Why the Redcoats wore red

Inquiring minds


Each week the staff at the Roseville Library answers more than 2,500 questions on every subject under the sun. Here is one of the most interesting ones they’ve gotten lately.


Q. Why did British soldiers wear red coats? Why didn’t they wear camouflage like other armies? 

A. Camouflage is a relatively recent invention. Until the 20th century, most battles were fought as semi-formal engagements in open fields. Smoke from the primitive musketry of the era clouded the battleground, and the main concern wasn’t so much to make the individual soldier invisible as to distinguish the troops on your side from the enemy. The bright red coats worn by British soldiers gave their officers the immediate advantage of being able to recognize them. Some have suggested, as well, that the uniforms were colored red to cover the inevitable bloodstains, but historians say that there is no basis in fact for that.

What is known is that the Redcoats’ dress was even more distinctive in an era before chemical dyes, when most people’s clothing was a dull mixture of brown and grey. Dyes came from natural, vegetable sources, and — with certain exceptions — only the wealthy or well-connected could afford them.

The ordinary British soldier’s coat would have been dyed with a substance called rose madder, which gradually faded to pink or reddish-brown. The officers’ uniform jackets were made of finer cloth and were dyed a true scarlet color with an expensive dye that was created by grinding up the bodies of a particular insect called the cochineal bug.  Native to Mexico, cochineal bugs were the source of the world’s most valuable dye for several centuries.

Glamorous as the red coats might have looked on the parade ground, their uniforms were totally unsuited to modern war. As soon as rifles and smokeless powder were invented toward the end of the 19th century, the British Army — like other military forces — began to introduce drab shades of serge and khaki on the battlefield. While it lacked military dash, the new cloth was much safer for the men who wore it.  

(Internet resources, including the website of Colonial Williamsburg.)

Library? You can call them at 651-724-6001 or ask your question in person at the Information Desk, Roseville Library, 2180 Hamline Ave. Library hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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