Cockades & Eagles in the Army

The United States Army turns 240 on June 14, 2015. In honor of that occasion, I thought I'd look at a symbol that has been linked with the Army almost from the beginning: The eagle. I bet you didn't know that there is amazing significance - and history - in the American eagle!

After some brief experimentation in the 1780s, George Washington settled on black cockades for the army's headgear. (You can read more background about that decision here. But in the 1790s, America in general, and the Army in particular, had a problem with those black cockades.

They were British. We inherited our black cockades from the British house of Hanover (the Kings George were Hanoverians). People pointed out the incongruity - We had just fought for our independence from Great Britain, and here we were wearing their national cockade! Of course, a natural color choice instead could have been the colors of our flag - red, white and blue. But there was a problem with that too.

The tricolor was French. And as the French Revolution devolved into murderous excesses, the French tricolor was not viewed favorably in the Federalist-run, American government of the 1790s.

What to do?

While the government muddled, American citizens came up with a simple solution:

Put an American eagle in the center of the black cockade!

1799 Pattern
When George Washington heard of this idea, he thought it was a good one. He asked Secretary of War, James McHenry, to send him some samples of eagles that could be used for the American Army. It is believed that this silver eagle is one of those original samples.

So a design was chosen and the American military cockade for the next 100 years established. All persons belonging to the army, to wear a black cockade, with a Small white Eagle in the centre. The cockade of non-commissioned officers, musicians and privates, to be of leather, with Eagles of tin. ~ James McHenry, Jan. 9, 1799

Of course, not all military eagles looked exactly the same since different manufacturers made them. Not only that, but militia units often had their own suppliers separate from the regular Army contractors.

But most cockades from this time period follow the 1799 pattern of an eagle with down-swept wings sitting on a bank of clouds. You can see the same design in this early naval cockade eagle.

The War of 1812 Pattern
Then, about the time of the War of 1812, the eagle was notably redesigned.

Though he continued to rest in the clouds, the new eagle included two more symbols that were significant to American politics: arrows and an olive branch.

In the early 1800s, America was still establishing her independent existence. Enemies - and dubious friends - surrounded her on all sides. The United States was arguing with Britain about trade and territory rights in the North and West. We were squabbling over trade with France, even as we doubled our land size with the Louisiana Purchase from the French. Spanish influence in the nearby Latin American countries unsettled our nation as well. And of course, there were always rumblings about skirmishes with the Indians on the frontiers.

In this atmosphere, our cockade eagle was refurbished with a new design based on the Great Seal. The eagle now held arrows in its right claw and an olive branch in its left. Ready for war or for peace, was the message. And significantly, the eagle's head is facing the arrows. (Well, it IS the Army, after all!)

The 1821 Pattern
A final change was instituted in 1821 and this would be the standard for all future American military cockade eagles. Once again, the differences were full of symbolism.

The clouds were now gone and the American shield appeared on the eagle's breast. (Historians can date cockade eagles by minute differences in the angle of the shield and the presence or absence of tail-feathers.)

The biggest difference was in the eagle's wings - they were now spread open. In heraldic terms, they were "displayed." An eagle with wings displayed symbolizes protection. In 1821, America was now an established nation, having proved in war and peace that she was able to protect herself and her people.

Significantly, the eagle now turns its head towards the olive branch, not the arrows. America was ready - and strong enough - for peace.

As time went on, cockade eagles became more fancy and sometimes also included an arch with "E pluribus unum" ("Out of many, one") the de facto motto of the United States. Here are some examples of the "1821 Pattern" cockade eagles.

If you want to enjoy looking at more American cockade eagles from history, check out my Pinterest board here.
Follow Creative Cockades's board American Military Cockade Eagles on Pinterest.

If you're interested in a more in-depth look at dating the eagle styles, the article starting on page 72 of this document is very helpful.

I make reproductions of several early American black cockades so check out the ones in my shop or contact me for a custom order!

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  1. I received a story in which two founding fathers of the American Navy, John Paul Jones and John Barry, met in a cafe in Boston for breakfast. These two Independence War Heroes were good friends. Jones proposed to Barry that a Black Cocade should be included on officers' uniforms on the hats. To distinguish the difference between American officers and the British / French cockades. The national colors of all three countries were Red, White, Blue. Jones had forgotten to bring the proposed Black Cocade to the table, but under the Acts of Congress of 1794, Provisions for Naval Armament, the black cockade was accepted by Barry. In fact, the idea eventually spread throughout all the American Armed Forces.
    I am Ed Zimmerman, Jr.; Founder and President of the USS UNITED STATES Foundation, representing the frigate USS UNITED STATES, First Commissioned Warship of the United States Navy since Sept. 1978; Philadelphia.

    1. Fascinating, thanks! I also found a reference to that incident, although it was the other way around with Jones wanting a tricolor cockade rather than black. Here's a link to the letter.

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