Exclusive–O’Donnell: Conquer or Die, Washington’s Elite Guard

Flag of the Life Guard
Wikipedia

Almost one hundred years before the establishment of the United States Secret Service, the American Revolution’s indispensable man, General George Washington, was guarded by an elite unit of trusted soldiers, known as his Life Guard, who protected the commander in chief as well as performed special missions and engaged in battle.  

At 12:00 sharp on March 12, 1776, a line of soldiers stood ramrod-straight as snow gathered on their coats and cold wind bit their faces, awaiting inspection outside Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, The Vassall House. Washington walked deliberately through the ranks of men, hand-picked by their commanding officers, four from each regiment, searching for a specific type and look he required for this small specialized unit. 

Known for his excellent instincts in selecting the right men for positions, Washington had specified to his officers in a general order the day before precisely what he was looking 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 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…The General neither wants them with uniforms nor arms, nor does he desire any man to be sent to him that is not perfectly willing or desirous of being in this Guard.” In addition, the general wanted men familiar with the field drills of the day, combat veterans preferred. 

Once the initial approximately fifty members of the guard had been selected, Washington chose a Marbleheader, Captain Caleb Gibbs, to forge the men into an elite unit. As adjutant officer, Gibbs had made an indelible impression on the commander in chief while the Marblehead Regiment bivouacked at the Vassall House. The full story of this remarkable unit is now told in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of this regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts, a unique largely unknown group of Americans who changed the course of history. In addition to Gibbs’ appointment, Washington made his nephew George Lewis the second-in-command of the Life Guard and gave both commanders the authority to issue orders on his behalf and enlisted their help in writing his letters. 

Officially titled the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, the group was also sometimes referred to as His Excellency’s Guard, Generals Guard, or often the Life Guards. The unit’s initial fifty soldiers grew by 1777 to include eight officers, a fife and drum, and fifty rank and file. Eventually, the unit ballooned to over two hundred men. Enlisted members of the Life Guard included men of such varied backgrounds as Private Carswell Gardner, who had just returned to his unit after a daring escape from a British warship, and 21-year-old Marblehead private and Bunker Hill veteran James Knox to Irish-born Sergeant Thomas Hickey, a British deserter. 

The impressive unit carried the commander in chief’s own distinctive flag allegedly designed by Washington himself—a blue silk square with thirteen six-pointed stars that matched the stars on Washington’s epaulet—and their own banner, with a guard in a buckskin hat holding the bridle of a horse next to Lady Liberty and the motto “Conquer or Die” written in a scroll across the top. They donned flashy blue-and-buff jackets worn with single-breasted red vests with twelve gilt buttons, buckskin breeches, black shoes, and white bayonet holders and belts. Their black hats were festooned with white tape, and later wore bearskin or leather headgear. Officers were distinguished by their black knee-high boots, epaulets across their uniforms, cockades in their hats, and rapiers or short swords on their left sides.

Gibbs and his unit were charged with the commander in chief’s protection, but also with the managing of his expenses, receipt book, and his personal baggage, including a war chest which a Life Guard sentinel monitored at all times. They covered everything from mundane personal finance to spies on the payroll. When the army moved, the baggage traveled with the guard in a series of wagons.

Like today’s Secret Service, the Life Guard also trained for threats on the commander in chief’s life and provided security for his headquarters. Wherever Washington headquartered, either in commandeered mansions or, when in the field, in elaborate tents, two of the Life Guards always stood at attention at the entrance and two guards posted in the rear of Washington’s office. The guard also patrolled the perimeter of the camp, drilled, and had contingency plans in place in case of an enemy attack. 

When the Continental Army marched, erecting Washington’s headquarters tent and setting up camp equipage fell on the shoulders of his guard. Three impressive two-layer, elaborately decorated white and canvas marquees enabled the gentleman planter to camp in grand style. One marquee acted as a two-room sleeping quarters, a second as baggage storage, and the third as an office and dining room.

Washington’s management style placed a great deal of emphasis on appearance as well as dining and personal engagement. The guard adapted to his daily routine. Rising as early as 4:00 a.m., Washington performed various tasks and worked on administrative issues until 3:00 p.m., when dinner was served. His table could include twelve or more officers, their wives, congressional delegates, and foreign observers as the war progressed. Dinner could last hours.

The meal of chicken, beef, goose, or other food procured from locals would be served on fine china with silver and washed down with Madeira, tea, cider, and rum. If time permitted, an after-dinner meal consisting of leftovers and small dishes served around 7:30 p.m. might be included as well. Captain Gibbs managed the housekeeper and cooks, as well as serving as an entertaining dinner guest. One officer’s wife recalled Gibbs as “a good-natured Yankee [known for his singing] who make a thousand blunders in the Yankee stile[sic] and keeps the dinner table in a constant laugh.”

Washington hand-picked Gibbs and his aides-de-camp for their military acumen as well as their intelligence, strong writing skill, and social graces. Assisted by his aides, Washington took advantage of dinner to talk business and probe for information. A typical dinner invitation read, “His Excellency requests the favor of your company at dinner tomorrow if you are not engaged. At any rate he wishes to see you sometime tomorrow without fail, and that you will bring with you an accurate state of the troops under your command, and also of Major Porter’s command.”

Eventually, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard would undertake the crucial task of imbuing the Continental Army with standardized tactics and discipline missing in the ragtag American force and would play a pivotal role in an attempt on the commander in chief’s life. But at its origins, the guard and its hand-picked Indispensable Marblehead commander had the sacred duty of protecting and aiding American’s indispensable man.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian

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