At the dawn of the Revolutionary War, it became clear to George Washington that he needed personal protection. He formed the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard in March of 1776. The guard was his personal security service similar in many ways to today’s Secret Service. To lead the guard he chose Marblehead’s Caleb Gibbs, who greatly admired Washington, but it was not always an easy relationship.
Fifty-eight men were assigned to the guard, and Gibbs ran it for nearly four years. Originally from Newport, Gibbs had moved to Marblehead where he served in Glover’s Regiment. He fought at Lexington, Mass. at the start of the war, and came to Washington’s attention during the siege of Boston while Washington stayed in Cambridge. Washington was impressed with Gibbs’ ability to create order and his command presence. He appointed him captain of his new guard.
Made up of four corporals, four sergeants and 50 rank and file, the guard originally served as Washington’s security detail. But Gibbs soon took on the role of managing Washington’s household, as well, as he moved southward from Cambridge during the Revolution.
Guns and Butlers
Washington had the guard outfitted to dress like him, in buff and blue, and he demanded the men adhere to high standards of personal conduct. And Gibbs had the curious responsibility of running a military unit whose duties overlapped with the household staff.
In May of 1777, Washington tasked Gibbs with procuring a steward for his household: “If you could get a man who had been employed in that capacity, or as a Butler in a Gentleman’s Family and who could be well recommended and by such as may be depended upon for his honesty—Sobriety—and care, he would answer the purpose much better than a mere greenhorn.”
Washington went on to note that his own servants “stand so much in need of being checked for their extravagance, and roguery, in making away with Liquors, & other Articles laid in for the use of the Family.”
The assignment was one of dozens given to Gibbs, such as procuring salt, flower, wine and socks – all in short supply during the war.
Caleb Gibbs in the Soup
By October of 1779, Washington and Gibbs had fallen out. Washington had reduced the number of officers in the guard. Though still serving in his position, Gibbs and Washington apparently had a disagreement about a tent, and Gibbs was no longer dining with Washington.
In a letter discussing the matter, Washington writes: “What Major Gibbs’s plan is, and what his present line of conduct tends to, I shall not take upon me to decide; nor shall I at this moment enquire into them —I mean to act coolly & deliberately myself, and will therefore give him an opportunity of recollecting himself. He has been guilty of a piece of disrespect; to give it no worse a term—such an one, as I much question if there is another officer in the line of the army would have practiced: and because I would not suffer my orders to be trampled upon; a supercilious, and self-important conduct on his part is the consequence.”
The matter blew over, and Gibbs apparently returned to the dinner table and continued rendering loyal service. In October of 1780 he even dipped into his own funds for $1,600 to pay Washington’s household expenses at a time when the army was short of funds.
Washington, meanwhile, tolerated Gibbs’ shortcomings. He was apparently not fully versed in how to run a proper household, which made him something of a curiosity to Washington’s southern society friends. Yet he made up for his weaknesses with a wonderful sense of humor and a love of singing.
Martha Daingerfield Bland wrote of him: “Capt. Gibbs of the General’s Guard (is) a good natured Yankee who makes a thousand blunders in the Yankee style and keeps the dinner table in constant laugh.”
At the Close of War
Gibbs eventually transferred out of Washington’s personal guard, possibly because he wanted a more active assignment. He continued serving in the Army and suffered wounds at the Battle of Yorktown.
After the war, Gibbs suffered some setbacks. He struggled to find work. At one point he wrote to Washington asking to be repaid money that he had advanced the household during the war, bemoaning that “The unequal distribution of this world’s goods amongst mankind make it necessary for those in a dependent Line to look seriously about them for the mere comforts and necessaries of life.”
Washington advocated for Gibbs several times. He nominated him for a post in the Army, but Gibbs had apparently rubbed some in Congress the wrong way. The nomination was blocked.
Secretary of War James McHenry told Washington that, while Gibbs might have made a good officer, he could not back him. He wrote: “it is a fact, that his character is very low in Boston, that he is looked upon as a trifler, and has no weight whatever in that quarter of the union.”
Nevertheless, Gibbs and Washington maintained friendly relations. Gibbs organized a celebration for Washington when he toured New England in 1789. And Washington wrote references for Gibbs, attesting to his character.
Gibbs finally found work as a clerk in the Boston Navy Yard, and would eventually work his way up to superintendent. He died in 1818 at age 70.
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