For all the branches of the military in the 19th century, pride of profession was outwardly manifested by a splendid uniform. Officers reinforced their place in the service’s hierarchy by wearing clothing that suited their status as leaders and gentlemen.
American naval officers were always anxious about their appearance. Their frequent interactions with foreign dignitaries and military officers made them realize that although they represented a republican government, they needed at least some of the trappings of monarchy in their uniforms if they were to garner respect and cooperation in far off ports.
The first U.S. Navy uniforms authorized in 1794 and again in 1797 were austere and plain. As Secretary of War Henry Knox explained in a letter to President Washington, “an Idea was held out for embroidery; but I have suggested the impropriety of that additional and expensive ornament for a Republican Navy- It has therefore been left out.”1 Coats of blue and buff cloth, with gilt buttons, were thought sufficiently elaborate for the very small officer corps.
By the turn of the 19th century, however, naval officers began to agitate for something more elaborate and navy-like. In 1801 the Jefferson administration sent a squadron to the Mediterranean, and for the first time American naval officers came into close and frequent contact with both their British and French counterparts. These nations had long naval traditions and the officers of both services wore expensive, and in the case of the French, dazzling uniforms of blue, white, and gold.
In August 1802, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith revised the U.S. Navy’s uniform regulations. The new uniforms included a profusion of gold “lace,” or gilt metallic wire braid, gilt buttons, and the coveted blue and white color scheme. While the cut and details shifted slightly with changes in civilian fashion over the next decade, this was the uniform worn at the beginning of the War of 1812.
Many senior officers had their portraits painted wearing their best dress uniforms, but perhaps the best record of what these looked like comes from the hand of French émigré artist Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Using an optical device called a “physiognotrace” he created some of the most accurate and delightful portraits of the period. His portrait portfolios are a veritable who’s who of the early Republic. Included among the many merchants, politicians, bankers, and assorted rich men and women, we find the profiles of a good number of naval officers.
The compilation of images above shows the uniforms of all the different grades of officers in the U.S. Navy between 1802 and 1814. Starting from the left, we have Captain John Dent, wearing a captain’s uniform with fully laced collar and lapels and two epaulets. Oddly, the 1802 regulations say nothing about the uniform of a master commandant, but from descriptions and subsequent uniform regulations, we know that Master Commandant John Cassin is wearing the proper uniform for his rank. Virtually the same as a captain’s uniform, the only difference is his epaulet; instead of wearing one on each shoulder, he only wears one on the right. Next comes James Lawrence, dressed in the uniform of a lieutenant commandant–that is, a lieutenant in command of his own vessel. Like the master commandant, he wears a single epaulet on the right shoulder. Lieutenant Ralph Izard sports a single epaulet on the left shoulder, signaling that he is a subordinate lieutenant on board a larger vessel (Saint-Mémin always depicted his sitter from the side with the epaulet!). Dr. John Bullus wears a surgeon’s uniform with its complex embroidery around the buttons holes. Purser John H. Carr also sports embroidery on his collar, in this case an oak leaf and acorn motif. The final portrait is not by Saint-Mémin, but by an unknown miniaturist.2 It depicts Midshipman Samuel Elbert in his dress uniform.
Early navy aficionados will see that we are missing both a surgeon’s mate and a sailing master to round out this collection. Unfortunately, no image of either of these officers in an 1802 regulation uniform has yet come to light.
As this glittering assemblage makes clear, a sailor needed to have an intimate acquaintance with different button, lace, and epaulet configurations (and good eyesight!) to discern a particular officer’s rank. To make matters even more confusing, most officers wore an “undress” uniform at sea, a plain, stripped down version of the dress uniform. Gold lace and epaulets cost a small fortune, and no frugal sea officer would dare spoil them with salt spray and sunshine.
1 Henry Knox to George Washington, July 25, 1794, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799; Series 4. General Correspondence, 1697-1799. This austerity harkens back to a resolution of Congress in February 1781: “Resolved, That after the first day of January next, no officer whatsoever in the service of the United States shall in any of them wear on his clothes any gold or silver lace, embroidery or vellum other than as Congress or the commander-in-chief of the army or navy shall direct for the uniform of the corps, and badges to distinguish officers.” Secret Journals of Congress, vol. I, p. 184.
2 From the Navy Art Collection.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.