Friday, March 20, 2015

The Schenk Coat: A New Jersey Officer's Uniform and Uncovering the Story Behind It

1850's Reprint of a Lost Von Germann
Original Watercolor (circa 1778)
In February, 1779, John J Schenk of Somerset County, New Jersey discovered the theft of a number of  valuable possessions from his home.  He reported his loss with separate notices that were printed in two newspapers, providing details both about the items taken and the thief - someone in whom he had clearly misplaced his trust.  These descriptions were eventually compiled in one of the extensive volumes of New Jersey Archives published at the turn of the 20th century that contain extracts from Colonial and Revolutionary War era newspapers¹.  It is here, while researching clothing descriptions for New Jersey runaway servants, deserters and escaped prisoners, that I found them.

Schenk's losses included a woman's gold watch and key, a broken saddle and other tack, and some clothing.  Most notable among the latter was a remarkable uniform coat that is described with unusual and exacting detail.  A comparison of the two newspaper descriptions reveals slight but important differences that together offer an unprecedented insight into the construction of this coat, along with the socioeconomic circumstances of its original owner. 

1777 NJ Continental Uniform Coat
Reconstructed by tailor Dan Center
for a Private in Colonel Ogden's
1st NJ Regiment (Recreated)
The detail is so precise, in fact, that little additional interpretation would be needed to fabricate an accurate reconstruction of this coat today.  Someone who did so would have what evidence strongly suggests would be an accurate recreation of a locally-made, New Jersey officer's uniform coat from the early part of the Revolutionary War.  Strong evidence suggests that the Schenk Coat (referred to as such hereafter) was worn by a (not as yet positively identified) New Jersey militia officer,  but it would also be consistent in its general construction to the short skirted early war coats worn by the Continental Army.  As for the colors of the body and turned up facings and linings of the Schenk Coat, these stand as another data point in favor of blue and red as a preferred color combination in New Jersey during this time period, with antecedents in the colors of NJ Provincial coats worn during the 1750s and 1760s that carried forward in the familiar moniker "Jersey Blues".

Chronologically, the first newspaper notice dated March 1, 1779 was reprinted in the compiled New Jersey Archives after the second newspaper account, which was dated March 3, 1779 and appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette on March 10th, 1779.  It is not clear from the Archives in which paper the March 1 account was printed, but it may have been the New Jersey Gazette, Vol II, No. 68, which came out on the last day of March, 1779.  Further review of the original newspaper issues will be required needed to confirm this hypothesis.

The March 1 description of the Schenk Coat and the other clothing taken is the more complete of the
two, and breathtaking in the level of detail it provides:

"...also a blue regimental coat, turned up with red, silver epaulette (made out of knee garters); the coat is lined throughout with white durant, except the skirts which turn up, and about four inches the fore part, which is red shalloon, the buttons are white flowered (two or three lost); hooks and eyes, in the fore part, are some of black wire, twisted, some single white wire, also a white twilled vest and breeches, the vest lined with white fustian, the breeches not lined, buttons white flowered; all which cloaths he went off is expected he will endeavour to pass for an officer, as he has procured for himself a sword and an old commission."

The March 3 description from The Pennsylvania Gazette reads:

"…a blue regimental coat, turned up with red, white buttons flowered, lined in the back with white durant, the skirts and fore parts with red shalloon; a white serge vest and breeches, the vest lined with white fustian, the breeches not lined…"

Major Joseph Bloomfield, 3rd NJ  (April, 1777)
by Charles Willson Peale

These accounts offer a tremendous amount of specific information about the construction and condition of the stolen clothing, from which several inferences may be drawn.

All American officers, whether in the Continental Line or serving commissions in the State troops or militia, were expected to procure their own uniform clothing. The owner of the Schenk Coat had to make do with shortages. Based on the single, uniquely constructed silver epaulette, this was a locally sourced junior officer's coat, perhaps even made at home by a close relative rather than a professional tailor.  The use of the flowered civilian buttons on the coat and waistcoat suggest these garments and the breeches composed a suit of clothing meant to be worn together as part of a uniform.  Their overall construction suggests a homemade necessity and inventiveness. 

These were not the finely tailored clothes of a well to do officer such as Major Joseph Bloomfield of the 3rd New Jersey, shown here, who sat for his formal portrait in 1777 in a new, fashionable uniform based on the drab and blue colors of the 3rd New Jersey Continental Regiment during the previous year's campaign.  There is no mention of a slashed sleeve such as appears in the Bloomfield portrait in either of the Schenk Coat descriptions.  More likely the cuff was the more traditional, less stylish round type, such as seems to be depicted in Von Germann's illustration of an American officer.

The mismatched, homemade hooks and eyes that closed the Schenk Coat (at least two and possibly three of
American Officer's
Silver Lace Epaulette
Reproduction by Nick Spadone
each, judging from the March 1 description),  along with the use of white durant² as an inner upper coat body lining and possibly the sleeves as well are also indications that the maker of the coat used the best of what was on hand and made the coat with care.  Necessity was clearly the mother of invention with the epaulette, somehow converting some sort of civilian silver thread garters into a badge of military rank.  Such effort shows concern for the wearer, even affection.  It is easy to image a wife or sister making such a garment, and its wearer as an officer from the middle third of society, neither rich nor poor, and like most people dealing with wartime shortages.

The construction of the Schenk Coat also closely resembles the short skirted early war styles described by period sources and depicted in contemporary illustrations, such as the image of an American Officer that appears at the beginning of this article.  This was painted by a Brunswick officer who served with Burgoyne and was later detained with under the Saratoga Articles of Convention.  The original is thought to have been painted in 1778 while in captivity, and depicts a hip length coat or coatee
Red Serge Lining of a 1777 NJ
Continental Uniform Coat
Reconstructed by tailor Skyler Pinales
for a Private in Colonel Ogden's
1st NJ Regiment (Recreated)
with short skirts and turn backs the same color as the facings. 

The Schenk Coat also has red skirts that turn back.  Its red shalloon lining was sewn almost precisely as the red serge lining of the reconstructed coat at left, shown here inside out, which is half lined in the skirts and "about four inches the fore part" to reenforce the coat buttons.  This reconstructed coat was made for a private in the recreated 1st New Jersey regiment by tailor Skyler Pinales based on research by the Impressions Committee³  of this unit and by Matthew Keagle's work to document the construction of a similar coat for an event recreating the 4th Connecticut's 1777-1778 winter encampment at Valley Forge. 

The Schenk Coat would have had white durance in the upper part of the coat body where this recreated coat is unlined, and perhaps in the sleeves as well.
  Even cheaply made uniform coats constructed for private soldiers at this time would most likely at least have had non-functional, sewn down cuffs and lapels as facings in an appropriate color. Congress even went so far as to instruct its Commissioners in France to procure uniforms "...Suits Cloaths (sic), green, blue & brown with suitable facings & Cloth of the same colors with facing proper for 40,000 suits more."  

It is quite possible, though not conclusively stated, that the Schenk Coat was faced with red.  It is not entirely clear from the otherwise comprehensive descriptions whether "turned up with red" means the coat also had a red collar, lapels or cuffs in addition to skirts, and if so what type of cloth was used for them (though the description  is not specific as to the type of wool fabric (customarily broadcloth) used for the coat body. Because an attempt seems to have been made by the tailor or seamstress to create a coat that conformed to a preferred cut and color, even with improvised materials, a strong likelihood exists  that the Schenk Coat indeed had facings, functional or not, that were "turned up with red."     

The white flowered buttons that appear on the waistcoat as well may have been smaller than was normal for

18th century civilian white metal
flowered button
(Roy Najecki reproduction)
a uniform coat.  Surviving examples of white metal civilian buttons with flower designs from this period are closer to ¾”  , such as a .78 inch specimen reproduced by Roy Najecki from an original button that appears in the illustration at right.

The evidence also suggests that the Schenk Coat, with its missing buttons and the reference to an older commission which the thief also had in his possession, was made sometime before 1779 and dated from the 1776 -1778 early war period. 
It seems safe to assume that it had New Jersey provenance. 

The single epaulette denotes a junior officer.  If it had been made for John J. Schenk, the man who placed the notice of its theft in the newspapers, then determining this individual's record of service should provide the necessary context to determine the age of the coat and whether it was used in Continental, State Troops or Militia service. 

New Jersey Map 1795 (Carey/Guthrie)
Who was John J. Schenk?  Only two Schencks served as Continental officers.  Both were from New Jersey but neither of them was named John, Jan or Johannes.  Unless the coat belonged to one of these two, it was worn by a New Jersey militia officer.
Larry Schmidt, an historian and fellow living history reenactor in Colonel Ogden's 1st New Jersey Regiment (recreated), has located a tantalizing reference in A History of Union and Middlesex Counties (1884)
to a "John Schenck of Windsor" who was a captain "successively" in the 2nd and 3rd Middlesex Regiments of militia.  This John Schenck also claimed losses during the war which he valued at 45 pounds including "3 Regimental coats." 

As tempting as this reference is to associate with John J Schenck's notices in the newspapers, those identify him with Somerset County, which broke away from Middlesex County in the 1680s.  Windsor was then still in Middlesex County and is now included in Mercer County.  The distance between Windsor and the 18th century boundary with Somerset county is inconsiderable, but it is unlikely that someone would serve as an officer in two successive militia regiments from one county while residing in another. 

There is also a Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) Lineage book entry that corresponds to a Captain John Schenk of the Middlesex County New Jersey Militia.  This source claims that Captain John Schenck lived between 1740-1794, was born in Pleasant Valley and died at Penn's Neck, New Jersey.  Pleasant Valley is in  Monmouth County, New Jersey.  The D.A.R. book entry also states that Captain Schenk's house was occupied by the British and the Battle of Princeton was fought nearby.

Unfortunately, if this Captain John/Jan Schenck of the Middlesex militia is the same man as John Schenck who was born in 1740 in Monmouth County near Pleasant Valley, then after perusing various genealogy websites I strongly suspect his father would have been Roelof Garretse Schenck (1697-1768). Following Dutch naming convention, this Captain John Schenk's middle name would have been a patronymic: Roelofse.  This would rule out identifying John J Schenck with Captain Schenck of the Middlesex Militia.

There were other John Schen(c)ks who served as militia officers during the war, including John W. Schenck who according to Stryker's Official Register
was 1st Lieutenant and then Captain in the 3rd Regiment of Hunterdon County, militia, and John G. Schenck who by mid-October, 1777 had risen through the officer grades from Ensign to Captain in the 1st Regiment of Monmouth Militia.  Neither of these has a Somerset connection or the middle initial J.    There is no evidence at this time that would positively identify any of these NJ militia officers with John J. Schenck, whose father would also have to be named John/Jan/Johannes to have carried J as his middle initial.

There was, in fact, a Johannes J Schenck, who was born in 1748 and died in Raritan Landing, Somerset County, New Jersey in 1784.  His father - Johannes Schenck -  came to New Jersey from Long Island and died in 1777.  Possibly he is the same John J Schenck who in 1779 was appointed by the Governor one of Somerset County's two representatives under an act of Congress empowered to raise a total of twenty million dollars through bond subscriptions.  I have found nothing to indicate this individual's military service, if any, but he is the closest match so far for the John J Schenk who advertized the loss of the coat and other belongings in the newspapers.
  It is also possible that John J. Schenk placed these theft announcements on behalf of another person, perhaps a close relative who was embarrassed by the theft of the officer's commission and sword mentioned in the March 1 newspaper account, but for now, all we can do is speculate until better genealogical information comes to light.

As for the thief, he is described by Schenk as a certain Henry Rush, a deserter from Captain Von Heer's light horse.  This theft underscores a greater betrayal of trust, for it was Bartholomew von Heer who commanded the provosts or "Marc
éhausseé Corps" of military police authorized in 1778 by Congress to
"watch over the Regularity and good Order of the Army in Camp, Quarters, or on the March, quell Riots, prevent marauding, straggling and Desertions, detect Spies, regulate sutlers and the like.”  Most of the men under Von Heer were Philadelphia-area Germans, and Schenk observed that Rush had been born in Philadelphia and "speaks both the English and German very well."  There was, in fact, a Henry Reiss in Von Heer's troop:  a Hessian who enlisted at Pottsgrove in August, 1778 and was still on the roles in 1782.  He may well be the same man who stole from Schenk.If this Rush/Reiss indeed used his position in the military police to take advantage of John L Schenk's hospitality, rob him of his valuables and attempt to pass himself off as an officer in this remarkable uniform coat, he was a villain indeed.   If the thief had not done so, however, posterity (if not John J Schenk) would have been greatly the poorer for it.  Those 1779 newspaper descriptions of this early war New Jersey officer's uniform coat bring it vividly to light.


¹ Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey: Extracts from American Newspapers: Archives of the State of New Jersey, Second Series, Vol. 3 1779; William Nelson, Editor; Trenton: 1906.

 ²  Durance or Durant, according to Florance M Montgomery's (2007) Textiles in America [1650-1870], was a hot pressed and glazed, plain woven worsted fabric, finer than Tammy and  similar to Duroy, and creased selvage to selvage.  Both Durance and Duroy were commonly improted to America for use in Gentleman's clothing lined with shalloon.  It is interesting that in this case, it was used for the inner, upper lining of the Schenk Coat with shalloon for the skirt lining.

³ "1st New=Jersey 1777 Regimental Coat Documentation & Construction Guidelines" (2014) 1st New Jersey Impressions Committee, Tim Abbott, Chair ⁴  Keagle, Matthew:  "The Regimental Coat of the 4th Connecticut Regiment, 1777-1778" (2013), prepared for the Model Company, "Incomparable Patience and Fidelity" encampment, 3/29/2014, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. 
Committee of Secret Correspondence to Commissioners in France [2/17/1777]; letter sent by Richard Henry Lee; Harvard University Library, Lee Mss. III. 13.
  History of Union and Middlesex Counties, New Jersey; With Biographical Sketches of Many of their Pioneers and Prominent Men; W. Woodford Clayton, editor; Everts & Peck; Philadelphia: 1882: pg. 486
Stryker, W.S.:Official Register of the Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Revolutionary War; Wm. T. Nicholson & Co.; Trenton: 1872 Journals of the Continental Congress, 11:541Pennsylvania Archives; 5th Series Vol. III; Thomas L. Montgomery, editor; Harrisburg, PA: 1906:919

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tim,

    The man you may be looking for is Col. John H Schenck. John was a son of Henderick (Henry) Schenck who built the Weston Mill while his brother Peter built the Blackwell Mill. They were both sons of Johannes Schenck Jr of Bushwick NY.

    The reason I suspect that it might be John H is that I recently saw his signature and thought that the middle initial looked like an L not an H. You can see the signature at the Papers of the War Dept site for Capt John H Schenck. Here is correspondence to Capt John H Schenck from William Simmons about missing receipts.

    William Simmons clear hand shows the H. in the correspondence. Now here is the response and receipts from John H. Even the computer interpreter thinks its J.G.L. Schenck.

    Henry and wife Magdalena Van Liew have 3 boys (John H., Henry H., and Abraham) and 4 girls (Gertrude, Catherine, Magdalena, Aletta). But Henry dies in 1767. The mill becomes the Van Neste mill. Meanwhile, the boys constitute the second graduating class of Queen's College with instructor Frederick Frelinghuyser. Frelinghuyser marries oldest sister Gertrude in 1775. The Battle of Millstone then takes place at what is now the Van Neste mill.

    John H is the oldest son and he is 10 years old when his father dies. I don't know where the family goes but I'm guessing to their Uncle Peter at the Blackwell mill. It's my understanding that this whole area becomes a 'no-mans-land' so it looks like John H., Henry H., and Abraham all move around and fight for different militias. At some point John H marries and mortgages his new wife's land in Orange County NY to raise his own regiment and becomes a Capt of Grenadiers. #21 on this list.

    He eventually loses the land he mortgaged because of delays in getting pension and runaway inflation and moves to Wayne County PA.

    I know this post is 2 years old, but thought I'd give it a try. See if the signatures match.