George Washington Assembles his Life Guards

On March 11, 1776, Gen. George Washington needed a special breed of soldier for a new unit  – 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 protect Washington as well as all the papers and money traveling with the Continental Army.

Why the Life Guards

Washington had taken command of the Continental Army at its Cambridge, Mass., headquarters during the Siege of Boston. But the patriots had forced the British army, bottled up in the town, to evacuate. The enemy had agreed to leave Boston on March 17, 1776. Washington feared they planned to attack New York, and the army would need to move quickly.

The patriots had no time to savor the victory of Boston. Washington needed Life Guards to operating what would turn into a roving headquarters.

The headquarters, as well as the commander in chief himself, would make attractive targets to the British, Washington thought. He needed the Life Guards for his defense.

Flag of the Life Guards (The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution.)

Washington chose Capt. Caleb Gibbs, an adjutant of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment, to lead the new unit. Gibbs had moved to Marblehead, Mass., from Newport, R.I. Washington then chose men drawn from each of the units that served in the siege of Boston.

Conquer or Die

Throughout the American Revolution, service in the Life Guards was an honor because of Washington’s exacting standards for the group. The men took pride in their proximity to the commander in chief and in the role they served. They took the motto, ‘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, enlisted in the guard. It  came to light that Hickey, who had served in the British army before jumping sides, was involved 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 won a promotion 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.

This story last updated in 2022.

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