Military Subjects:  War of 1812

 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 15: May 2011

 

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

 

René Chartrand, A Most Warlike Appearance. Uniforms, Flags and Equipment of the United States in the War of 1812. Service Publications, Ottawa, 2011, 195 pp, 190 illustrations, ISBN 978-1-894581-58-5, $ 69.95 CA

This is the return of a classic. When this work first appeared in 1992, it was the only serious book-length examination of its subject matter available. It sold well and quickly went out of print, becoming a scarce but desirable item for all serious students of the War of 1812. A friend of mine once purchased a second-hand copy at a re-enactment event and as he walked around with it under his arm, several people offered to purchase it from him for much more than he had just paid for it–but, of course, he would not let it go. Currently, used copies of the first edition are being offered at prices varying from $100.00 to $500.00, with the average being about $300.00

This being the case, it is a cause for considerable celebration that René Chartrand has now brought out a revised and expanded new edition, which Service Publications has released in a handsome hardback for a reasonable price, considering its content. Simply put, A Most Warlike Appearance is a detailed and documented study of the uniforms, smallarms, edged weapons, accoutrements, flags and colours of the United States Army, Navy and Marine Corps and the militia and volunteers of twenty-four states or territories from 1808 to 1815. This second edition varies from the first in that Chartrand has included many new illustrations, including excellent line drawings by F.P. Todd from the Anne S.K. Brown Library, as well as two colour sections: one by Patrick Courcelle illustrating regular army uniforms of 1812-1813 and another by Herbert Knoetel depicting the wartime uniforms of the Maryland militia.

In terms of text, the treatment of the regular forces in the first edition was remarkably sound so much of the expansion in this new edition is found in the sections dealing with the state and territorial militias as well as the section covering accoutrements. Appendices contain the text of the uniform regulations for the regular army promulgated in 1812 and 1813, rank insignia for the regular army and a new addition with information on uniform and clothing issues to various regular units from 1811 to 1814.

René Chartrand is one of the most renowned and professional experts on military uniforms in both the English and French-speaking worlds. His publications-books, booklets and articles-are legion but Chartrand is much more than a "scissors and paste" author as he always provides proper context for his subject. In A Most Warlike Appearance, he includes a preliminary chapter that discusses the prewar, wartime and postwar history of the regular and militia establishments that sets what follows in its proper place and time. The sections that follow on uniforms, flags, weapons and equipment are buttressed by background material on military administration and logistics, the state of American industry and, occasionally, comparisons with the British and European armies–which Chartrand is very well equipped to make. As a case in point, when discussing the 1813 uniform regulations for the regular army, he notes that the uniforms of the infantry and artillery,

"now became one of the most sober to be found in the armies of the Napoleonic period as even facing colors were abolished. It might be said that a distinctive US national uniform had been found–an economical and practical style of dress that, nevertheless, had a quiet elegance and an air of efficiency. It was the look of soldiers of a free republic rather than the brow-beaten, be-plumed, and bedecked servants of a monarch–or so it may have seemed to some extreme patriots." (p. 44)

A Most Warlike Appearance contains some interesting and fascinating information. I have often wondered whether the current bar and double bar rank insignia for the lieutenants and captains in the American army originates in the 1812 regulations for the US light dragoons which specified that the saddle cloths of Troop Officers be

"One row of silver lace, with three bars of lace placed diagonally from the corner of the housings for Captains, one row of silver lace with two bars for Lieutenants, one row of silver lace with one bar for Cornets." (p. 187)

Another thing I found most interesting while reading the expanded chapter on state and territorial militia was the number of units that wore red uniforms. It appears that state regulations prescribed red for the militia mounted units of New York and Vermont while the colour was also an attractive alternative for volunteer units which were free to choose their own dress. In this respect, however, the Governor's Foot Guard of Connecticut outshone every other red-coated American unit as its uniform–featuring a red coat with black facings, white waistcoat and breeches, black gaiters and a tall bearskin cap with an enamelled plate-made its members appear almost exactly like British grenadiers of the American War of Independence. Thankfully, this unit never saw action as its appearance would have brought howls of laughter from British soldiers and mistaken fire from its own countrymen.

Quite simply, this A Most Warlike Appearance is indispensable for those interested in its subject matter-be they historians, figurine collectors, re-enactors, museum and historic sites staff or those interested in the material culture of the early American republic–and, as far as I am aware, has no competitor in its field. This fine reference source is available from Service Publications (www.servicepub.com) for $69.95 Canadian (the US equivalent is almost the same) and that price includes shipping and taxes where applicable.

Reviewed by Donald E. Graves



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