Origin of the Redcoats (Battle of the Dunes)

Color photograph of three men in redcoat uniforms raising a british flag with a park ranger
Though the Royal Marines have left English Camp, you can still see redcoats at Living History events

British soldiers wearing a distinctive scarlet tunic first saw combat on foreign soil at The Battle of the Dunes on June 14, 1658, part of the Franco-Spanish War. A combined French and British force defeated a Spanish Army on the sand dunes near the beaches of Dunkirk, losing only 400 soldiers compared to the Spanish losses of 1200 men. This battle was the decisive victory that ended ten years of conflict between the three nations. It was under these propitious circumstances that the Red Coat debuted in combat.

Though the term “redcoat” has a negative connotation in the United States since it was worn by British soldiers fighting against US Independence in the American Revolution, it has a far more illustrious meaning in the former British Empire. The armies of former British colonies, such as New Zealand and Canada, wear red coats as part of their formal dress uniforms, paying tribute to their imperial heritage. This uniform dress not only gave the British Army a sense of cohesion across the globe, but the bright color allowed individual soldiers to easily distinguish between friends and foes.

On San Juan Island, redcoated Royal Marines deployed to English Camp in March of 1860, where they lived for more than twelve years. Despite the imperial rivalry between the US and the United Kingdom, both sides became friends on San Juan Island. In fact, this friendship grew so quickly and so deeply that for twelve years redcoats attended and participated in 4th of July parties at American Camp, where they joined in at public readings of the Declaration of Independence, a sight that would likely have greatly surprised the men who wrote it.

In the 1850s, new materials and new uniforms were introduced for British soldiers that came in different colors, including yellow, khaki green, and blue. Red coats still remained the color used in the Royal Army's dress uniform, up until World War I, when they were phased out due to the comparatively expensive price of the dye used to make them. However, red coats can still be seen here at San Juan Island National Historical Park, where our living history program uses authentic period uniforms to recreate what life was like for the British soldiers who made our park their home and where Redcoats still raise the Union Jack.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

Last updated: July 28, 2022