia camped in Bucks County, wrote to Washington on 19 February 1778, that, “My numbers begin to increase, and I expect in a few Days to be in a Condition to incamp Nearer the City, at present I have out of Better than Six Hundred Men, but one Hundred and fourty that is armed.”  Less than a month later, while encamped at Whitemarsh (Crooked Billet) just outside of Philadelphia, his situation had not improved.  On March 3rd, 1778, he wrote again to complain about the understrength militia units filtering into his camp and how lacking they were for want of arms and equipment.


I reced your Excellencys favour of the 2d Instant at Seven oClock this evening. it is true I refused the Drover a Guard for the Cattle and the reasons were on Account of the Smallness of my Numbers. four Hundred troops Newly Arived from Cumberland and York Countys but only One Hundred of them at that time had reced any Arms, and near half of them was without Flints. About fifty of Chester County Militia made up my whole force, and the times of those fifty Expired the evening the Application was made and next Morning their Arms were Delivered up. I advised the Drover to take a Course further Back in the Country, where I concluded they might Pass without Danger. In this Condition I was not Abel to furnish the Guards and Patroles Sufficient for the safety of my Camp Nevertheless had I Suspected the Least of Danger from so great a Distan[ce] from the Enemy I should have sent what Men I had Equipt with them.

When the former Classes was Discharged the Arms were Sent to Allentown and Col. Antises, to be Repaired, those Men Newly Arived Came without Arms, and it was for some time before we could by any Means get them Back, for the want of Waggons.

I have near fourty Men in Camp un Armed at this time, the teams has been gone Six Days and have not yet returnd with them, the Flints did not Arive till Last night.

Colonel Antes sent the guns to Allentown as he was not yet able to repair all the guns the Supreme Executive Council had sent him the previous year.

PA Archives Ser 1 Vol 6 Page 456

PA Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, Page 456

This was a problem that plagued the militia in more ways than can be counted (which I’ve laid out more directly here).

But beyond arms, the generic supplies needed to outfit the militia seem to have been even harder to find.  And the ordinance of the law (given above) issuing the command to supply the militia seems to have been understood differently depending on the county in question.  These ‘supplies’ could have just been the basic necessities stipulated: firearms and military gear like bayonets and cartridge boxes.  However it might have also meant items like blankets and woolen (or linen) clothes (like a hunting shirt and overalls/leggings/breeches).  There appears to be no universal way in which this was followed.  Even when County Lieutenants intended to follow the ordinances it was apparently difficult to do so.

In August of 1777, Colonel Galbraith was working to get his Lancaster militia battalions on the move, but came across the issue of acquiring enough firearms and equipment to meet his quota of men needed in the field.  He wrote to President Wharton on the equipment supplied (or not supplied):

“Since my letter to you of the 5th Ins’t I have had a General Tower [sic – tour] thro’ the Battalions already formed in this County, & have set nearly three Eighths of the Battalions on foot for the Camp at Chester, (as I rec’d no answer to my last) most of which I hope will arrive at Camp by the middle of next week. They have neither arms, accoutriments, Camp-kittles, &c., except blankets, which they had Perticular orders to Procure.” (Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 5, 521)

So was Galbraith responsible for acquiring these other items (camp kettles, blankets, and other items) for the militia or were they responsible for acquiring these items themselves?  From reading this, it seems as though he is requesting assistance to acquire these items from the state, possibly even seeking reimbursement for his troops who had purchased blankets on their own.

A similar incident happened in Cumberland County in 1778, as explained in a letter to the Supreme Executive Council from the County Lieutenant:

PA Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, Page 700.

PA Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, Page 700.

It seems that the difficulty in supplying these goods is that the primary military stores for every county had been set aside for Continental use, particularly during the Philadelphia Campaign in Pennsylvania, when Washington was in most need of items and demanded County Lieutenants to supply him with all the goods they could acquire; he sent out notices in October specifically to Northampton County (and to surrounding counties of Philadelphia):


Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 13 [1889], p. 75.

Nevertheless, some records indicate that County Lieutenants were able to acquire some of these goods, either by purchasing them with public funds or private (to be reimbursed later by the Supreme Executive Council, meeting in Lancaster as Philadelphia had been occupied by the British).

PA Archives, Ser. 2 Vol 1 Page 53

PA Archives, Ser. 2, Vol. 1, Page 53.

PA Archives, Col. Rec., Vol. 11, Page 503.

PA Archives, Col. Rec., Vol. 11, Page 503.

Besides acquiring these through standard channels like the Supreme Executive Council, County Lieutenants were able to purchase items for the militia from local residents.  These accounts are found in the Pennsylvania Archives, along with fine lists (if you want to find out if your ancestor was bad and ignored a call to serve or didn’t show up for militia duty–and most did–you’ll want to look there).

PA Archives Ser 3 Vol 6 Page 725

PA Archives, Ser. 3, Vol. 6, Page 725

PA Archives Ser 3 Vol 6 Page 726

PA Archives, Ser. 3, Vol. 6, Page 726

Supplies like blankets and cartridge boxes and arms and flints were sought after and were paid for handsomely out of public funds to outfit the troops.  These would likely be returned after every tour to the County Lieutenant or left at camp for the next class called out to serve.  Some officials found creative ways to fill the gap on certain items, like tents for example:

PA Archives Ser 1 Vol 6 Page 166

PA Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, Page 166.

By late 1777 into 1778, it seems as though enough cartridge boxes, canteens, and other things had been acquired to supply the requisite number of men for the two class quota in most counties (though a few, like Cumberland County and Westmoreland, out in the frontiers of Western Pennsylvania, still suffered for want of goods), though it is probably likely there was little uniformity in their make and construction.  The single exception here would be if a supply of a hundred canteens or cartridge boxes were acquired from a factory for use, but this would be a rare event as most of those items were kept for Continental use (and then only surplus items were given to militia).

As these items were essentially owned by the state (paid for with public money), anyone caught disposing of the loaned equipment and arms were considered criminals and subject to a court-martial–at times these were brutal affairs.  General Lacey recounts in his memoirs of one such occurrence involving the Pennsylvania militia who had fled from fighting during the Philadelphia campaign:

Genl. Potter ordered a General Court Martial of which I was appointed the Judge advocate, for the tryal of those men who had thrown away their arms in the late retreat from the Enemy. several were found guilty of throwing away their muskets Cartouch Boxes knapsack, some Ordered to pay for them and others adjudged to be Publickly Whiped…. Genl. Potter ordered the sentence of the Court to be put in Execution, and several Men were actually whiped, from fifteen to thirty lashes which caused much murmuring among the Militia the General was highly sensured for it, the Men became so exasporated I really dreaded a mutiny but the Brigade being Ordered to join the other part of the Militia, under the Command of Genl. Armstrong at North Wales—the men became tranquil and passifyed.

Incidentally, it also provides further evidence that the militia were carrying knapsacks, cartridge boxes, and other equipment into their tours, at least in 1777 and 1778.

Then came the problems with moneys.  Besides the counterfeiting of currency in Philadelphia and surrounding counties during this period, the treasury department of Pennsylvania was running exceedingly low on funds.  A fear arose that militiamen were going to mutiny if they weren’t paid–after all, these were mostly men would didn’t want to be there (they were conscripted, or paid substitutes, after all).  So the Supreme Executive Council had a brilliant idea.  Apparently, even back then, rum solved everything:

PA Archives Col Rec Vol 11 Page 230

PA Archives, Col. Rec., Vol. 11, Page 230.

Of course, this didn’t stop the greedier amongst the officers.  Specifically in 1781, this happened:

PA Archives Ser 1 Vol 9 Page 437

PA Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 9, Page 437.

Given that, the moral of the story is if you can’t pay a soldier, give them rum apparently.  Now onto the really difficult question of what they wore.

Uniforms?  Civilian Clothes?  Hunting Shirts?

Actually a little bit of everything.  These abstracts are taken from desertion reports, which I copied from the volume, He Loves a Good Deal of Rum.’ Military Desertions During the American Revolution (Volume Two), by Joseph Lee Boyle, which you can pick up yourselves by following the link.  Most of these deserters were from the Philadelphia area.


From the First Class of the Philadelphia County Militia, commanded by Col. Daniel Heester, the following men, to wit.

EDWARD CARREDON, five feet eight inches high, a thick set man, walks upright, of a dark complexion, black hair tied behind, about 23 years of age: Had on when he deserted, a short jacket, a small round hat, and a pair of coarse linen breeches. He belonged to Capt. John Young’s company, and has lived and worked about Darby; it is hoped that every well-wisher to his country will use his endeavour to apprehend this person, as he engaged to serve as a substitute, and received a valuable consideration for the two months.

FREDERICK ULMORE and HENRY UNKLE; their place of abode, when at home, is in the township of Roxborough. DANIEL ANDREW of Chestnut-Hill. All of Capt. Slauter’s company.

As the three last mentioned person have been seen lurking about their respective places of abode, and are well known, it is not thought worthwhile to describe their persons particularly.

A Reward of EIGHT DOLLARS for each will be paid, and reasonable charges, for apprehending the above Deserters, and confining them in any goal in this State, so that they may be brought to justice, by

WILLIAM COATS, Lieutenant of the County of Philadelphia

June 29, 1777

Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet or, the General Advertiser, July 1, 1777.

I’m not sure, but I think ‘thick set man’ may have been a jab at his weight.  Either way, a short jacket and leather breeches would appear to be his own clothes.  Also it seems that most men listed in these deserter advertisements were between 5’6″ – 5’9″ in height.


DESERTED the 14th of this instant June, from Bristol, from Capt. JOHN HAMILTON’s Company of Militia, and Col. HUSTER’s Battalion, DANIEL STALL, A Lad, about twenty years of age, smooth face, light brown hair, about five feet seven inches high, has a stoop in his walk. Whoever takes up said deserter, and delivers him to the battalion, shall receive the above reward.


The Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser, July 10, 1777

No mention of clothes, but the note about having a smooth face is important.  Most men in the Revolutionary Period were clean-shaven.  The notion that men wore beards and had facial hair is really a false one that has a place in the Civil War, but not the Revolutionary War.

Billing’s-Port, July 27, 1777


DESERTED about the 20th instant, from Capt. Ezekiel Letts’s company, of the first battalion Philadelphia militia, commanded by Col. William Bradford, a certain Charles Millon, a shoemaker by trade; he has been out in the first battalion Pennsylvania regulars, last year, and sometimes wears his old uniform, viz. brown faced with green; he is about 25 years of age, and about 5 feet 6 inches high. Whoever apprehends the said deserter, and secures him in any goal on the continent, or brings him to his company at Billing’s-Port, shall have the above reward, and reasonable charges, paid by


The Pennsylvania Gazette, July 30, 1777

Here is a man who served as a Continental prior to the Militia Law going into effect and then was drafted after his service was up.  For most soldiers from a lower income household, the jacket they received from their Continental regiment would have been one of the few jackets they owned and its make would have been solid.  What is interesting to me is that this deserter probably had some pride for his service in the Continental Line, as he wore his regimental, yet deserted from the militia.  There is rarely a follow-up on these advertisements so why he deserted is unknown.

DESERTED on Friday last, from Capt. Robert Duncan’s company, of the First Class of the Philadelphia Militia, at Billing’s Port, FREDERICK SELLERS, a blacksmith by trade, about 25 years of age, and of a middle stature: Had on, a short light coloured coatee. He lives at the corner of Lombard and Third-streets. Whoever takes up said deserter, and delivers him to the Lieutenant or Sub-Lieutenants of the City, shall have SIX DOLLARS reward.

Philadelphia, July 25, 1777

The Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser, July 30, 1777

Again, another outfit that looks like it came from their closet at home.

Billingsport, August 2, 1777


DESERTED from Capt. Merhling’s company, in the Second Battalion of Philadelphia Militia, a certain GEORGE WARS, about 5 feet 8 inches high, 21 years of age, of a sandy complexion, his dress uncertain. Whoever takes up said deserter and brings him to his station at Billingsport, shall have the above Reward, paid by

PETER MERHLING, Captain 2d Battalion.

Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet or, the General Advertiser, August 5, 1777.

No dress listed, but listed here because of the height and age given.


DESERTED from my company, in the Second Class of Philadelphia Militia, commanded by Col. Sharp Delany, stationed at Billing’s-Port, the following privates, viz. Amos Buck, about 5 feet 8 inches high, wears a green coat, leather breeches, and a small cocked hat, with a gold button and a loop: He has a remarkable scar on one of his cheeks, occasioned he says, by a bayonet. Peter Miller, a Prussian, a turner by trade, about 5 feet 6 inches high, wears a light coloured coat, and often a white frock, and commonly leather breeches. The above men are said to have gone together towards Maryland. Also George Friend, a Fifer in my company, who lately rode post from Philadelphia to Baltimore, he is about 5 feet 5 inches high, short curly hair, a stupid ill contrived fellow, and well known in Philadelphia. Whoever apprehends the above deserters, and secures them, so that I may get them again, shall have FOUR DOLLARS reward each, and reasonable charges, paid by


The Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser, August 13, 1777

Heh, well, this stupid contrived fellow doesn’t have an outfit listed, but the other two do.  The white frock listed was more than likely a hunting frock.  The green coat mentioned is interesting and makes me wonder if Amos Buck was wearing a regimental coat.  The mention of scars is common in these reports, though the bragging of it having been a bayonet wound also leads be to believe he had possibly served in some capacity elsewhere.

Fort Island, August 26, 1777


DESERTED, on the 12th instant, from Captain John Reynard’s company, 2d battalion Philadelphia county militia, commanded by Colonel Moore, a certain John Moyers, by trade a tanner, about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high, of a sandy complexion, straight short hair, this country born, speaks both Dutch and English; had on a dark hunting shirt, striped twilled trowsers, but sometimes wears buckskin breeches and cloth leggings; it is likely he will make for Virginia, as his people live there. Whoever secures said deserter, so that they may be conveyed to his regiment, shall have the above reward, and reasonable charges, paid by


The above deserter is a substitute, and has received his bounty.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 27, 1777.

The ‘dark hunting shirt’ is like a hunting frock, but with only one drape instead of two.  By 1777, trousers and overalls were replacing the knee breeches in practicality and fashion (much easier to avoid cuts wearing pants, after all).  His being a substitute implies that he was serving in place of another and had been paid an extra bounty to serve outside of his class.  He would still have to serve when his class was called, even if it were called the following turn.  He was tall for this group of deserters.


DESERTED from Captain ISRAEL JONES’S company of militia, an Irishman, who calls himself John Burk, by trade a shoemaker, a stout well made fellow, marked with the small-pox, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high; had on, when he went away, a dark coloured hunting shirt, his other clothes not known. Whoever apprehends the said deserter and brings him to the subscriber, or secures him in any goal in this State, shall have the above reward, and reasonable charges, paid by

WILLIAM COATS, Lieut. Philadelphia county.

The above deserter is a substitute, and has received his bounty; he said he had worked in Frankford at his trade.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 27, 1777.

Another hunting shirt, which were common and easily made with linen.  ‘Marked with the small pox’ is also a common theme in desertion reports.  Many with previous service in the Continental Line or Associators were exposed to small pox early in the war due to deteriorated camp conditions, horrendous hygienic practices, and poor inoculation methods (that weren’t yet mandatory).  Many had scars.

DESERTED, on the 8th of August last, from the barracks, in Philadelphia, Samuel M’Cowen, a substitute, of the third battalion, Philadelphia county militia, commanded by Colonel Benjamin M’Veagh, and of Captain Jonathan Dungan’s company, about 5 feet 6 inches high, round visage, a thick well set man, has lost his right eye; had on a striped sleeveless jacket, a hat patched on the top with tarred linen. And on the night of the 28th of August last, from the 2d battalion of Philadelphia county militia (quartered at Wilmington) commanded by Col. John Moore, and Capt. Benjamin Brook’s company, the five following deserters, viz. John Pidden, about 5 feet 11 inches high, lives, when at home, in New Hanover township. William Keeler, five feet nine or ten inches high, slim make, lives in Limerick township. Jacob Pel[t]z, of the same township, about 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, Frederick Bingaman, of the aforesaid township, about 5 feet 11 inches high. John Kist, of Frederick township, about 5 feet 9 or 10 inches high. The latter five are supposed to have gone home. Whoever apprehends and secures the aforementioned deserters, and confines them in any goal, or delivers them to their respective Officers, or either of the Sub Lieutenants of the county, shall receive FORTY EIGHT DOLLARS reward for them, or EIGHT DOLLARS for each.

WILLIAM COATS, Lieutenant, C.C.

The Pennsylvania Gazette and General Advertiser, September 10, 1777.

Only one outfit listed, though it is highly detailed.  Sleeveless jacket and a hat patched with tared linen.  Actually, this guy sounds like someone you don’t want to mess around with; as a substitute he was probably a mercenary-type, and reminds me of someone who really liked a good fight.  Again, no indication of why he deserted.  Ditto the other five men listed.  Make note of the height–particularly tall bunch.

Two Hundred Dollars Reward

Philadelphia County, Feb. 14, 1781

Deserted this day, an enlisted Recruit, belonging to the eighth class of Gwynith township, in this county, named JOHN BEATH: he is about 5 feet 5 inches high, appears to be at least 40 years of age, is of a sandy complexion, and has short sandy hair: Had on when he went away, an old felt hat, and old blue coat, much worn, new shoes, with square copper buckles. He said, he came from Pequea, in Lancaster county. Whoever apprehends and secures him in any goal, so that he may be had again, shall have the above reward, by applying to the Lieutenant of the county, or of DANIEL BLOM, of the said county.

The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, February 17, 1781.

Much worn clothes would be clothes they had owned previously.  Again, short hair rather than long hair.  We’re also getting later into the war; the battle lines have moved south and out of Pennsylvania.

Twenty Shillings Specie Reward.

DESERTED, From Northampton county, Pennsylvania, A NEW Recruit, named George Hall, born of German parents, in the city of Philadelphia, about 22 years of age, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, well set, brown eyes, black hair, and speaks good English. Was enlisted for the quota of the county of Northampton, on the 27th of February. Whoever apprehends said deserter, and commits him to any goal, so that the subscriber may have him again, shall have the above reward, paid by

SAMUEL REA, Lieutenant, of the county of Northampton.

March 12.

The Pennsylvania Gazette and Weekly Advertiser, March 28, 1781.

No clothes mentioned, but listed here for age and height comparisons.

DESERTED on the 21st day of March, 1781, a certain ANDREW WALLES, born in Ireland, about 18 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches high, fairish complexion, and dark hair; had on a lightish grey short regimental coat, faced down with red, woolen overalls, a silver broach in his shirt, and carries with him a small bundle, tied up in a check handkerchief, containing some ruffled shirts, a pair of kerb bridle bits, &c. has plenty of money, as he had just received his bounty. Any person apprehending said deserter and securing him, so that he may be had again, shall receive Twenty Shillings specie reward, paid by

GEORGE WALL, Sub-Lieut. B.C.

N.B. Said Andrtew Walles may attempt to pass under colour of a discharge he has from some officer of the Continental troops, which he detained in his possession, by falsely asserting he had left it with the Magistrate who attested him to his inlistment.

The Pennsylvania Gazette and Weekly Advertiser, April 11, 1781.

Finally, another regimental coat, overalls (no longer seeing too many breeches about).  Another substitute leaving after they got their money.

And there you have it.  What did they wear?  With what were they equipped?  Answers given here are fragmentary, but that is because our evidence is fragmentary.  At best, we can say that what the militia were wearing was what they thought most appropriate to wear.  If they were unable to purchase the linen for a hunting shirt or frock, or buy one already made, then chances were good they wore what was in their homes.   If they had regimental jackets, they might also wear them.

What is more interesting for me is how they appeared to others.  We have this image of wigs and long hair tied back in a ponytail but that doesn’t seem to mesh with the evidence; no indication is given either that short hair was an oddity.  Also the effects of camp life are apparent; so many people had become infected with small pox that the scars of the disease were found everywhere.

Nevertheless, I hope this guide has been somewhat helpful to the curious reader, and hopefully to reenactors as well.


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