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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Saturday, March 13, 2010

“Took Their Cockades from Their Hats”

As the Continental Army prepared to defend New York in 1776, the system of color-coded hat cockades that Gen. George Washington had instituted over a year before was still in place, as shown by this item in his general orders for 15 August:

Lieut. Holcomb of Capt. Anderson’s Company, and Col Johnson’s Regiment, tried by the same Court Martial for “assuming the rank of a Captain, wearing a yellow Cockade, and mounting Guard in that capacity”—it appearing to be done thro’ misinformation and want of experience, the Court are of opinion, he should be cautioned by his Colonel, to make himself acquainted with his duty, and that he be released from his arrest.
There were many new regiments coming into the army, with soldiers not knowing the officers of other units, so five days later Washington repeated his orders about cockades:
The officers who have lately come into Camp are also informed that it has been found necessary, amidst such frequent changes of Troops to introduce some distinctions by which their several ranks may be known—viz: Field Officers wear a pink or red cockade—Captains white or buff—Subalterns green

The General flatters himself every Gentlemen will conform to a regulation which he has found essentially necessary to prevent mistakes and confusion.
The “yellow or buff” for captains had changed to “white or buff”—which probably didn’t mean much.

Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin recalled those cockades, though he thought they were meant to separate “officers of the new levies” from those of “the standing forces, as they were called.”

And how did the system work in battle? Here’s Pvt. Martin:
While we were resting here our Lieutenant-Colonel and Major, (our Colonel not being with us,) took their cockades from their hats; being asked the reason, the Lieutenant-Colonel replied, that he was willing to risk his life in the cause of his country, but was unwilling to stand a particular mark for the enemy to fire at. He was a fine officer and a brave soldier.
Gosh, do you think that last line was sarcastic?

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