J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

“Some Badges of Distinction”

There are many workshops scheduled for this weekend’s Hive gathering at the Noah Brooks Tavern in Minute Man National Historical Park, including a new one from Ray Najecki: “Making Horsehair Fabric Cockades.” The cockade was the decorative ribbon that helped hold up one flap of the brim of a cocked hat. Here’s a sampling of Mr. Najecki’s work in this area.

Why were cockades so important? Because Gen. George Washington said they were. One of his priorities after taking over the army around Boston was to instill a stronger sense of rank and hierarchy into those New Englanders. In particular, that meant being able to tell the officers from the enlisted men.

On 23 July 1775, the generalissimo issued this order:

As the Continental Army have unfortunately no Uniforms, and consequently many inconveniences must arise, from not being able always to distinguish the Commissioned Officers, from the non Commissioned, and the Non Commissioned from the private; it is desired that some Badges of Distinction may be immediately provided, for Instance, the Field Officers may have red or pink colour’d Cockades in their Hatts: the Captains yellow or buff: and the Subalterns green. They are to furnish themselves accordingly.
So not only did an officer need a cockade on his hat, but it had to be the right color.

TOMORROW: Sometimes a general just wants to be recognized. Is that so wrong?

(The cocked hat above is from the online catalogue of C. & D. Jarnagin.)


Heather Rojo said...

I wonder if this style is related to the feather "Yankee Doodle" stuck in his cap?

J. L. Bell said...

The earliest versions of the “Yankee Doodle” song date from the French and Indian War. The term “macaroni” in the most famous lyrics refers to elaborate wigs and other foppish styles of male civilian dress. So that version pokes fun at poor rural Yankees trying to dress like fashionable gentlemen. (Or, depending on our reading, it pokes fun at “macaronis” by celebrating a poor rural Yankee sarcastically parodying them.)

Washington’s orders wouldn’t have done much to distinguish officers from enlisted men if lots of people around Boston were wearing colored cockades in their hats. That leads me to suspect most New Englanders weren’t decorating themselves that way in 1775. Cockades were something added, something special.

John L. Smith said...

In the "two sides to every story" category, could an appropriately colored cockade make a great target for British snipers? Or was it considered not in the rules of war to target officers then?

J. L. Bell said...

You’re getting ahead of the story, Mr. Smith!

But in Boston at least, the officers were far enough away from the British lines that there doesn’t seem to have been any worry about being shot through the cockade. The British had training in firing at targets, but they don’t seem to have had marksmen with guns like the American riflemen.