Breeches Buttons-
Numbered or No?
By Don Hagist, Stephen Gilbert & Todd Braisted


I have heard different opinions on whether or not British army breeches used numbered buttons, or plain ones (or even cloth-covered ones). The runaway ad below, for a soldier in an American regiment wearing captured clothing, explicitly states that the breeches had numbered buttons.

Eight Dollars Reward.
Deserted from Capt. John Burrowes $B!G (Bs company, in Col. David Forman $B!G (Bs regiment, now stationed at Freehold, a certain William Davison, a native of America, aged about twenty-eight years, five feet eight inches high, has sandy hair, blue eyes, sharp nose, red face, a large scar on one of his legs, is much given to drink; had on when he deserted, a red coat with buff coloured facings, white woolen jacket, buff breeches, (the buttons of his coat and breeches numbered thirty one) and a wool hat cocked up. Whoever apprehends said deserter and brings him to his company, or confines him in any goal so that he may be had again, shall receive the above Reward and all reasonable charges. John Burrowes, Captain.
[The Pennsylvania Packet, August 26th, 1777]

The first impression is that this passage looks like the long-awaited PROOF of
numbered breeches buttons on British soldiers, but on closer examination, this might not be too solid a proof.

There are a couple of reasons for my
hesitation:

First and foremost, our lad is not British, nor is he wearing a complete set of clothing from the 31st. He has a white jacket, not a buff waistcoat with 31st buttons like he ought. That seems a bit suspicious. We seem to have nothing about British deserters wearing their own numbered breeches buttons–please notice that it is only mismatched captured clothing in which it appears.

We can nail down several examples of Continental Army deserters wearing clothing that was probably captured at sea by John Paul Jones sometime in late 1776. We also have the following:

Webb’s Additional Regiment (Conn) wore red faced yellow from 1777 onwards. A Loyalist sergeant of the King’s American Regiment, Daniel Taylor, was taken prisoner and hanged in the famous silver bullet incident in October 1777, after mistaking Webbs’ men for advancing British forces. Might he have seen numbered buttons of uniforms of the 9th, 20th, 29th, or 34th Foot?

We have our aforementioned deserter in Foreman’s (NJ) Additional Regiment wearing numbered breeches buttons of the 31st in late August 1777. And there is additional confirmation in an extant letter from Major Asher Holmes of the New Jersey Militia to his wife Sarah, dated 6 October 1777:

“Dear Sally: The day before yesterday there was a general engagement... The battle was near Germantown. The Jersey Militia and Red Coats under Gen. Foreman, and the Maryland Militia, with some ’Listed troops under Gen. Smallwood, were on the left wing of the whole [Continental] army. We drove the enemy, when we first made the attack, but by the thickness of the fog the enemy got into our rear. Therefore, had to change our front, and then retreated until a proper place.
Gen. McDougal’s ’Listed men then formed to the left of us, and Gen. Greene’s ’Listed men to the right of us, but they all gave way except the Monmouth Militia, and Gen. Foreman’s Red Coats stood firm and advanced upon the British Red Coats, who were at least three times of our number, to a fence, when we made a stand. The fire was very severe, and the enemy ran. They brought a fieldpiece to fire on us with grapeshot, but our Monmouth men stood firm until their ammunition was nearly exhausted and the enemy advancing ’round our right flank. Gen. Foreman then ordered us to retreat, which we did in pretty good order, until our Continental troops broke and ran a second time, and their running through our men broke them entirely..."

*Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society*, New Series 7 (1922): 34-35. "Foreman's Red Coats" had seemed puzzling until now.

Members of Moylan’s (PA) 4th Continental Light Dragoons wore red coats faced blue in 1777, which indicated either the 8th or 21st Regiments of Foot.

Steven’s Independent Continental Artillery in the Northern Department wore white smallclothes with the numbered buttons “53,” possibly on both the waistcoat and breeches. This might possibly also include detached companies of Harrison’s (VA) 1st Continental Artillery Regiment. This is gained from deserter descriptions and archeologically-recovered buttons from Fort Stanwix. Steve Gilbert has transcribed a 1777 return of bales of clothing in James Van Rensselear’s store at Albany which included uniform components of the 29th, “Sir Guy Carleton’s” (probably the 47th) and 53rd.

Henley’s Additional Regiment (Mass) had a 1777 deserter who wore a red coat faced with light blue. No mention of numbered buttons.

So obviously, a good many uniforms of the Northern British Army wound up worn by Rebels in 1777. Odd then, that only two descriptions mention buttons on Continentally-used breeches, and one of those still needs reexamination of the original source (ie. Steven’s Artillery).
Other captured uniforms of British regiments do not appear on Continental deserters, even though this clothing was known to be captured and utilized (ie the 40th clothing captured in summer 1775).

So although the deserter description presented above is admittedly significant, we ought to consider it inconclusive until more evidence turns up.

The descriptions do not consistently support the idea of numbered buttons on all British breeches, though based on some second-hand transcriptions, they may have been used by the 31st and 53rd.

We have to seriously wonder if uniforms came straight from Britain with buttons already attached from Britain? Why would tailors waste the effort when the garments would have to be partially taken apart and fitted again? Or, were they merely loosely thonged on in order to prevent loss before the retailoring process? Kegs of new buttons might just as easily have been shipped in the same vessel, and desperate Continentals might have attached anything handy for buttons in early and mid-1777.