Cockades in the American Revolution

The American army was founded on June 14, 1775 by order of the Continental Congress. A few weeks later, George Washington was named the first Commander in Chief of the Army. His job not only included fighting the British nation from which we were seceding. He also had to take a motley assortment of state militias, privately raised regiments, and volunteers from around the colonies and meld them into one unified fighting machine.

Washington at the Battle of Princeton, by Don Troiani.
Note Washington's staff have colored cockades showing their rank

Colors for Rank

One of Washington's first orders in the summer of 1775 after taking command, was that cockades would be worn by officers to show rank. He designated that “the field officers may have red or pink colored cockades in their hats, the captains yellow or buff, and the subalterns green.” This easy and cheap method of identifying officers (instead of buying new uniforms for everyone) saved the Colonies' lean budgets.

King George III, by Sir William Beechey.
Note the black cockade on his hat

Black Cockades

America became an independent nation when we seceded from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. Before that, we were a colony of Great Britain. The cockade of King George of the House of Hanover was black. Thus the national British cockade was also black.

Even though America was at war with Great Britain, they still felt an affinity for their mother nation. After all, many of them were born there and still had relatives there. In fact, when George Washington's army was camped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778, the officers were still officially toasting King George. It was natural that an American military cockade would be the Hanoverian color black. So, after the brief period of using colored cockades for rank, the army reverted to wearing black.

George Washington, by John Trumbull.
Note the black and white cockade on his hat

Black and White Cockades

America needed allies in the war with Great Britain, then the reigning power of the seas. The United States signed the Treaty of Alliance with France on February 6, 1778 and French troops entered the American War for Independence. At first their participation was mostly on the seas, but by 1779 they were landing troops on American soil.

The national cockade of France was white. In 1780, as a symbol of the two nations’ alliance, General George Washington established that the American military cockade would be an Alliance Cockade – black with a white center. French troops likewise wore an Alliance Cockade of white with a black center.

This painting by John Trumbull shows the French troops (left) and the American troops (right) at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis - all wearing the Alliance Cockades.

The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumbull

A black and white Southern cockade from the Civil War.
American Civil War Museum.

Symbol of Attachment

The black and white cockade became an emblem of the American War for Independence for many years after the war ended. Even during the Civil War eighty years later, the occasional black and white cockade was worn as a reminder of America's first War for Independence.

A Philadelphia newspaper said on July 4, 1798, “It has been repeatedly recommended, that our citizens wear in their hats on the day of Independence, the American Cockade, (which is a Rose, composed of black ribbon, with a white button, or fastening) and that the Ladies should add to the attraction of their dress...this symbol of their attachment to the government.”

Mourning Cockades

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