Prior to the Battle of Long Island, the general orders issued by supreme commander General George Washington on August 20th, 1776 included instructions detailing the use of cockades. This was early in the war when the rebellious colonists’ main army was basically made up of militias, still in civilian attire. The section read: ‘As the Continental Army has unfortunately no uniforms, and consequently many inconveniences must arise from not being able to distinguish the commissioned officers from the privates, it is desired that some badge of distinction be immediately provided.’ Field officers were to wear a pink cockade. Captains were to don white or buff, while subalterns attached green cockades to headgear. On July 19th, 1780, adjuncts were issued orders for officers recommending that they acquire white and black cockades; a black back ground with white relief, emblematic of the expected union of the French and American army. Not until 1783 was it called a “Union Cockade” and was to be worn on the left breast.
The English dictionary defines cockade as a rosette, feather, or knot of ribbon usually worn on the hat as part of a uniform, as a badge of office, or the like. The word’s origin is dated around 1709 and is derived from the French word ‘cocarde’ which is feminine of cocard meaning foolishly proud or cocky. However, in 18th century military society, hats were deemed of vast importance in a soldiers’ dress and the cockade was an extension of that. As the war progressed and the Continental Army took on a more professional look, at least with officers’ dress, Washington demanded that officers attend to their uniform in meticulous detail. He particularly emphasized this standard whenever a commander was in the presence of his men. He believed that, if an officer were to garnish respect and devotion from his men, then he must present himself as one worthy of receiving such approbation. The most common headgear, both civilian and in the military of the time period encompassing the American Revolutionary War was the cocked hat or tricorn hat. It was a round hat with three sides brought up and attached to the crown, “like a mince pye,” to term the vernacular of the time.
Washington’s issuance of colored cockades to distinguish rank was unusual. Historically, cockades served as a symbol of unity, or proclaiming alliance to a faction or cause. The colors of the cockade were the colors of the house, dynasty, or national flag under which the soldier served. At times military buttons, ribbon braids, or national symbols were added to the rosette. England and the Hanovarian dynasty (King George III) favored black cockades, while those congruent with the Jacobites (Stuart dynasty), used white cockades. France had white cockades, Spain red, and Germany used an assortment of colors; black, red, white, or gold depending on the era. Throughout the American Revolutionary War, the rebel colonists tended to use black cockades that they inherited from the English.
Cockades and their accruements were made of leather or silk and either type was dyed depending on the nation and or cause they signified.
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Earle, Alice Morse. Two Centuries of Costume in America 1620 – 1820 Vol. II. 1908: The Macmillan Company, New York, NY. 1970: Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY.
Emerson, William K. Encyclopedia of United States Army: Insignia and Uniforms. 1996: University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.