What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

By Joe Wagner


“Brown Bess”
(The Army Musket – 1700-1815)

In the days of lace ruffles, perukes and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none would despise.
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men strait in the eyes.
At Blenheim and Ramilles fops would confess,
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.

 Though her sight was not long, and her weight was not small,
Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
And everyone bowed as she opened the ball
On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
Half Europe admitted the striking success
Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess

If you go to Museums–there’s one in Whitehall–
Where old weapons are shown with their names writ beneath,
You will find her, upstanding, her back to the wall,
As stiff as a ramrod, the flint in her teeth.
And if ever we English had reason to bless
Any arm save our mothers’, that arm is Brown Bess!


Rudyard Kipling
January 1911

When it comes to the arms we carry as reenactors, there is one historical mystery in need of a solution which would help our interpretive discussion immensely, and that is the origin and meaning of the term “Brown Bess”.  Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer that has been unearthed and accepted by the military history community.  But there are a lot of clues and contemporaneous information that gives us something to chew on when considering the subject.  Among considerations for an open-minded discussion is that the term may not have applied only to the English long and short land pattern King’s musket, as implied by Kipling’s poem.  Another is that one obvious clue, the word Bess, being connected to Queen Elizabeth I (reign from 1558 to 1603) is probably not correct.

Taking each of the words in the identifying name, brown and bess, separately, we can associate each individually with terms and usages of the period during which the weapon was carried and used by the English.  This can get us to a reasonable set of meanings that might be very close to the truth.  Let look at some historical references associated with each.


There is commonly accepted information among reenactors on the use of the terms “arms” and “firelock” in the drill commands handed down through the history of the flint weapon. Both drill terms were used at a time when infantry formations consisted of both musketmen and pikemen, who worked cooperatively in formations of infantry.  The two terms allowed for commands to be given for each weapon, or both, depending on the movement required. The pike plays a role in our discussion, and provides supporting evidence of the contemporary definition of the word “brown”.  We know that soldiers have strong traditions and associations with their craft that tend to carry on in song and slang.  The English soldier of the 17th and early 18th centuries was no different.  In a Christopher Marlowe work (Edward II), written in 1622, there is the following line:

“So, with a band of pikes and bowmen, brown bills and targetiers”

The phrase provides a Rosetta’s stone of translation for the 17th century slang terms for the pike man and archers.  “Bill” was a common term for a pike, halbard, or other shafted weapon.  “Brown bills” as a military slang term for pikes?  How uncannily close to a parallel term for the companion weapon of the infantry – the musket?  “Brown bill” did not mean browned in color, likely for neither the pike nor the musket. There was commonly used a Dutch word – brun – which means “bright” that had been carried over to the Scotch and English language.  Ballads in both languages contain phrases such as “My bonnie brown sword” and “brown as glass” meaning a bright finish or appearance.  Up until the mid-twentieth century, there was still in use a slang term for the English half penny, which is a bright copper color, called a “brown”.  If the bright metal pike was a “brown bill” to its users, how likely is it that the musket would also come to be described as “brown” among the same musket-bearing infantrymen fighting together with their pike-bearing brethren?


Like the term “brown”, the word “bess” in this context may also originate with the Dutch language.  In Dutch, “bus” (Middle Dutch: busse) means pipe or tube, and at the time, a gun barrel.  There is little doubt that the term carried over to the English language as a firearm in the 17th and 18th centuries, as we see in words like “blunderbuss” and “arquebus”, which are English language variations of contemporary firearms from that same period.  It is not hard to get from “busse” to “bess” in military slang.  While the pike man was calling his weapon a bill, his fellow infantryman was calling his firearm a bess.  Both were “brown” – bright.

Logistics and the Continental Army: A Review in Four Parts

Logistics and the Continental Army:

A Review in Four Parts

by Joe Wagner

Discussion and Review of:

Supplying Washington’s Army by Erna Rich, published by the Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, 1981.

Logistics:  “. . . the branch of military science dealing with the procurement, maintenance, and movement of equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

The Continental Army winter camp at Valley Forge in 1777-78 is the stuff of legend.  A pitiable, cold, starving army in rags perseveres through all hardship to emerge in the spring ready to fight and win.  Skeptics will point out that it really wasn’t all that tough a winter from a meteorological point of view; the succeeding winter at Morristown, NJ was far more intense.    But for the men who were there, it was a time of real hardship.  More than the cold, the lack of clothing, food, fuel, and every necessity of life were made worse by the knowledge that the British were only a few miles away in the warmth and comfort of their late capitol, Philadelphia.  Why was there such a logistical failure at Valley Forge –what caused the inability of the Continentals to support themselves in the field for those cold winter months?

This first article begins a four-part series on logistics of the Continental Army drawn from the comprehensive US Army Military History Center publication that details the planning and execution necessary to support an American army in the field during the Revolution.  It will provide some information for the reenactment and interpretation of that world of 235 years ago.  It was easy enough to call up the militia, appoint the generals and colonels, establish tables for rations and clothing, and plan a campaign.  But who brings the ammo and the flints?  Where are the tents and kitchen gear?  Who collects the food that is authorized for each man?  Where are the wagons and carts to carry everything?  Where do the horses and oxen come from to pull the wagons – and who feeds those?  How does an army stay in one place for months and not suck dry the surrounding countryside?  Or how does it move twenty miles, or two hundred, and expect to find everything it needs along the way and at the other end?  And how did a collection of colonies with no experience or logistics structure instantaneously create the people and processes necessary to do all of these things and a million more?

The sections on Logistics to be provided here are:

Part I.  The Quartermaster General

Part II. Transport and Forage

Part III.  Subsistence and Clothing

Part IV.  Ordinance

Each Part will be posted on the First Virginia blog in future weeks and months.

Logistics Part Three: Subsistence and Clothing

Logistics and the Continental Army:

A Review in Four Parts

Part Three: Subsistence and Clothing

by Joe Wagner

Logistics:  “. . . the branch of military science dealing with

the procurement, maintenance, and movement

of equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

The Commissary General

From 1775 until the summer of 1781, just before the Yorktown campaign, feeding the troops of the Continental Army was accomplished using a Commissariat system.  This simply means the collection and distribution of food was performed by an independent organization not responsible to the military command structure, with specialists assigned to carry out the job.  Their leader was the Commissary General. There were four Commissary Generals during that period – Joseph Trumbull, William Buchanan, Jeremiah Wadsworth, and Ephraim Blaine.


The Wheel of a Line of Infantry

The Wheel for a Line of Infantry

                                                                                                            By Joe Wagner

In almost every reenactor unit, it has to be admitted that in the course of any given event, they will perform one movement more often, and likely with less skill, than almost any other maneuver.

Yes – it is the cursed wheel – left, right, about, etc.  Nothing tells the audience, or fellow reenactors, more about how much practice you’ve had recently or how many new and untried recruits there are in the ranks, than by watching a unit perform a wheel or two.

Why is it such a problem to do it right?   Mostly because it means a lot of individuals have to think and move intelligently and cooperatively together.  Cooperation means practice – you can’t really learn it by yourself.  But wheeling well relies on a few simple rules.  It’s really just geometry.