On March 11, 1776, General George Washington needed a special breed of soldier for a new unit he was assembling – the Life Guards. They must be sober, orderly and well-behaved. They should be well built and clean, disciplined and of good character. The reason? This new unit was going to be his guard, their job was to protect Washington as well as all the papers and money traveling with the Continental Army.
When the British fled Boston in March of 1776, Washington feared they were planning to attack New York. The army would need to move quickly. There was no time to savor the victory of Boston, and the Life Guards were essential to operating what would now be a roving headquarters. The headquarters, stationed in Cambridge, Mass. while Boston was the focal point of the fighting, was about to become mobile.
The headquarters, as well as the commander in chief himself, would make attractive targets to the British, Washington thought, and the Life Guards were to be his defense.
Captain Caleb Gibbs, an adjutant of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment, was chosen to lead the new unit, which consisted of men drawn from each of the units that served in the siege of Boston. Gibbs was a Newporter who had moved to Marblehead, Mass.
Throughout the American Revolution, service in the Life Guards was an honor because of Washington’s exacting standards for the type of men he wanted in the group and because of their proximity to the commander in chief and the role they served. The mottor of the unit was ‘Conquer or Die,’ which their flag proudly proclaimed.
The Image of the Life Guards suffered one stain early in its existence. A sergeant, Thomas Hickey, was enlisted in the guard, and it came to light that Hickey, who had been in the British army before jumping sides, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Washington. He was court martialed and hanged in June of 1776.
Gibbs served in the Life Guards until 1779 when he was promoted and joined another regiment. He was replaced by New Londoner William Colfax, who survived being shot three times in his time in the army. Gibbs would remain close to Washington and his family, mounting an honor guard to welcome Washington on his 1789 visit to New England.