Don N. Hagist
Originally published in The Brigade Dispatch,
Volume Vol. XXX, No. 4 (Winter 2000), pp. 18-20.
Studies and recreations of period uniforms and procedures often focus on general regulations, and ignore the many adaptations made to accommodate local conditions. For example, when European troops served in Canada during the American Revolution, they found it... cold. At least during the winters, that is. Being professional soldiers, however, they adapted.
The first measure taken was the acquisition of suitable clothing. Nothing remarkable or innovative was required - clothing conventions were well established by the local population, and the British army itself had extensive experience in the region from the time of the French & Indian War.
A German officer, writing from St. Anne during the winter of 1776-77, the first of that season that German troops spent in Canada, described the adaptive clothing as follows:
The whole army wears a special uniform in winter. This consists of cloth overtrousers reaching from the feet to the navel, a great pair of mittens, and a cloth cape which covers the face, neck and shoulders. The English regiments wear in addition Canadian capots over their uniforms.1
Captain Pausch of the Hanau Artillery provided more detail in his journal during November of 1776:
Immediately upon our going into our winter-quarters, the entire company, by order of the General [British Major General William Phillips], were furnished with the following articles of winter clothing. Each man then received the following articles, viz:
One pair of long blue cloth over-alls such as are worn by sailors, which come high up above the hips and way down to the shoes. These are fastened under the feet with a leather strap, and have five buttons on the outside of each leg and extend about a quarter the way up from the ankle, also:
One large blue woolen cap.
One pair of blue mittens lined with corduroy material.
One capacious under-jacket, the sleeves being made of strong white corduroy. One Canadian over-coat with a cape and facing of white sheeps wool, and bound with a light blue braid. The cape itself is made out of a whitish gray cloth, a kind of melton. It is bound with light blue woolen ribbon, and in three places extending down in front to the waist it is fastened with rosettes - these latter being made out of the same blue ribbon. This garment is called throughout Canada a capot.2
The translator of Pausch’s journal notes that the German word used for a “whitish gray” color would be called “salt-and-pepper” in English.
Pausch further wrote that this clothing was made in Montreal, from cloth that was purchased locally; none of it was provided from Europe. This might mean that there was some variation from one unit to the next. It also implies that this type of winter clothing was based on the local fashion, rather than being of European design.
Pausch does not make it clear whether the garments were made by regimental personel, or by locally hired tailors. Lieutenant Hadden, a British artillery officer, made a journal entry on September 20, 1776 which indicates that they were, in fact, produced by regimental tailors. When preparing for an embarkation, Hadden wrote:
As little Baggage to be taken on the Lakes, as possible; the Winter Clothes, Caps &c. &c. now working up for the Men to be very carefully packed and preserved, that whenever the Army halts, that work may go on.3
The following February, Hadden again mentioned the winter clothing, this time providing some details which are in agreement with the German writers:
Previous to this all the Troops were provided with Blanket Coats and Leggins, as also a Woolen or Fur Cap & Mittens to protect the Face, Ears, & Hands against the inclemency of the Season.4
Besides bitter cold, the Canadian winters had another characteristic that made military operations difficult. On March 31, 1776, a Royal navy lieutenant in Quebec wrote:
...so deep was [the snow] at times, that the Officers in going their rounds were frequently up to the middle of it; and were obliged to wear leggins and other contrivances to defend themselves against the severity of the cold.5
The great quantities of snow threatened to immobilize the infantry regiments, but, again, the European troops quickly adopted local methods:
The Camp Equipage to be examined & kept in good condition - The troops, likewise, will hold themselves in readiness to march on the Shortest Notice... They will practice Marching on Snow-Shoes, as soon as they receive them...6
As was so often the case with military stores, procuring sufficient quantities of snowshoes was sometimes difficult:
The English regiments have had to do a lot of practicing with them this winter, but our regiments did not get any because they haven't been able to turn out enough.7
Another German officer described the snowshoes and the specialized footwear that they required:
These rackets have the form of those things with which the shuttlecocks are hit in Germany, but with the difference, that the netting is woven more closely and is made of catgut. They are fastened under the shoes, but all the grenadiers assure me that these rackets can not be used with our type of shoes or boots. Therefore, if we are to use them, we must wear the same light shoes that are worn by the Canadians.8
A 1782 order given to the 29th Regiment indicates that the special shoes were not always used:
...three pair of Snow Shoes in possession of Major Carleton’s Company have been Shamefully Spoild it Shold Seem by wearing Leather Shoes with them...9
In spite of their best efforts to adapt, the weather sometimes got the better of the European troops. Lt. Hadden gives an example, but also shows us that basic first aid techniques were well understood:
In February  M. G'l Phillips reviewed the 21st Reg't at St. John's and 12 Men were taken away Frost bitten, but recover'd by being kept from the fire, in a warm Room & chaf'd with Snow.10
Two years later, a tragic incident occurred in the Regiment von Rhetz, illustrating the ongoing challenge of defending against the weather:
20 January 1779 - An accident was reported by an express from Captain Thomae that during the march across Lake St. Pierre eight men and two women froze to death and additionally many individuals had frozen hands and feet. Supposedly Thomae had been warned by the inhabitants not to undertake this march during such extreme cold, nor could the inhabitants be motivated to move the provisions.
22 January - ...twelve have already frozen to death and nearly thirty have frozen limbs.
23 January - At noon today Captain Rosenberg finally appeared with the complete list of the losses of 19 January, consisting of fifteen dead, two missing, fifteen seriously ill, who had to go to the hospital, ten seriously ill at the battalion, and 23 slightly ill.
27 January 1779 - All the various statements agree that this misfortune can be attributed to fate. This is all immaterial when the clothing in which we arrived in such a cold climate is taken into consideration, and even more so, that for years and years heavy clothing for this battalion has been lacking.11
1.Letters from America: Being Letters of Brunswick, Hessian, and Waldeck Officers with the British Armies during the Revolution. R. W. Pettengill, trans. 1924.
2.The Journal of Captain Pausch. Albany, 1886. A 1996 translation of the same material reads: “Everyone received a pair of long blue cloth overalls, such as the boatmen wear, high over the hips and reaching down to the shoes with a regular leggings strap, and on each side, up to the calf, a row of five buttons; one large blue woolen cap; four blue, wool-lined mittens; one large underwaistcoat with sleeves, made of a strong white wool; one Canadian overcoat, with hood and cuffs, made from white woolen blankets, with a blue stripe at the bottom of the coat. The hood and cuffs are of heavy white twilled cloth, drawn tight with a bright blue woolen tape, and are fastened down the front with three toggles. These are three rosettes made of the same cord on the coattails. This last item is called a 'Capot' everywhere in Canada.” Georg Pausch’s Journal and Reports of the Campaign in America, Bruce E. Burgoyne, trans. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc, 1996, pp. 46-47.
3.Journal of Lt. Hadden, RA. Albany, 1884.
5.Narrative of Lt. John Starke, Royal Navy. National Maritime Museum ms. 49/129.
6.Orderly Book, Lt. Col. Sir John Johnson's Company. Magazine of American History, Vol. 6, 1881, orders given in November 1776.
7.Letters from America, op. cit.
8.Journal of the sea voyage to North America and also of the campaign conducted there, 15 May 1776 to 5 October 1779. Friedrich Julius von Papet, Jr., von Rhetz regiment, translated by Bruce E. Burgoyne. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 1998.
9.Orderly Book, 29th Regiment, 9 December 1781 - 16 November 1783. Public Archive of Canada, MG23, Malcolm Fraser Papers, Vol. 28. Entry for April 28, 1782.
10.Journal of Lt. Hadden, op. cit.
11.Journal of the sea voyage..., op. cit., entry for December 14, 1776.