The Sergeant Major during the American Revolution. The Forgotten Soldier?

Submitted by Brian VandePolder 2nd Penn'a Reg't

My interest in the Sergeant Major started in 1982 when the 2nd Penn'a was being formed and I was doing research on the regiment. It peaked when I was promoted to Chief Petty Officer (the Navy's equivalent to Sergeant Major) in the Naval Reserve in 1985. I decided to investigate whether the Sergeant Major may have been attached to specific companies since there seemed to be no provision for a sergeant major to have berthing separate from other nco's. There is an abundance of documentation on the duties of the Sergeant Major at the regimental level; there seems to be little documentation on his uniform, distinctions, and possible other duties related to training and/or at the Company level or Brigade level. The comments in the first paragraph indicates that there is little known about the Sergeant Major, and other officers and non-commissioned officers. In order for us to serve the purpose of the NWTA or other Living History organization, we need to research and bring to light what we can about persons, event, etc., that we do not recreate as well as those we do. It is not my intent to answer all of the questions, but to whet the appetite of the researcher to continue this endeavor. I will leave you with more questions unanswered than I started with.


Simes and Steuben have described the duties of the sergeant major as the assistant to the Adjutant, passing down the Colonel's orders to the companies, counting off the regiment, and seeing that guards are properly mounted. As the senior nco of a regiment, he is to to see that the junior nco's are properly prepared for their duties and perform them properly without bias to the private soldiers.

Cuthbertson also adds that the sergeant major is responsible for the proper training of new recruit before they are sent to their companies. According to Simes and Steuben, the sergeant major is responsible for the training of new officers and recruits. Drill Sergeants and Corporals were assigned from the companies for the task of training the new recruit The Major was responsible for training new officers before they went to their companies. The Sergeant Major or another Sergeant would most likely be assigned that task under the supervision of the Major (author's conclusion).

Simes and Steuben both state the Adjutant and the Sergeant Major are responsible for counting off the battalion. In the formation of the battalion, the Adjutant has a specific location in Steuben's charts. Where is the Sergeant Major after the regiment is properly formed? Could he be one of the Sergeants used as file closer? Does he leave the parade ground? There is one company on Steuben's chart that shows two corporals as file closers. I assume this is the position that normally would be filled by the Quartermaster Sergeant if he were required to form with the Regiment (author's conclusion). If my conclusion is correct, does the Sergeant Major also serve as first or Orderly Sergeant in one of the companies? To support my conclusion, I have to go to the Pennsylvania Archives. The unit return for May 3, 1778 for Jacob Ashmead's Company, 2nd Penn'a Reg't shows Thomas Parker (Sergeant Major). On the unit return for July 1778 for Jacob Ashmead's Company, 2nd Penn'a Reg't shows Thomas Wallace (Quartermaster Sergeant). These are the only returns we have found that show staff ncos on Company returns.

In a number of British Regiments of Foot, the Sergeant Major was not listed separately, but was listed as one of the sergeants in one of the companies per the regimental returns. Sergeant Majors can also sometimes be identified by other documents, such as testimony at a court-martials.


Steuben's Drill Manual shows a two battalion camp layout with the Adjutant camped in the center of one battalion and the Sergeant Major camped in the center of the other battalion. In Steuben's single battalion layout with the Adjutant camped in the center of the battalion, but no mention of the where the Sergeant Major was quartered. Did the Sergeant Major and other staff ncos sleep in the tents on "Sergeants Row" with the Company Sergeants? Cuthbertson states that the Sergeant Major should not be garrisoned with any other NCO; except possibly the Quartermaster Sergeant if it was absolutely necessary. Steuben's chart shows one Sergeant's tent for each company. If the companies were at full strength, each tent would house 3 Sergeants plus 4 tents would house 4 Sergeants (the Sergeant Major, Quartermaster Sergeant, Drum Major and Fife Major would each have to added to the existing tent space).

Uniform & Distinctions

Up to this point the differences between the British Sergeant Major and the Continental Sergeant Major have been minor. From this point on, the differences are severe.

In describing the British Sergeant Major's uniform, I will first describe the Sergeant's uniform and then the Sergeant Major's items of distinction. The coat was of finer quality than that of the rank and file with plain white lace. The hat was trimmed in silver lace. A sash of red worsted wool with a stripe of the regiment's facing color down the middle was worn around his waist. The Sergeant carried a sword as a badge of office and early in the war carried a halberd. Sergeant Majors seem to have worn their swords on a baldric (Kehoe and Minorca paintings). During the war, halberds were replaced by carbines or muskets (Howe). Gloves were worn by the sergeants while under arms (Cuthbertson). In some regiments, the Sergeant Major's uniform was different in that the lace on his uniform was silver as opposed to the plain white of a Sergeant (Cox & Meyer Ledgers). Some Sergeant Major also wore epaulettes on regimental facing color and trimmed in silver (Advice).

The uniform of the Sergeant in the Continental Army prior to 1779 was of a finer quality than that of the rank and file. The Sergeants were to wear an epaulet on their right shoulder made of red. They were to carry a sword as part of their insignia of rank. Halberds were carried at the start of the war, but were later replaced by muskets After 1778, the red epaulet was replaced by two white epaulettes worn on each shoulder (Schott).

The uniform for the Sergeant Major in the Continental Army is difficult to document. The following information is unique to specific units. The Sergeant Major in the First New York Regiment in 1775 had gold buttons, coat turnbacks and shoulder straps were edged with narrow silver lace. Sergeant Major Younglove of the Third New Jersey Regiment in 1776 had a gold hat cord and turned back in the silver lace that was intended for his coat (Brigade Dispatch, Autumn 1995), (Revwar listserv). According to the Uniform Regulations of 1779, the Sergeant Major may have worn a red sash and continued to carry a halberd instead of a musket. In 1780 Wayne requested silver binding for the sergeants hats (Revwar listserv).


Based on my research to-date the Sergeant Major in the Continental Army was a full-time duty in large Regiments or, also served as First Sergeant in one of the Companies in undermanned regiments. He was quartered with the other Sergeants. He wore the same uniform as the other Sergeants with the addition of gold or silver cording on his hat, gold or silver buttons, wore a red sash, and carried a halberd. My research into the Sergeant Major has brought me to the conclusion that more research needs to be done. Sergeant William Burke, USA (Retired), would you care to take up the gauntlet?


Advice to the Officer of the British Army, 6th Edition, [reprint Folump Publishing, 1994] London: Richardson, 1783.

Cox and Meyet Ledgers of the 55th Foot 1775-1780. Lloyds of London Archival Collection.

Cuthbertson, Capt. Bennett, A System for the Complete Interior Management and Economy of a Battalion of Infantry [reprint King's Arms Press, 1994] Dublin [n.p.], 1768

Kehoe, Vincent. A Military Guide, v.2. published by author. 1994.

Lefferts, Lieutenant Charles M, "Royal Warrants. His Majesty's Warrant for the Regulation of the Colours, Clothing, etc. of the Marching Regiments of Foot. Miscellany Book Clothing Correspondence, 19 December 1768", Uniforms of the American, British, French and German Armies in the War of the American Revolution 1775-1783, W E Inc, Old Greenwich, Conn, 1926.

Montgomery, Thomas Lynch (ed), Pennsylvania Archives, Series V, Harrisburg, Publishing Company State printer, 1906.

Schott, Major John Paul, Rank and Other Things, Champaign, IL, Merde Press, 1978.

Simes, Thomas, The Regulator or Instructions to Form the Officer and Complete the Soldier, [reprint Merde Press, 1980], London [n.p.], 1780.