Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What Did Alexander Hamilton Wear for His Wedding to Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Susan reporting, 

This post appeared earlier this fall on the blog that's connected to my web site, but since it was so popular there, I decided to share it here, too.

In early December 1780, Lt. Col, Alexander Hamilton finally received leave from his position as an aide-de-camp on Gen. Washington's staff, and headed north to Albany, NY to marry his fiancee Elizabeth Schuyler. It was his first leave away from the army since accepting the post in 1777. The young lieutenant colonel had performed his responsibilities so well that he'd become virtually indispensable to His Excellency, who only grudgingly granted the leave, and only for a few short weeks at that.

The wedding was small family affair, with the service taking in the parlor of The Pastures, the Schuyler family home overlooking the Hudson River. There are no surviving records of what either the bride or groom wore for the ceremony, or for the celebration that likely took place afterwards. The description of Eliza's gown that you'll find in my historical novel I, Eliza Hamilton is drawn from a suggestion for bridal dress for a fashionable winter wedding in a 1780 copy of The Lady's Magazine, the Georgian precursor of magazines like Vogue, and I also consulted with Janea Whitacre, the Mistress of the Mantua-Making Trade at Colonial Williamsburg.

In a letter that Alexander wrote to Eliza shortly before embarking for Albany, he asked if she'd prefer him to wear his uniform for their wedding, or civilian clothes. Alas, her reply is lost, so it's not known what decision she made for her groom. I'm guessing that she chose his military attire, given that it was a war-time wedding.

None of Alexander's uniforms from the Revolution are known to survive today. Uniforms from the war saw considerable hard wear, and only a handful from the entire Continental Army still exist. Among them is the uniform, above left, that was worn by another of Washington's aides-de-camp, and one of Alexander's close friends, Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman (1744-1786) of Maryland. As shown on a museum mannequin, the uniform is missing some key elements: a white linen shirt, gold officer's epaulettes, a sword and sword belt, boots, cocked hat, and the green ribbon sash worn by members of the general's staff. The portrait, above right, shows Gen. Washington himself, with the Marquis de Lafayette in the middle, and Lt. Col. Tilghman to the right, all in uniform.

Alexander's uniform at the time of the wedding was likely very similar. The miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale of Alexander, below left, shows him in that uniform.

Now I have a totally unsubstantiated theory about this particular miniature: that Eliza may have seen it at some point during their courtship, and that perhaps Alexander even offered it to her, but that she rejected it for some reason - perhaps as not being worthy of her beloved. During the summer of 1780, he had another miniature painted at her request, showing him looking much more conventionally handsome and in civilian dress: see it here.

In any event, the epaulettes shown in the photo, lower right, did in fact belong to Alexander, and may well have been the same ones shown in the miniature portrait. Epaulettes were a relatively new feature of military dress in the 1770s, and were worn to make officers more visible to their men in battle. They were also considered to have less of the aristocratic baggage of the ribbons and sashes traditionally worn by British officers, and therefore were embraced by the Continental Army as being more democratic.

I saw Alexander's epaulettes on display this past summer at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, VA. Even though the gallery was in half-light to protect the artifacts (and make the photos fuzzy!), the gold bullion still glittered despite being more than two centuries old. Imagine how those golden epaulettes and rows of polished buttons must have sparkled on Alexander's coat in the sunny parlor during the wedding, and imagine, too, how wonderfully dazzled Eliza must have been by her groom. Ahh, the sartorial power of a man in uniform....

Above left: Uniform worn by Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman, c1777. 
Above right: Washington, Lafayette, and Tilghman at Yorktown, by Charles Willson Peale, 1784.          Both from the collections of the Maryland Historical Society; images from Maryland Historical Society.
Lower left: Miniature portrait of Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, by Charles Willson Peale,, 1777, Museum of the City of New York.
Lower right: Epaulettes Belong to Alexander Hamilton, c1777-1783, The Society of the Cincinnati. Photograph by Susan Holloway Scott.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.


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