1775-1776: The hunting shirts of used by the Virginia regiments of 1775 were made of osnaburg and had differing finishing details to designate rank and regiment. Research seems to indicate that during the Revolutionary War, “hunting shirt” indicated an open front garment. They would become a defining feature of the early regimental clothing, as Colonel Woodford and others would refer to the soldiers as “shirtmen”.
Most of the exact finishing details come not from the 2d Virginia Regiment’s orderly book, or the orderly book for the regiments encamped at College Camp, but from another Virginia regiment that was serving in the same place during this time, the 6th Virginia Regiment. As there were several general orders being made in regards to all of the regiments at College Camp, the use of short round hats with black binding for instance, it stands to reason that the general construction techniques were the same and that they differed only in regimental distinctions.
The 2d Virginia Regiment’s hunting shirts were most definitely purple and made from osnaburg, however that is all that is known of their appearance from their own orderly book: “It is Expected that each Capt. will with all Expedition Provide Legins for his men & hunting shirts Dy’d of a purple Coulour…” (Orderly Book of the 2d Virginia Regiment, October 27, 1775) The fabric used and the fact that the men made these shirts themselves is clearly established by several orders and draws of cloth:
Thread Sufficient for the purpose must be Drawn, at the same Time as much as will make each Soldier a Hunting Shirt
Orderly Book of the 2d Virginia Regiment, October 11, 1775
Capt George Johnston Dr P order Colo. Woodford…To 4 yards oznabr. For H. shirts @ 1/6
Captn William Taliaferro Dr P order Colo Woodford…137 yards Oznabr. Hunting Shts @ 1/6
Virginia Public Store Day Book, November 6, 1775
The orderly book of the 6th Virginia Regiment provides more detail: “…a hunting shirt well made and short just to come below the waistband of the breeches…” (Orderly Book of the 6th Virginia Regiment, 26 March 1776 to 26 January 1778, American Collection, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. September 11, 1776) Rank apparently also was denoted by finishing details, for this entry goes on to say that the shirts (for the 6th Virginia Regiment) were to be: “Cuffed and Caped with red. The Serjts to be only cuffed with red. the Drummers and fifers to be white & cuffed with brown the Corporals shirts to be the same as the mens but they are to get some red twist & I will put then in the way of making a knot…” Unfortunately, the same extrapolation cannot be made to the what the 2d Virginia Regiment may have done for rank designations as their shirts were entirely one color, therefore there is no contrasting color to use to designate who the sergeants were.
The only additional piece of information is that in March 1776 that money would be provided for their addition: “The Committee allow Cuffs and Capes to be added to the Hunting Shirts of the regular’s at the expense of the Country.” which could be interpreted to mean that contrasting cuffs and capes were to be added (a common detail of Virginia Continental hunting shirts in 1776).
1777-1778: The 2d Virginia Regiment was completely suppled with new regimental coats at the expense of Colonel William Spotswood when they joined the Main Army in 1777 and no mention of hunting shirts are made in the clothing returns of late 1777 or early 1778. There are only two apparent references during this period:
Deserted from capt. John Willis’s company, on their march to the Northward, a soldier by the name of Jos: Bryant, who lives in the upper end of Westmoreland, and frequently to be seen at mr. Benjamin Johnston’s ordinary, where he was enlisted. He is a well made man, with a dark skin, and black hair, about 5 feet 9 or 10 inches high ; had on when he deserted a dark hunting shirt.
Alexander Purdie, Virginia Gazette, April 11, 1777
Henry Mace, a Private, 5 feet 8 inches high, well set, fair faced, hand a blue hunting Shirt when he went off…
Dixon and Hunter, Virginia Gazette, September 5, 1777
It should be noted that of the thirteen men mentioned in the September 1777 deserter advertisement, Mace is the only one mentioned wearing a hunting shirt and five others are described as wearing regimental coats. It is quite possible that these hunting shirts were leftovers from 1775-1776 as “dark” could describe purple and “blue” could be a faded purple shirt. For these reasons, we do not currently use hunting shirts in our 1777-1778 impression other than as something to be loaned to a new recruit for their first few events.
Watercolor by Jean-Baptiste Antoine de Verger
1778-1780: In October 1778, a large quantity of French-made regimental coats were delivered and issued to the Continental Army with enough of a surplus that a second issue was made again in November 1779, “I must first request of you not to permit one of the men to wear their new clothes until the huts are done…” (Febiger Letter Book, 1778-1780, November 30, 1779, Historical Society of Pennsylvania).
The French and state issued bounty clothing issued in 1778 must not have been durable, as in the period between its issue and late 1779, the Virginians were frequently described as being in poor clothing, which was supplemented with hunting shirts:
General Anthony Wayne comments to Washington in September 1779 that the clothing of the Light Infantry was “very ragged — especially the Virginia Line whose coats are so worn out that they are Obliged to Substitute Linen hunting Shirts”
Head Quarters, West Point, September 28, 1779.
My Lord: I have your favr. of the 27th. Supposing the Continental Cloathing delivered to the Virginia line last Fall to be of equal quality with that delivered to the other part of the Army, they ought now to be in better condition than any other troops, as they had [at the same time contrary to my judgment and express desire] a very considerable quantity of state Cloathing in addition to the Continental [which I was sure coming altogether would be misapplied and avail them little].
I have directed Mr. Wilkinson the new Cloathier General who is gone to the Eastward to send immediately forward all the woolen Cloathing of every kind. The moment it arrives it shall be delivered to those most in want. I hope we shall have a sufficiency of Body Cloathing, but in Blankets [and Hats], notwithstanding my repeated remonstrances, I fear we shall fall short. I do not know what stock of shoes are on hand, but I imagine not great. I will write to the Cloathier and know, and will order a due proportion to your division. I hope the new arrangement of the Cloathing department will put it upon a better footing than it has heretofore been. It has occasioned more trouble to me, and has given more disgust to the Officers than any one thing besides in the service.
George Washington to William Alexander, Lord Stirling, September 28, 1779. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor
The common hunting shirt later in the war was open in the front, had a single cape, a simple cuff and light fringe as illustrated in the watercolor by Jean-Baptiste Antoine de Verger, a sublieutenant in the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment that took part in the siege of Yorktown and painted several American soldiers.