On March 11, 1776, from his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, overseeing the siege of Boston, General George Washington issued a General Order to Colonels or Commanding Officers of regiments of the Continental Army. Washington's order directed these officers to select four men from each regiment who would form his personal guard.
General Washington had a clear idea of the type of men he was seeking and the qualifications were laid out in the General Order. Washington wrote, "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 high, 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."1
Captain Caleb Gibbs, an adjutant of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment, was selected by General Washington to command the new unit, promoted to the rank of Major, and given the title Captain Commandant. The task fell to Gibbs to organize the new unit, whose motto was "Conquer or Die." The explicit mission of the new group was "to protect General Washington, the army's cash and official papers." Among Gibbs' immediate staff officers was Lieutenant George Lewis, a nephew of General Washington.
The official designation of the new unit was "His Excellency's Guard," or the "General's Guard." Enlisted soldiers referred to the unit as "The Life Guards," "The Washington Life Guards," or "Washington's Body Guard." General Washington usually referred to the unit as "My Guards," while Gibbs signed dispatches and unit correspondence "Commandant C-in-C, Guards."2
Within two months of the Lifeguards' formation, several enlisted men and Non-Commissioned Officers were at the center of what became known as the Hickey mutiny. A group of New York Tories had established a secret organization whose possible goal was to assassinate General Washington while he was encamped with units of the Continental Army on Manhattan Island. The plot was uncovered and resulted in the arrest of a number of New York Tories.
Several members of the Lifeguards, including Sergeant Thomas Hickey, were also arrested. Hickey was an Irish migrant who had deserted from the British Army and reenlisted in the Continental Army. The court martial testimony against Hickey was sufficient to convict him. He was sentenced to death and hanged on June 28, 1776 and became the first member of the Continental Army executed following a court martial.
For the remainder of 1776 the membership of the Lifeguards ranged between 50-70 soldiers. They participated in the Battle of White Plains and in the retreat to New Jersey. However, the majority of the Lifeguards' enlistments were due to expire at the end of the year. A number were allowed to resign from their posts upon the promise that they would join another unit. A small group of loyal soldiers volunteered to remain a part of the Lifeguards, and as a result took part in the Battle of Trenton in late December.
In early January 1777, with the remnants of the Continental Army encamped at their winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, General Washington commenced forming a new unit of Lifeguards built around the few volunteers who remained. In addition, Gibbs remained in charge of the unit. In the spring of 1777, correspondence refers to the Lifeguards being dressed in blue and buff uniforms with leather helmets adorned with medium blue cloth binding and a white plume tipped in blue placed on the left side of the helmet. Gibbs also decided to forgo the standard designated regimental number on the uniform buttons and instead opted for "USA," the first known record of the cipher being employed.
Throughout the latter half of 1777, the Lifeguards performed their duties providing close protection for General Washington and other elements of the headquarters staff. The unit, as part of the Continental Army, wintered at Valley Forge. In the spring of 1778, as a testament to the unit’s professionalism and military standards, the Lifeguards were selected by Baron Frederick von Steuben to fulfill the role of demonstration unit for the Continental Army. After being trained by von Steuben in the new American Drill, the Lifeguards moved amongst units of the Continental Army demonstrating von Steuben’s methods and principles.
For the remainder of the Revolutionary War, the Lifeguards were frequently employed in the role of light infantry and attached to larger military units for engagements. In each case the Lifeguards acquitted themselves well and enhanced their growing reputation as an elite unit.
Following the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, the Lifeguard—who were present at the battle— retired with the Continental Army to the Hudson Highlands in New York. In the early spring of 1782, the group settled into camp at Newburgh and remained there for the final years of the Revolutionary War. In May 1783, with peace negotiations concluded, the Congress instructed General Washington to begin furloughing members of the Army drawn from all ranks and all units. General Washington issued the order on June 2, and on June 6 the entire guard was furloughed.
Between June and November 1783, the Lifeguards as a unit were comprised of men on temporary assignment and drawn from regiments stationed in Newburgh. William Colfax assumed command of the Lifeguards in1779 after Gibbs was promoted and transferred to another regiment, though soon after he was replaced by Captain Bezaleel Howe. It fell to Howe to command the Lifeguards’ last mission. On November 9, 1783 Captain Howe received orders from General Washington to "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."3
Six wagons filled with General Washington’s belongings, but more importantly the official records of eight years of war, were successfully delivered to Mount Vernon on December 20, 1783. Upon his own retirement from the army in the summer of 1784, Caleb Gibbs gathered together the official records of the Lifeguards. They were secured in a trunk and stored at the Charlestown Navy Yard where Gibbs worked after the war. Despite surviving war, weather and constant movement, the vast majority of the records were destroyed in a fire at the Navy Yard in 1815.
Godfrey, Carlos E. The Commander-in-Chief's Guard: Revolutionary War. Washington, DC Stevenson-Smith Publishers, 1904.
Lossing, Benson. The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution. Two volumes, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1851-52.
Ward, Harry M. George Washington's Enforcers: Policing the Continental Army. Carbondale: Southern illinois University Press, 2006.
Wright, Robert K. The Continental Army. Washington, DC: United States Center of Military History, 1983.