military uniforms

Major John Andre’s mysterious white braid

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On the slight chance that you've been watching TURN in an isolated vacuum or have only seen the episodes that don't feature Major John Andre as a major character, I'm referring to the strange little white braid seen here.
Just in case you’ve been watching TURN in hermetic isolation or have only seen the episodes that don’t feature Major John Andre as a main character, I’m referring to the little white braid seen here.

Here it is, readers: the oft-requested, long-awaited Braid Post. Major Andre’s mysterious white braid has been the subject of heated discussion among TURN viewers since day one, who — regardless if they love it or hate it — are dying to find historical justification for its appearance in the show.  If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned John Andre’s braid in their discussion of TURN, I might have enough money to buy my own cabbage farm on modern-day Long Island.  (Although, since I’m more of a Major Hewlett-esque oenophile, I’d probably opt for a vineyard instead).

The reason why I haven’t previously posted anything about The Braid is because my own searches for historical justification had been coming up short for weeks.  (Well, actually, I did find a similar braid, but needless to say, it didn’t exactly have an 18th century provenance.)

After sifting through scores of contemporary images — including French fashion plates, satirical macaroni prints, British officer portraits, and even Native American hairstyles — I found nothing resembling the curious, tightly-braided strand that, by all appearances, seems grafted onto either Major Andre’s scalp or his natural hair.  (I suppose it could also be his natural hair that he had somehow bleached white, but that would be an even stranger explanation.)

In this still from the first episode of TURN, you can see both of Andre's braids. Click to enlarge.
In this still from the first episode of TURN, you can see both of Andre’s braids. Click to enlarge.

Plenty of 18th century wigs AND natural hairstyles featured braided queues, of course — but nothing like the tiny silver braid running down the side of Andre’s head.  As we can see in the screencap to the right, Andre’s “side-braid” is not the same as the braided queue on his dress wig.

While the widespread lack of evidence does show that these little braids were not fashionable or popular during the American Revolution, I figured that the production team at AMC must have seen something that inspired them to include such a conspicuous and unusual fashion accessory for Major Andre’s character.  So I held off on writing a post about The Braid, and kept searching.

Finally, I happened upon an obscure painting in the collection of the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, titled “A Soldier, called Major John Andre.”  Lo and behold, there appears to be a tiny silver plait running behind the subject’s left ear!  Mystery solved!  Historical justification for Major Andre’s braid in TURN.  It’s an open-and-shut case, right?

JA_highres
“A soldier called Major John Andre,” from the collection of the Huntington Library in San Mateo, CA. Analysis by British military historians has determined that this painting is NOT the Major John Andre of Revolutionary War fame. Click to enlarge.

Well… not entirely.  For one thing, this isn’t actually John Andre.  Not the John Andre we’re all thinking of, anyway.

If you look at the catalog entry for this painting on the Huntington Library’s website, you’ll see that the artist, the provenance, and even the date of the painting are all unknown.  We do know, however, that John Andre belonged to the 7th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Royal Fusileers (or Fuzileers, if you use the preferred 18th century spelling). So if this IS the John Andre we’re familiar with, he should be wearing a Royal Fuzileers uniform appropriate to the era of the American Revolution.

Fortunately for us, several years ago this portrait came to the attention of a select group of historians who specialize in 18th century British military history and are perfectly capable of answering any uniform-related questions: William P. Tatum III, Justin Clement, Christian Cameron, and Professor Gregory Urwin of Temple University.  Drawing upon their encyclopedic knowledge of British regiments, they weighed in on the subject of the painting and concluded that it was not Major John Andre of the 7th Regiment of Foot.  I am indebted to Will Tatum for providing me with the following list, which sums up their main reasons:

  1. The lace on the regimental coat is the wrong metal– the 7th Royal Fuzileers had gold lace, while this officer has silver.
  2. The buttons are in pairs, a practice that is as yet undocumented to the 7th Regiment during the period in question, and which in general is more indicative of a later-war or into the 1780s date.
  3. The wing [patch] on the shoulder, while appropriate for light infantry, features the three feathers of the Prince of Wales.  This was a special insignia reserved for a short list of regiments that enjoyed the Prince’s patronage — a list which did not include the 7th Regiment.
  4. The helmet is of the so-called Tarleton style, so identified because Banastre Tarleton sports one in his British Legion portrait. This one includes a leopard-skin turban, usually seen on Light Dragoons. The helmet does not match the style of light infantry cap authorized for British troops by the 1771 Light Infantry warrant [regulations], nor does it correlate with any of the non-regulation hat-caps and other light infantry headgear that have been documented to this period.  There is some suspicion that the Tarleton Cap became the accepted light infantry cap after 1784, but there is as yet no hard documentation to back this idea up. Since the Tarleton Cap was a mid-war innovation, its presence suggests that the portrait dates from after 1777.
  5. Also notable is the portrait’s background: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  This would be a strange choice for Andre, who served exclusively in America.
  6. Finally (though this point might be debatable), the facial features of this sitter don’t match well against other purported portraits of Andre that have superior provenance.

As you can see, the devil is in the details.  In this case, the details overwhelmingly prove that the officer in this painting did NOT belong to the 7th Royal Fuzileers, and is NOT Major John Andre of Revolutionary fame. (Hopefully the above list will also help dispel any lingering Hollywood-fueled notions that “all Redcoat uniforms were the same.”)

It’s quite possible that this painting is of another completely unrelated British soldier named John Andre, which was not an especially unique name in late 18th century Britain.  It’s also quite possible that this painting was mistakenly mislabeled sometime in its shrouded history.  Either way, there is little doubt that this painting was the inspiration for Major Andre’s braid in TURN — so at least that mystery has been solved.  It is also clear that this painting does not provide solid historical justification for the way Andre’s braid is depicted in the show.  Regardless of the soldier’s identity in this painting, it is clear that the little braid is part of his wig, not grafted onto his natural hair or scalp.  As we see in the pictures above, the designers went out of their way to show that the little braid is a separate entity.  Even if Major Andre’s braid has some creative backstory that is slated to be revealed on a future episode TURN, it is clearly an example of historical fiction, not historical fashion.

So there you have it, readers — hopefully the above foray into historical fashion has shed some light on one of the most elusive and talked-about depictions of material culture in TURN thus far. (The other one being, of course, Abe Woodhull’s wool cap.)  Spread the word!  And if you have any more questions or braid-theories, send them this way via the ask page, tumblr, or Twitter.  And don’t forget to follow along for the live-blogging on tumblr and Twitter tonight!

-RS