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Savage Buttons Reveal Secrets of Revolutionary War Shipwreck

June 17, 2016 | By Leah Humenuck, NHHC UAB Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory Volunteer
When the Naval History and Heritage Command's Underwater Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory received over 1,000 artifacts from the Revolutionary War shipwreck assemblage of Royal Savage last summer, conservators recognized that a number of these artifacts were personal effects of the sailors and officers who sailed aboard the schooner.

Originally constructed for the British Royal Navy, Royal Savage was sunk by American forces in 1775 during the siege of St. Johns, Quebec. Shortly thereafter in the fall of 1775, the vessel was raised and repaired by American forces, and reinstated as part of the Continental Army in the Lake Champlain squadron. She then served as the temporary flagship of General Benedict Arnold during his command of the squadron.

On October 11, 1776, Royal Savage ran aground during the Battle of Valcour Island and she was burned to the waterline by the British. Royal Savage changed hands and served different purposes during her career, which is evident in the artifacts from the wreck. Of these items, some of the smallest and most easily overlooked can give historians a deeper insight her career. This includes the 57 buttons that are part of Royal Savage's artifact collection.

Typically buttons are not the most interesting topic or even a topic brought up when discussing military history. I certainly never expected to delve so deeply into them, before starting my internship at NHHC. Buttons have had many uses besides fastening clothes. They are considered one of the oldest forms of personal effects, used for both practical and decorative purposes. During the late 18th century, the military button became an insignia for rank and regiment, but was also used as a symbol for unity and patriotism.

Because Royal Savage changed hands multiple times, there were many buttons belonging to both British and Americans troops left in the wreck. Before 1768, British military buttons typically held the commanding colonel's name, arms, or another symbol of his identity. However, King George called for the standardization of uniforms in the Warrant of 1768, which included new specifications for uniform buttons. A regimental symbol or the regiment's number was put in place of the colonel's symbol.

The first example of a Royal Savage button below is a fine example of the standardization of both size and decoration King George required for his army. While the British buttons were more refined in shape and design, many Colonial army buttons are crudely made. The Colonial army buttons had thicker parts and simple decorations. However, they are no less interesting. Because few buttons were created for the Colonial army, when one is identified it holds a wealth of knowledge. Buttons such as the following may assist historians in confirming troop movements or uniform creation.  
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160617-N-ZW259-4791

The button shown above, RS-0427A, possibly belonged to a soldier in the British 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welsh Fuzileers. The piecrust border along the rim and large numbers are considered the first pattern for the 23rd Regiment of Foot. The Royal Welsh Fuzileers were stationed in Canada and served in many conflicts during the American Revolution in the northern states.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160617-N-ZW259-4792

Unlike the previous example, this button shown above, RS-0184, was made and used by the British military right before the Revolutionary War, although they likely weren't used during the war. In 1775, the Continental Army captured a British ship filled with uniforms of the 40th Regiment of Foot, redistributed the buttons to the northern armies and re-dyed the uniforms brown. After the British shipment was intercepted, the British military stopped producing this design for the 40th Regiment of Foot. Finding the little known history behind buttons like this, gave me a new appreciation for these tiny personal effects.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160617-N-ZW259-4793

The button shown above, RS-0427D, is attributed to the 10th Regiment of the Massachusetts Grand Army of 1775. The Massachusetts Grand Army originally commissioned buttons from two button makers out of Massachusetts. However, it is unknown for how long these button makers were contracted by the Massachusetts Grand Army, due to limited funds. Before working with these buttons, I did not realize something so small could reveal such a unique part of history. The struggle of the Colonial army to feel like a proper military through uniform details, the exercise of the British monarchy to form a more standard approach to their uniforms, and other similar stories have fueled my interest throughout this research. Buttons, particularly military buttons, have now become a passion of mine as I seek more information to reveal their identities.